The View from England

What not to sell on an ecommerce site

There is no shortage of advice on what to sell on an ecommerce site. In this post, however, I will describe what not to sell.

Ecommerce should be about making money. This usually requires carefully chosen inventory that sells well at a decent margin. Then you can spend time and money crafting product pages and promoting them via advertising and other methods. The thing to avoid is wasting time creating hundreds of product pages that may never result in a sale and, if they do, the profit is marginal.

In this post, I’ll describe potential inventory items that most ecommerce businesses should avoid.

Items to avoid

Books are ideal to sell online because of their standard size and shape. They are also easy to describe. A customer has no doubt what he is getting when he buys a book. He knows what it looks like, how it will feel, and how to use it. Many of the traditional impediments of online selling are not there.

The problem with mass-market books — and DVDs and CDs — is that the market is overloaded. Most customers will first go to Amazon and then perhaps to AbeBooks. These sites tend to list virtually every book in the world, likely at the lowest prices. There is little point in setting up a site sell to books.

Perishables. Items with a short shelf life are likewise a poor choice, especially for a new site. Unless you can offer something truly unique and can attract customers quickly and regularly, your profits will be consumed by waste.

A short shelf life is not restricted to food. Seasonal items also have a short life. The value of Christmas gifts, for example, may lose upwards of 70 percent after Dec. 25.

Expensive to ship. It is rarely profitable to sell something where the shipping cost is a significant percentage of the overall purchase price. As a rough rule, I try to avoid selling anything that costs more to ship than the profit I intend to make on the sale.

The reason is twofold. First, say a customer receives an item and decides for whatever reason that she does not want it. On seeing that it costs more in shipping to return the item than it is worth, she will (a) reluctantly keep it, and never buy from you again, (b) ask you to fund the return postage, and leave you further out of pocket, or (c) claim it never arrived and demand a full refund anyway.

Second, when the item is returned for a full refund, you lose the initial postage cost. Thus if you re-sell it, you remain at a loss.

This rule applies not only to low-value items but also to heavy or bulky items. I’m familiar with a company that sells skateboards. Some skateboards decks do not fit in a standard-sized parcel. For those decks, shipping costs can double and the list of potential carriers is much smaller, thus making it difficult to ship and even harder for a customer to return it.

Hard to describe. As a rule, customers like to know what they are getting. The fewer surprises the better. You can spend a lot of time taking decent pictures, putting in a full description, listing all the dimensions, and customers still may not like it. It can be too heavy, too light, or feel “wrong.”

There are many items that require little to no explanation. Buyers know what to expect. But goods such as hand-painted objects, ornaments, and ink pens could be rejected over a detail that a merchant may not realize is significant.

Many sites sell such goods. Some may even be profitable. If so, they have presumably learned how best to describe their goods and have priced them to accommodate a significant return rate.

What not to sell

In short, an ideal ecommerce item is something that customers understand exactly and will not be surprised when they receive it. Go through your sales and returns history. Note what does not sell and what has a higher number of returns or complaints. These are the items not to sell.

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