Friday, 14 October 2016

Amazon Selling - It's Singles Time! (2/2)

Following on from part 1, hopefully in this post I can shed a little more light on how Amazon's second-hand marketplace for CD singles (and albums) works and make a few observations about the pricing models of the big sellers (and the smaller ones, while I'm at it), the preponderance of certain - mainly international - sellers on all the major listings, the speed at which the market moves, and so on.

But before all that, let's look at the difference between reselling albums and singles. Albums are usually easy; enter the barcode, it'll be listed and you can (if you wish) enter that listing with the minimal of fuss. CD singles, on the other hand, present a whole set of difficulties (although it should be said that they do apply to some CD albums too, just on a far lesser scale):

1.  Promotional Copy - Not For Resale

This was my biggest obstacle in identifying a pool of 250 CD singles to check out. I reckon I've got about 750 CD singles, but more than half of them are promo copies. I'm really not sure of the legality of reselling these, although I know a lot of people do, particularly on ebay and at actual physical shops such as Record & Tape Exchange (I don't think I'm sticking my neck out too far to say that most music journalists offload their unwanted promos in this way). However, Amazon have probably got some rule about this sort of thing, so wanting to stay on the safe side, I chose only properly-released CD singles for this. Which leads on to...

2.  Barcode recycling

With barcodes being only 13 digits long, then there's only ever going to be a limited quantity active at one time. This seems like a lot (the logical guess would be ten billion, but there's more to it than that). And when you consider that more-or-less all items that can be purchased are now barcoded by convention (for more on the current system and its restrictions, etc. - EAN-13 - should provide more information is strictly necessary), from tins of beans to high-end luxury stuff and everything in between, then it's inevitable that barcodes are recycled after a certain amount of time.

This seems to be particularly pertinent to CD singles, what with them being a particular form of ephemera and that. For instance, companies go bust and their unique identifier gets assigned to another company, or a company deletes some of its back catalogue and re-assigns the codes to new products.  I'd estimate that about 50 out of the 250 I checked fell into this category - not a big problem, it just means searching manually - but it did add to the work required in getting the data.

3.  False barcoding

For some reason that I can't quite fathom, a lot of small indie labels don't even bother with official EAN numbers and seemingly just make up a 13-figure number that "looks right". Presumably, they do this because they mainly sell mail-order (yes, this sort of thing still goes on) and it makes their "product" look more "professional", so it doesn't really matter. But it does get a bit frustrating when your obscure early-90s rave CD is apparently a Tesco lettuce. Again though, this is no big deal really.

4.  Multiple versions

CD singles are usually released in a myriad of versions that are quite difficult to distinguish apart. For instance, there'll typically be one or more UK versions, one or more US versions, Japanese versions, European versions, slightly altered remixes and so on. All should be barcoded differently, but they aren't always. It makes figuring out exactly which version you've got quite difficult sometimes and selling in a specialised market like this, it's quite important to identify the right listing (assuming you want to sell).

5.  Fragility

Normally, CD singles are housed in a thin plastic jewel case (as opposed to the full size jewel cases that albums generally use). These thin cases are notorious for being easily damaged (especially if in a large stack, but I've only myself to blame for that) and it's not unusual to find that either the front or the back has cracked, which could take your "Condition - Like New" right down to a "Condition - Acceptable". That's a big deal to collectors, but fortunately replacement thin CD cases are very cheap and can be replaced easily, so it's a problem easily solved. A thing that presents more difficulty, though, is the preponderance of...

6.  Cardboard Sleeves

Obviously it makes sense to use these; it cuts down on shipping costs (at both ends; the record company saves money on shipping, as does the potential reseller. However, they accumulate dust, dirt and extraneous markings over time, no matter how carefully you store them, and it's almost impossible to restore the sleeve to its former glory. And as the sleeve is an integral part of the item (i.e. front and back are connected), it's rarely feasible to rehouse them into a proper case to solve the problem. So I tried to avoid them when choosing my 250. Also:

7.  Price tags

For some reason, some record shops still use non-peelable labels in their price guns. For CDs in a plastic housing, this is no big deal as you can remove the price tag quite simply, either with a proprietory sticker remover or a solvent (medicinal alcohol is particularly effective). But you can't do this to a cardboard sleeve without leaving an even worse mark, rendering the item pretty unsaleable (and this matters a lot to collectors, unless it's something super-rare).

8.  Minor scratches or blemishes on the CD itself

These won't stop the CD playing - they'll make no difference whatsoever when it comes to that - but such things devalue a CD like you wouldn't believe. A "Like New" CD with a tiny scratch on it will be brought down to an "Acceptable" CD. Again, this wouldn't seem to matter much normally, but in an increasingly-dwindling collectors' market, it matters a lot.

There's a few other things I could mention, but I they're the main ones I encountered. Most of them can be somehow circumlocuted or avoided, so let's put them aside for now.

So, as promised, some observations:

- Major resellers and their pricing models

As I repeatedly and tediously mentioned in previous posts about selling second-hand CDs, it's fairly apparent that most of the big players simply set their price as high as they can get away with, while still maintaining the lowest offer. You can hardly blame them, it's a standard business model, although it does seem a bit immoral when that price is nearly a thousand pounds for a single CD, in this case Joey Beltram's classic "Energy Flash". It'll be interesting to see what happens if I list my copy (although I don't want to sell it, obviously).

When two of the major players have the same CD for sale, it can get quite funny watching them undercut one another penny-by-penny. For common CDs, this leads to multiple copies ultimately being available at a penny each, which just depresses the market for everyone else. However, for rarer CDs, they must set minimums, as can be seen here:

- Disappointingly, the major players don't seem guilty of collusion

You might remember this from an earlier post:

Which then, after Ocelot Europe dropped out, turned into this:

I speculated at the time that these two companies - OnlineMusicFilmsGames and KELINDO³ were in collusion with one another (or may even be two sub-businesses of a larger concern). At one point the price was driven down to £45.16 (with KELINDO³ cheapest) but at the time of writing, the situation has returned to "normal":

Actually, looking at that, it does look as though they're in collusion! I don't think they are, though.

- For all the common penny CDs, there's loads of MUCH higher offers

Lots of common (i.e. CD singles that sold lots of copies on initial release) are available from a bewildering amout of sellers, with the cheapest offer almost always being a penny. For instance, should you want a copy of The Prodigy's "Breathe", there's 131 sellers offering it, 25 of them at a penny. This is where it gets curious; what are the other 106 sellers doing? I can think of a few reasons:

1.  Small private sellers unwilling or unable to compete with the big boys

This makes sense, as it's not worth their bother selling at a penny to realise a profit of - if they're lucky - a few pence, once fees, postage, etc. are taken into account. In fact, without the postage discounts available to the big sellers, it's more likely that they would actually lose money on the transaction. So it makes sense for them to price at a couple of quid or so, guaranteeing at least a small profit should the item sell.

2.  Sellers with copies in "collectable" condition (or new, sealed copies)

Again, this makes sense, as the penny CDs rarely go beyond "Condition: Excellent" and collectors are often willing to pay quite a premium for an unused copy.

Making less sense, though, are:

3.  Sellers who feature on most of the common listings, but at uncommon prices

There's at least two sellers (Japan-Select and japazon) that I can think of who seem to crop up with copies of extremely common CDs, typically priced somewhere between £8.00 and £13.00 (for instance on "Breathe", Japan-Select have a copy priced at £8.26). As their copies are rarely in especially good condition, I've no idea what they're doing, but they've got nearly 6,000 ratings, so some people must be buying from them.

4.  Sellers with "New" copies

To continue with the example of the Prodigy's "Breathe", you can - if you're daft enough - pay anything from £13.95 up to £46.88 for a copy. Granted, these are "New" copies, but that's one hell of a premium, especially considering that you can pick up a "Used - Like New" copy for a quid which is as likely to be in as good nick.

4.  Sellers who either have no idea what they're doing or are simply "trying it on"

These ones I just can't get my head around. Again, with "Breathe", there's a copy at £8.72 that is only "Used - Acceptable" (the lowest permitted condition), plus a whole myriad of "Used - Very Good" copies going for seemingly random amounts (£8.26! £8.72! etc.). Given that there's at least ten copies in the same condition going at a penny, this just seems nonsensical.

- Weird discrepancies in price

Why is the lowest price for Love Decade's "So Real" (which actually made #14 in 1991) £22.91, when the lowest price for Bizarre Inc.'s "Playing With Knives" (a far smaller hit, #43 earlier the same year) is just £0.23? Why £12.94 for Orbital's "Mutations" (#24 in 1992) but only £0.01 for Definition Of Sound's "Pass The Vibes" (#23 in 1995)?

And even more oddly, why only £0.09 for Islands' "Rough Gem" (not a hit at all) when the best price for La Roux's "In For The Kill" (a massive #2 hit in 2009) is £4.43?

Undoubtedly, a lot of this sort of thing comes down to the big resellers getting lucky and happening upon an obscurity, but not all of it. I really have no idea.

- Some CD singles aren't listed at all

Of the 250 CDs I checked in part 1, I found eight that weren't available at all on CD:

Altern 8 - Everybody
Altern 8 - The Vertigo EP (Infiltrate 202)
Finitribe - Ace - Love - Deuce
Frankie "Bones" & Lennie "Dee" - The Looney Tunes EP
Shades Of Rhythm - Homicide/Exorcist
Tekno 2 - Psycho
Unique 3 - No More
Wishdokta - Bannana Sausage

However, all eight were available on vinyl, which kind of makes sense as they were all techno/dance/club records and probably more vinyl copies were pressed at the time of release. Presumably though, it means I could list my copies and - were I less scrupulous - choose my own ridiculously high price for each. That said, I sincerely doubt that there's many people out there crying out for a CD copy of Unique 3's "No More".

In fact, I think most of the twenty most expensive items listed in part 1, pretty much all of them were available at a cheaper price on vinyl.

- Conclusions

After all that, disappointingly, I don't think I've learned anything that I'd not already worked out from dissecting Amazon's albums market. The singles market might feature a slightly different set of "major" resellers, but they seem to operate along much the same principles. Still, it's nice to know that I've got a good number of CDs that I could conceivably sell if I wanted to make a few quick quid.

So (assuming you've made it this far - in which case must be bloody mad, or bored, or both! - apologies for not unearthing anything particularly interesting. However, I've enjoyed writing these pieces and if you've found them in any way informative, then that'll do me.

Now I'm off to listen to some more Klubbkören! I would advise you to do likewise, not that I'm the boss of you or anything.

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