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Lessons from a Textbook and Note Sale

November 10, 2014

Every year at my highschool there’s this great big sale by year 12s of all their notes and textbooks at supposedly bargain prices to younger students. The younger students want to save money, the older students want to make money. It lasts for 40 minutes at lunchtime. Its a popular affair.

I’ve written before about selling for charity, and I’m writing again today because selling ‘at the coalface’ so to speak, is highly educational.

With next to nothing to sell, I made over $170 selling notes and textbooks. As far as I know, thats the most anyway in my year of 150-200 people made. In fact, only a handful of people even made $100 dollars. Now I didn’t take ‘business studies’ or ‘business services’ as a class, and I’ve never had to run my own business, but you only need some common sense to make money. Remember the value of common advice.

So, what did I do right?

  1. Get in early with advertising

I was the first person to advertise on a Facebook event for the sale. I was the only person to advertise for a week. By the time other people had started posting I had already made over $100 in pre-sales. In effect, I had pre-sold as much as anyone else managed to sell. Now, I made this much in part for other reasons, but the point is nobody can buy from you if they don’t know you exist.

In terms of relevance to you, nobody can help you learn something in class that you’re struggling with, unless they know you’re struggling with it. You’d be amazed what you can get if you just ask! But you must let people know that you want something for them to give it to you.

  1. A good reputation

I had the ranks to back up my marks, and I also had a popular following among my school cohort because of my work as SRC President (something I’ll discuss another time) . The point is, a good reputation makes you trustworthy, and trust matters. There was 1 or 2 people who perhaps had better marks than me, but nobody knew they had the marks – they were a face in the crowd.

When people want to buy something, they want to know its genuine. You want a suit to last, a rice cooker not to break down. A good reputation helps build trust. Build yours to sell well, or succeed in whatever you do.

  1. Customers know less than you do

Economists have a nice model about ‘perfect competition’ wherein consumers are able to judge products in a market, and react to different values and qualities of product etc. However, in the ‘real world’ producers and sellers know far more than buyers and consumers. This is called information asymmetry, and its critical to understanding sales tactics. But first an example – financial planners know much, much more about their products than consumers do. Lawyers know more about law. When you buy, you buy from an expert because you think they can do things better than you. They know what’s best for you.

What this also means, however, is what makes good value to you, may not be understood by the customer. When charity selling, you have seconds to get their attention, not minutes to launch a well thought out argument. Similarly, when people approach you for textbooks, they probably don’t have time in a fast paced sale for you to explain the nuances of your product and why its the best.

In short, as a life lesson, you’ve got to adapt to your environment. Also, as a buyer, beware of information asymmetry – its why we got the CBA financial planner scandal.

Now, building on these tips, let’s get to some really important ones.

  1. The customer is right

We just discussed how customers don’t know why or why not something is good a lot of the time. This means that customers have no idea of the bargain that they’re getting at a textbook and note sale. They are always going to want lower prices than what something is worth. But you’ve got to adapt. Let me tell you what happened at the sale.

Many, many students had dozens of textbooks. Expensive textbooks. I knew some people with $60 dollar textbooks at the market price, who were selling them at $30. 50% off right? That’s got to be a good deal, right?

Well it is, but they didn’t realise that year 10 and 11 students don’t really have a concept of money because they don’t earn much. That’s a lot of money to them. If they just ‘turned up’ to the sale without cashing up, they can’t afford that. And their parents are probably sceptical (rightly so) about giving them tonnes of money to spend.

Lots of people failed to sell their books; others only managed to sell some, and at bad prices. You see, once people got what they needed from lower price salesman, they didn’t even need the more expensive items. People got sunk.

In this case, my goal was to sell my stuff. That meant selling it at whatever reasonable price I had to. If it meant selling at $10 instead of $15 for a series of items, then that was what I did. I don’t think I sold a single set of items at full price, and my items were $5 each. The customer – especially in this situation – dictates whats right.

More generally for you, you need to adapt in negotiations. And I don’t just mean negotiating about money, I mean negotiations you have every day, or conversations you have with friends. People want to strike a deal that helps each other; adapt, and make that deal happen.

  1. Be Generous; Be Altruistic

When you think of a textbook sale of almost ‘pure’ market competitions and bargaining, you think of haggling, and fighting hard for every dollar and cent – you play hardball.

Now there’s an element of that, but being likeable as a salesman, being generous and altruistic is more important. And frankly, playing too hardball is really irritating. I had one person – who had already negotiated my prices down once – renege on a deal, while attempting to double the absolute value of the discount on the remaining item. I wasn’t happy, needless to say. There’s a place for haggling, and a place for integrity, trust and goodwill.

I threw in tons of free extras for my customers. I tried to help wherever possible. I’d break my own sales rules about free items if it would help advantage my own customers.

I probably could have made more money than I did if I tried to shake up every last dollar from people who came to me. But truth be told, as much as I wanted to make money, I was also trying to help lots of friends out who bought from me. Taking money from friends frays relationships; through my actions I probably strengthened some relationships that day.

There’s always a place for altruism and generousity. Don’t forget that.

  1. Resellable items

All the tips I’ve said so far are important. But I said earlier that I had few textbooks – and it was true. So how did I sell so much.

I could resell the same item at no marginal cost. I had electronic copies of documents. I sold my modern history work 6 times I think.

You see, when you can sell your multiple times, you can also decrease your price and maintain the amount of capital you receive from sales. Increased supply decreases the price. In doing so, you’re also able to undercut competition and thereby direct even more sales your way!

Honestly, I prefer studying with hard copies myself (as did many of my buyers), but its much better to sell soft copies because they are resellable.

Some Conclusions

Follow common sense. Be altruistic, be generous, be willing to adapt because the customer is right. Have a good reputation, and make sure people know you exist; you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask.

Those are just a few of the tips from the textbook and note sale, and they apply to life too.

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