This really is a story. A story of making a real difference and impacting the earth. See in today’s technological world one small company can touch people around the world through commerce. Small chunks of love (Books) can end up in the furthest places by caring for customers and caring for the team members. A big takeaway from this episode is not to make the necessary financial adjustments on the backs of those who serve your business. Rather make them through technology. Very important not to forget this.
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Here is transcript- It is automated so it is not perfect but it does seem to get better over time.
Mike: [00:00:00] The physical inventory spread out around the country. And so there are times where, you know, take for example, you know, a book that sells very, very quickly, very, very popular book. We may not have a hundred copies spread out where there’s some in every site. You may just only literally have one copy that came in one hour ago. And if somebody buys it, I’m just stuck shipping it from wherever it happens to be. And so, uh, you know, that’s, that’s the challenge we have to face.
Cool voice guy: [00:00:30] Welcome to the e-commerce momentum podcast where we focus on the people, the products, and the process of ecommerce selling. Today, here’s your host, Steven Peterson.
Stephen: [00:00:44] Hey, it’s me. It’s Q4 got to bring up my Amazon seller tribe. Um, this is probably, you know, one of the last chances you’re going to get to join this year. So I’ll run this for a couple of weeks. But, um, the good news is you could still get in, right? They are allowing people in, but at some point they’re gonna cut it off. So I suggest you join today. Try it with 14 days for free. Okay. So you don’t like it, you don’t get value drop. Um, however, don’t only measure on the value of what you’re buying, measure on the value of the impact it has on your business. And what I love about this group, the Amazon Seller tribe is the amazing way they invest into your business. They will help you with all the questions. Go out and check out, uh, amazing freedom.com, forward slash momentum dash arbitrage.
Stephen: [00:01:27] Look at the testimonials. Those are real people. Reach out to them, right? You can kind of figure out who they are and go out and figure out, uh, an sm. Is it real? Are they really helpful? Will they help my business? And you will be blown away again. You get 14 days free if you join through my link only and they do pay me. So I don’t want you to, I don’t mislead anybody. Um, but I believe in them. I’m in the groups, you’ll see me and you’ll get to talk with me too. So amazing. freedom.com, forward slash momentum, hyphen arbitrage. I know it’s a lot momentum, hyphen arbitrage, and you’re going to get 14 day free trial on the daily fine list. Make a purchase, get your money back and then say, Huh, I can do this again. Wash, rinse, repeat, wash, rinse, repeat.
Stephen: [00:02:12] Amazing. freedom.com, forward slash momentum arbitrage. They are going to close it. Q4 is here. It’s going to happen. Get ready. Welcome back to the ECOMMERCE momentum podcast. This is episode four Oh seven, Mike Ward of thrift books.com. Um, get ready to have your mind blown on the ability to sell millions of books a year. It still happens still to this day. Um, he dropped some stats that just blow my mind. Um, 15 million plus skews, uh, thousands of a particular book copy, ah, eight locations, some of them over a hundred thousand square foot, big as a Costco, all filled with books, no retail locations, all done online and up. Well, well over 50% of their books are sold on their site and it’s their site. They’re no third party. That’s them. And you know, obviously the rest is sold on Amazon. Um, and all grew from them starting selling on Amazon. It’s a mind blowing.
Stephen: [00:03:12] Um, and Mike Ward clearly has his pulse on the company. Um, then there’s some pride in there. I mean it’s, that’s a pretty awesome thing that he’s been part of. Um, to be able to create and man, there’s employees must be so proud cause it’s an amazing story. Let’s get into the podcast. Hey, welcome back to the ECOMMERCE momentum podcast. I’m very excited today. Slurring my words here a little bit cause I’m kind of excited. This is an old school bookseller who’s made book selling my term sexy. We’ve just having a pre call conversation. How books are not sexy and some I, I think in this guy’s eyes they’re kind of sexy. Mike Ward, welcome Mike.
Mike: [00:03:50] Hi, great to be here.
Stephen: [00:03:52] Would you agree books are sexy in your world?
Mike: [00:03:55] Yeah, they are. In fact, you know, when I have people in interviewing for positions, I have a bookshelf in my room with a bunch of old books on it and it’s definitely a conversation piece. I’d love to go through those. Yeah, I love books, new books and old books, but I have some books on my shelf that are from the 18 hundreds and they’re just, they’re just neat. They’re neat to look at. Um, so I, I would say that’s true of myself and it’s true of the people that work for my company to, you know, they, they’re drawn to books and so it’s a, you know, no offense to the folks, you know, for your listeners that maybe sell aquarium filters. But that’s Sorta my joke is like, hey guys, look, we’re not selling aquarium filters. We’re selling something people really mowed about. So it’s a, it’s a fun product for sure. It’s an emotional
Stephen: [00:04:34] product. I mean, that is one thing about, um, oh, I just read finished. I just finished, started reading a John Adams and books like that giant big giant books. And yet you get absorbed in them. I mean, you literally can, cause I’m used to reading business books and I don’t get absorbed into them because they’re telling me, Steve, you need to make a list. You need to follow through on your list. You need to execute. You need to get up earlier. He Blah, blah, blah. All the same stuff. When I go into these other books, all of a sudden I can, I’m jousting or I’m climbing tree. I mean, it sounds silly, but it’s the truth. They really, it’s an emotional experience.
Mike: [00:05:08] Yeah, absolutely. You know, and we, we love that part of what we do. Well,
Stephen: [00:05:13] let’s talk about what you do. So you’re, you have a little bookstore, right? Just a little dicky bookstore, a couple people working in it. Uh, what’s it about? Tell us about that.
Mike: [00:05:23] Uh, yeah, so more than a couple people, you know, we’ve got almost, yeah, almost, almost a thousand. We’ve got fulfillment centers spread out around the country and you know, we are selling millions of books a day. I’m sorry, a year. I wish it was a day. Um, you just large, large, large quantities of books and the model is pretty interesting. I mean, if I meet somebody and they asked me what I do for a living, I usually tell them I run an ecommerce business and you know, all of the normal ins and outs that you would expect with an ecommerce business. But there’s a big portion of our business that really looks a lot like a manufacturing business. I mean, we’re buying books from thrift stores, um, and from some libraries, uh, places like that. And we get them in large, large quantities, literally in semi-trucks and you know, hundreds of semi-trucks are going to be backing up into our network and we’re going to be offloading all of the books off of those.
Mike: [00:06:20] And then we use a lot of technology, uh, to process those and figure out what the market’s going to potentially sell using predictive analytics and a bunch of sophisticated, um, you know, some sorting equipment. And, you know, there’s also the human touch in there too. So, you know, we have to grade those books appropriately so that our customers know what, what quality the books are that they’re going to be getting. So, you know, there’s a lot of sort of processing that looks similar to what you would see in a manufacturing environment where we’re taking in a, a raw, unprocessed, you know, product or ingredient. And then after we’re done with it, we’ve added value to it and we’ve put that on the shelf and that’s what’s going to get sold online. And so we’ve got a large portion of our business that’s in that processing and fulfilling a section, you know, involved in those parts of the business. And then we’ve got what you would imagine two significant number of folks doing the listing management, the pricing management, uh, all of those things that you would typically have to manage in an ecommerce business
Stephen: [00:07:24] when, when you think about, uh, cutting costs, right? Cause as I was sitting there and thinking about this because you’re talking touch points, all this operational stuff that, that technology is where the efficiency is, right? That’s it. Cause you can’t, you can’t cut wages, you can’t let people do, I’m sure. But in today’s Day and age, people have options. You really have to squeeze margin out of that technology piece. Right. And it has that really happened for you?
Mike: [00:07:50] Well, yeah, and it’s allowed us to scale. So you’re absolutely right. I mean, we can’t, um, you know, we can’t skimp on wages, especially in today’s Day and age. I mean, unemployment is at an all time low. So yeah, people have a lot of options with places that they can go to work. So yeah, we’ve put some equipment in place that makes those jobs easier, allows us to scale a little better. But yeah, fundamentally the technology is what allows us to find the right books that we’re going to put for sale and to skip over the ones that are not going to be able to be sold. And so, so yes. So you’re trimming and you know, you talk about cutting and trimming, that’s where you do it, is you just avoid touching the books that, you know, you’re not going to be able to make money on. So smart. TCIS all right. So I,
Stephen: [00:08:40] uh, I want to get to the story about inventing systems and that spirit of entrepreneurial innovation because to me, you’re a big company, Mike. You’re not supposed to be that way. So I want to get there, but I want you to go back. Okay.
Mike: [00:08:53] Talk about how, how, how does, how does the reef books come about? I mean, where does that come from? It was just something, you know, uh, well take me all the way back. Tell me how you, how we performed. Well, so to be fair, I wasn’t there at the very beginning. I came in sort of, uh, at the entry level when it was small still. But the idea how many staff were on there when you were there? Oh, so we had one facility, well, when I came full time, I, you know, that was a small facility with maybe 20, uh, warehouse workers working part time for the most part and maybe six or seven people working in the office. So this is early stage. Yeah. So, and prior, prior to that I was attracted to the business. Um, you know, like a lot of entrepreneurs that listen to your podcast.
Mike: [00:09:41] I was always interested in, you know, ideas that I saw out there that looked interesting. And, and this was one that a friend of mine had started. And so I was doing some work for them. Just moonlighting, you know, my full time job was writing code. I’m an engineer by background. And so I was writing code for a mutual fund facility and leading a development team there. And then in the evenings I was helping them, my, I was helping thrift books write some code for their shipping department and uh, interfacing with the u s ps we were using at the time and uh, and putting our first website up as well. So the genesis of the company really goes all the way back to Amazon, which I know a lot of your listeners, listeners are interested in. But, um, you know, Amazon opened up their API, opened up an API, allowing third party sellers to list books at the time was the primary category.
Mike: [00:10:34] And we, they’re the guy that founded the company, had access to books and he said, let’s, let’s try and put these online. And so it worked. And uh, kinda grew fairly slowly and organically over about three years. And that’s when I was helping a little bit from the sidelines. And then we came full time. Myself and a couple of other guys decided to come full time and do the proverbial quitting of the day job and going to the startup. And then we put the pedal to the metal and really sought to scale the business as quickly as we could. But you know, the genesis of the idea was Amazon making that decision to open up their platform to third party sellers, which is really fundamentally a very, very strange idea if you think about it. I mean, I bought the other company I see is Elon Musk doing it with these Tesla stuff, right?
Mike: [00:11:26] You’re the battery stuff. I mean, you don’t see companies do that. That’s the secret sauce, Mike. You can’t give away your secrets. No, it’s, it’s odder than that even, and I’ve heard it, I’ve heard it compared, I’m not the first one to say this, but you know, it’d be like Nordstrom saying, hey, let’s have a, let’s have a kiosk in the corner where a Macy’s can put some of their clothing for sale and they approach Macy’s and say, Hey, do you want to put some stuff in the corner of our Nordstrom store? And Macy’s says, okay, it’s, it’s as odd as that. Um, today it seems like a no brainer, right? I mean, Amazon, uh, you know, publicly has stated 58% of their sales are coming from third parties right now. So look at the amazing scale they’ve gotten from that decision. But really if you examine it a little deeply, it’s a very strange decision that Jeff Bezos made.
Mike: [00:12:19] But it was absolutely right. Oh, 100%. Right. Again, I would say, look at any other company that’s trying to do at Walmart. We would sell on Walmart. It’s painful. It’s not the same. It’s not as, it’s not inclusive. It’s more restrictive. It’s like, you know, what, what they will allow you to do or jet or one of those other ones where, uh, Amazon’s pretty open to almost everything. They got a lot of rules and you keep adding rules to try to control some of it. But realistically it’s, it’s really still the wild west, I would say. And you’re talking in 2006 in my correct about when you can run full time. Okay. Yep. So the wild west today was the great place. I mean, I don’t even have a, I don’t have an analogy to compare it to. I mean there’s nothing right? There was, it was wide open.
Mike: [00:13:03] Oh yeah. There were a lot fewer policies and procedures. You know, we sort of did whatever we wanted. Um, and you know, the, the commission structure was such that we were able to make pretty decent amount of profit off of, you know, even very, very cheap books. All of those things have changed. Um, you know, Amazon has put a lot of effort into, um, making sure that the sellers are compliant with their policies and procedures. And, uh, yeah, completely different world today. When, when you and the other couple fin was joined, got more ladies joined, uh, to scale, did you have any clue? I mean, did you guys sit around and say like, Hey, we could, we could sell $1 million in books, you know, or we could set 2 million, 5 million. I mean, did you have any clue of what, what it truly could be? I mean, it was anybody that visionary?
Mike: [00:13:57] No, I, you know, I think we did have a goal and, uh, you know, we got pretty close to it. Uh, I would say in a matter of maybe five or six years, I think we actually probably had an even bigger goal than that. I think we thought we would achieve it in about three years. And, uh, it took us five, um, since then, you know, we’ve gone on to triple even that number. So, uh, you know, I, we were a little slower to get to our first goal and since then we’ve far exceeded what we thought we could be two at scale. And at this point I look at the business and I don’t see, uh, you know, too many barriers to us doubling or tripling again and books are dead. Like I guess somebody that, somebody on the other line telling me that I want to, I want to stop. There’s, again, I want to go back. You had a goal and you didn’t achieve it and he reason, I mean, when you look back at that of time, I was
Stephen: [00:14:52] the goal just too lofty? Was it a really giant, a audacious goal as they say? Or did you guys stumble along the way and learn?
Mike: [00:15:01] Yeah, I think it was a little bit of all of those things. I think the goal was, hi, I’m, I, the economy didn’t help. We went through a mini recession at that time and you know, that was a difficult time for us. Uh, we didn’t predict what Amazon was going to do in terms of changing their commission structure, changing the way they were, even listing our items on their book, on their pages. So a lot of things we didn’t anticipate. The scale of growing the business was a very difficult challenge for us. You know, we went from one facility in downtown Seattle to 10 facilities spread out around the country. My background and what I was involved in early on in the company was leading the whole technology push. So, you know, we had to completely rewrite our software package from the ground up in order to support that level of scale.
Mike: [00:15:53] When we built our first version of our software, we didn’t even conceive of multiple warehouses where it hadn’t been conceived of. So rather than continue to Frankenstein on all these fixes so that multiple facilities would work, we just decided to write it from scratch. And um, you know, that was, that was a challenge. I remember, you know, we had our, when we opened our third facility, we had been limping along on our old software on, on our second facility and we knew that it wasn’t going to be able to work on our third. And so we were writing the software as quickly as we could. We’d signed a lease and we were going into that new facility and the software wasn’t quite ready yet and we were scrambling, you know, just challenges like that, you know, we got it done and we got it, we got it installed and that facility’s up and doing well today. So, uh, but just all of those things take a little bit more effort than I think you realize when, when you’re young and naive and,
Stephen: [00:16:48] yeah, let me see if I could do anything. I haven’t, my wife always says that Steve, it’s going to be, what is it? $100. All right. 200 she’s like double it and it’s going to take you twice as long. Right? Double the cost twice as long. Exactly. When you were choosing locations, because how many, how many locations do you have now?
Mike: [00:17:03] Well, you know, we’ve, we’ve closed a couple and made some of our facilities even bigger. So you know to, in terms of total square footage, we’ve continued to grow. But at our peak we had 11 and today we have eight.
Stephen: [00:17:17] Okay, so you have eight. How much of it’s modeled off of Amazon selling, um, um, uh, practice or you know, I guess, you know, I’m sure there’s some tax reasons for certain things of course, but, but you know, where the volume of their business goes, how much of your businesses is married to that or am I completely wrong because let’s face it, it’s the internet, your business is modeled off of where you get the majority of your books from.
Mike: [00:17:46] Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. I would say early on it was primarily modeled on where we could get the supply from because there’s so many millions of pounds of books, which as you can imagine, are heavy and it doesn’t make sense to buy a semi truck load of books in Miami and have them shipped all the way to Florida or up to Seattle just so that I could sort through and, uh, you know, discard the majority of it. So either early model was if you want to buy books from Miami, get close to Miami so that you can sort out the stuff you don’t want. As we’ve gotten bigger and we’ve gotten better at selling multiple books at a time, et cetera. There’s an advantage to putting those books together into bundled packages. And that’s easier to do if you have fewer and bigger facilities. So that’s sort of the, the models evolved over time, but it is still a little bit of both. You know, we don’t, we don’t look necessarily at Amazon or where they have their facilities. We’re far more interested in, um, you know, still to this day where we can get close to our outbound shipping lanes and our inbound shipping lanes.
Stephen: [00:18:53] That brings up a question, uh, how much of your business is uh, sold through Amazon? If that’s proprietary? You don’t have to tell me, but I’m just wondering.
Mike: [00:19:03] Well, you know, I, yeah, I’m not going to give you an exact number, but I will tell you at the beginning of the business it was 100% and, and today it is less than half. You know, the mature, the majority of our sales come through our own website on thrift books.com. No kidding. Wow. I mean that, that alone
Stephen: [00:19:24] has to be an incredible, uh, just an incredible feeling because not only did you create a market, I mean, you created a real marketplace that’s pretty big and especially today.
Mike: [00:19:36] Well, yeah. And it wasn’t something that we were able to do overnight. You know, I remember celebrating the fact that we had 5% of our sales on our own website and, you know, then we said, I have a big hairy audacious goal to get to 10. And you know, today we’re, we’re north of half. And so it took time. Um, it took a lot of learning along the way, but, but yes, we have, you know, millions of satisfied customers that are our customers that are on our website, that shop our site and they like us and like our brand and trust our brand and trust that we’re going to grade these books properly. And they know the difference between, uh, you know, what happens when you’re in a marketplace full of third party sellers where there’s a little bit of obscurity. You don’t know who exactly you’re buying from or very much about them. But on our website, customers know that they’re buying from us. We’re not or 20 sellers on your three of our books. Okay. It’s all our own stuff. Wow. So, so
Stephen: [00:20:34] you learn, I mean, you know, if a customer’s unhappy based on your grading, you get a chance to look at your grading and say, yeah, we were wrong. We, we stretched or to be fair, uh, you know, we, we have to adjust grading that really is now a new step. I’m assuming that that’s evolved over time.
Mike: [00:20:52] Yeah, absolutely. Right. And, you know, for the most part, customers are very, very pleased with the quality that we get. Occasionally we make a mistake and we make good on that. And so, you know, we, we do what all companies do. We ask people, you know, what they, if they would recommend us to other people, that’s that famous net promoter score metric. And you know, our NPS is north of 78 so people love our company. Uh, when we asked them, would you recommend it? Yeah. They all largely would.
Stephen: [00:21:24] You described your business, you said you’re in the ECOMMERCE business. What, what, what’s the romantic part of Your Business? I mean, what would you say, you know, is, is that the thing that, that makes this business still interesting to you? To get what I mean? Yeah, sort of. Well, I mean, you’re an engineer’s. I get it. And I’m an accountant, so I understand it. You know, we’re talking, you know, love languages here. I’m just saying, I’m just thinking about this though. I mean, you know, I guess it’d be awesome. Hey, we sold a million books. Okay, that’s cool. But we, we, I understand that you’re, you’re saving books from landfills, you’re recycling, you know, saving all that stuff, but in some ways you’re keeping your, keeping open. Uh, I don’t know, not a communication method. I don’t know. There’s something that you’re doing differently by keeping this available, right? I mean, is that you get where I’m going with that?
Mike: [00:22:19] Oh yeah, for sure. You know, we, we definitely have, um, a big focus on what people are benefiting from as they get, as they get our books, you know, our, I mean, our values are, you know, pretty clear. We, we really, it’s not just that you love to read, it’s what reading represents. So, you know, we, we say we want to put books into the hands of customers, readers, we want readers to be able to get value, a good value on the books that they’re, that they can buy more books because of our service now. So these are all benefits that, you know, we, we do believe that reading is good for society. It’s good for people. It’s, it’s as valuable as any kind of education you can get. It’s the education you give yourself. So all of these things, you know, definitely are some of the, the romance of, of the, of the, of the product that we sell. Um, I, I would say for me personally, and I do love to read also, I’ve always been very interested in passionate in the data we collect. So I love looking at and analyzing all of the data that we have. And because we’ve sold and processed so many millions of books, we have a pretty rich set of data. And so that’s fascinating to me too. I, you know, both sides of that business,
Stephen: [00:23:48] it’s gotta be very rewarding. Um, just to think of the lives that you’ve impacted. Um, I, I t my wife had a kindle. She probably still has it. We have, I haven’t seen it in so long. She used to read it because you know, that was going to be the thing. Um, in our house. It did not catch on what or what have has the technology cause I can also read them on my iPad, I guess if I want. Um, I do listen to books from time to time on audible. But outside of that, what, what has the technology that’s come along done to your business?
Mike: [00:24:20] Well, I, you know, I’ll address it in two ways. You know, we definitely have, um, or you know, used to have some concerns about ebooks. Um, not so much anymore. I think that’s kind of an obvious boogeyman. Um, but it has completely leveled off. You know, there is something, you know, in the mid twenties, uh, of that’s the percentage of books that are sold digitally today. Uh, if you were to look at the prognosticators five, six years ago, they were all saying that it was going to be half of our sales, etc. And that’s just hasn’t panned out. Uh, that said, definitely there’s a percentage of books that will be sold digitally and that’s fine. When we survey our readers, they, they tell us the same thing and they, they read a handful of books digitally. I personally read some books digitally, but when I can, I get paper, people tend to prefer it.
Mike: [00:25:13] And so short of any brand new inventions coming out that are, you know, paper like, but have the ability to project a digital words upon them. I, I don’t see that necessarily changing in the near term. It’s been very, very stable. Uh, the thing that has been, uh, that has changed quite a bit is the power of the technology to analyze the data. So I don’t love buzzwords like, you know, machine learning and AI, they can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. But you know, I will say that the computational power and savvy that’s out there today, uh, has grown exponentially in the past decade and we’ve leveraged that. So, you know, that part definitely has, has been fascinating to be part of,
Stephen: [00:26:02] well, as you said that you learn what not to sell so you don’t even present what’s not going to sell. That alone is an efficiency. Um, and that again, that’s done over time that that’s Oh, you nerds, you love that, don’t you? That’s where your algorithm, you finally are like, all right, I’m smarter than you. And here, watch.
Mike: [00:26:21] Well, I mean it was not obvious at first. I can remember back to when we first started the business early on and you know, we gathered a bunch of the data and we finally had enough data. We could really look at it. Someone decided to ask the obvious question, which was, hey, I wonder which book we have the most copies at copies of in this facility. And so it was a simple database query to find the answer. And you know, we’ve, it was a what to expect when you’re expecting. And I think we had something like 2000 copies in stock in a facility that had, you know, I dunno, 800,000 books on the shelf. And so then you ask the most next most obvious question, which is how many of those do we sell a year? And the answer was something like a hundred. And so you go, oh well maybe, maybe don’t need 2000 of them.
Mike: [00:27:12] You know, believe it or not, that was a very controversial decision for us to make it, you know, to trust the data and to make that decision, uh, was difficult for us, you know. But prior to that, our premise, our philosophy was that if the book was sellable and had a passing grade on it, then we were going to put it on the marketplace and the marketplace was going to be our determiner on what was sellable, what the market wanted, you know, that makes sense, right? The market chooses what it will buy and what it won’t. And so that was our filter. We would put the books out there and let the market decide. So for us to make the decision, you know, we’re not going to put 2000 copies of this book on the market, uh, because we quote unquote know better. Uh, that was difficult because what if we’re wrong?
Mike: [00:28:00] And what was the limit space at that point? Well, we were, we were full. And so what would end up happening is, you know, you, you would constantly cycle, you know, so you take the oldest books and you’d discard them and you put fresher ones in place of them. So, you know, with those 2000 copies of that book would never sell or you sell a hundred of them and you’re left with, you know, 1900 or something. Eventually the oldest copies kind of flow out the back end of the pipe. And that was fine. But yeah, it, it, uh, you know, by not even putting them on the shelf at all, it would allow the pipe to just flow at a slower speed and give the good books chance to, to sell a better chance to sell. So, you know, there were obvious pros, but the fear was, what if we’re wrong?
Mike: [00:28:45] You know, we’ll never know cause we’re making a choice to take this specific item and not put it online. And you know, we don’t know if we’re going to be right or wrong. And so that today it seems very obvious but, but back then was difficult. And so, you know, that was, that was a lesson learned for sure, is to trust that data and to be able to really, really lean on it and, and trust that it’s going to support you and you’re going gonna make the right choice. And over time that’s proven out obviously otherwise you wouldn’t be scaling. What do you deal with? We’ve, we’ve scaled it even more. I mean, we, we continue to tighten that down and get smarter over time. So we’ve, we have not stopped.
Stephen: [00:29:23] That is not the only, uh, that’s not the only requirement. Right. That’s not the only thing you’re looking at. How about this? Can you talk about the model and maybe you can’t, the model of buying books from thrift stores, kind of how, how it works, what’s the financial package that works that way or the model that you use and you don’t have to get on rates of
Mike: [00:29:42] course. Cause that would be proprietary. Yeah, sure. Of course. You know, we’re there, we buy from hundreds of suppliers around the country and you know, in a variety of sizes we prefer the larger consolidation centers because they can put together full semi-truck loads of these books. Sedation center centers, like a salvation army for example, or something like that. So like a regional salvation army or goodwill might support several dozen, you know, regional stores in their area. So if a consumer takes a book and drops it off at a goodwill, a likely it’s going to get sorted into a box with a bunch of other books. And then those are going to get shipped to a consolidation center. And then that’s where our relationship enters in and we go negotiate a price. And when we buy those a and we pay for it by the pound and bring it into our facility and sort through what we can sell on it.
Mike: [00:30:35] And so again, we need to rely on the data. They’re not, all of these sites are created equal. Uh, some of them have different policies and procedures. Some of those thrift stores have, um, you know, they, they allow other individual booksellers to go through and skim out the good books, which, you know, they do, they use handheld scanners and they can, they can find, you know, the, the very good cherries in the mix and they can take them, take them out and take ’em and put them in their, in their own small businesses. And that’s, that’s fine. You know, as long as when we get the product, we get that load of books, we monitor it over time and we see how it’s doing in terms of profitability. And that informs us as to what price we’re willing to pay per pound and to share them with them more than others to share that with them.
Mike: [00:31:21] Yeah. So that, that’s the reason right there. Right. So, Hey, you know, Steve, you get by me once or twice, but after a bit I see what you’re doing. We clearly see what you’re doing. Uh, so therefore, um, I can’t pay you that much because this is what I’m netting. Right. And that’s not an unfair conversation. No, it’s very useful for them. And we provide them not only that data, we’ll tell them what the average price point is of the books that they’re selling. We will, we will share with them, um, you know, what percentage of the books they’re giving us are being sold versus versus other suppliers that are out there. And a lot of it is predictive as well. So we’re able to give them that feedback within just days sometimes of having processed the load. So we can say, you know, if it’s a brand new facility that we don’t have a relationship with, we say, great, we’ll buy a test load from you.
Mike: [00:32:14] And you know, we’ll give you feedback in a couple of weeks as to what our software believes that we’ll do in terms of profitability. And then we a layer reality on top of that. After a few months have gone by as well. But how accurate is it? Yeah, I imagine over time it gets even more accurate. Right? You find it. Why? Why is there a Delta between the difference between these two then you keep fine tuning it. Could you tell us the percentage of books? I mean, especially from an established place, you already know what their patterns are, you know, if they’re gonna Cherry pick, right or they sell them themselves or whatever. Could you tell us what, what historically or what, you know, normal would be for you guys? Would, you know, you get a tractor trailer load, there’s what, 26 or 52 pallets, I don’t know how many fit on a tractor trailer.
Mike: [00:32:56] Um, and of that 5%, 10%, you know, is sellable. Yeah. I mean it’s a little more than that. No, but we, it varies so greatly. It’s really hard to put a, put a specific number on it. And you know, sometimes the loads will contain things that, you know, we don’t even, we can’t even touch, you know, things like, eh, but being too specific, when I say can’t touch, you know, I mean we can’t sell things like VHS tapes or there’s those million now or Disney ones out there, the black diamond and Mike three three ring binders, you know, that just have notes and things like that. So, you know, some, some percentage of a load is actually literally just going to be garbage. Um, so, you know, it’s, it’s difficult to put a finger on it, but, but you know, it, it is a small fraction of the books that come off of that truck that we can actually sell.
Mike: [00:33:49] So again, it’s, it’s more important for us, you know, to look at the total dollars that we get out of that load, that than it is, um, you know, [inaudible] do you sell new books too? Yeah, we do. So we do that through a, through a distribution partner, so we don’t hold those in inventory. But yeah, we just, we, we don’t sell them on any of the third party market places. We just sell those new books on our own website. But that’s another feeling that’s going to be pretty good. Because, you know, I think in most towns, most people would say most bookstores have closed. You know, and I mean, there’s still some out there, but, but a lot of them have consolidate just like retail. I mean, let’s face it, there’s a reason retail is closing because of convenience and, and that, or, uh, ability to stock.
Mike: [00:34:33] You guys have started to fill that need too. That’s, that’s gotta be another cool feeling. I mean, yeah. Well keeping it going, not just selling books. You know, we listened to our customers. I mean, that’s the result of some surveys that we have been doing over the last several years. And interestingly, when we, when we asked customers of, of our website, what percentage of the books that you’re buying are used and what percentage are new, our customers will tell us about two thirds of the books they buy are used and they buy a third of their books new. Uh, it’s inverse when you ask people that are, that are not familiar with our business. So, you know, in terms of a control group, we ask that same question to people that, you know, claimed to be readers but are not affiliated with our website yet. And they say the inverse, they say two thirds of the books are new and one third are used.
Mike: [00:35:22] So there’s an interesting kind of tidbit in the data there is that once they discover how well it works to by used, you know, that those will flip to where two thirds of their purchases are used. But interestingly to us, you go, well, great, there’s still a third of your total spend per year that’s on new. And you think about it and it seems obvious there are some times when a used book isn’t suitable, you want to give a gift or you’d really want something that’s brand new and it may not be out in used yet. So, you know, we sought to get out and um, and, and tap into that market a little bit. And so we’ve been able to do that. And also when you’re acquiring a customer, it gives you, your CFO was proud he could sit back and do the math and say who and that’s the value of that customer.
Mike: [00:36:07] Right? So with the acquisition cost is less than that. They know you’re, you know, you’re going to get a big bump if they become your customer. Um, double basically doubling their used purchase and all of it from you. So. Hmm. Yeah, I like it thinking, well, well how long does it take for a book to become you? So that’s a good example. So sometimes because there’s current in it’s advertising and it effects me, I want that current book. Right. And I go on Amazon and look for a used cop. No use copies. Like you say, it’s a either preorder or it’s right there. How long does it take to for a used book to start hitting the market? Yeah, there’s definitely a life cycle and you know, it tends to be four to six months before we start to see it. It does, it does depend on how many are published a, the type of book that it is.
Mike: [00:36:55] Um, you know, people tend to hold onto business books and keep them on their shelves. Um, other books people read once and then they just say, great, I liked it. That was fine, but I don’t need to keep it on my shelf. I mean, the, the prime example of that is the Davinci code that happens to be, I mentioned it because it happens to be the book that we see the most copies of on an annual basis. And, uh, it makes sense if you think about it, that’s not necessarily a book someone’s going to say. Oh yeah, that’s, that was good. I, I do want to read it, but I, I am not necessarily wanting to keep that on my shelf forever. So it gets re donated on top of the fact that there are, um, a lot of those, uh, additions that were published.
Mike: [00:37:38] So there’s just a lot of quantity floating around out there in the market. So a book like that you might get very, very quickly, that might be a one to two months and you’d start to see that after publication. Okay. Do you, do you, uh, collect books for creating collections? Like the Harry Potter would be a good example, right? Um, cause those of us who used to sell books, you know, we’d get them and then all of a sudden they’d add another book to it and then you could sell them and a lot of five or six or seven, you know, depending on how many there are. Um, are, do you guys do that kind of thing to uh, in a digital sense? So we don’t physically bundled books up, but we definitely will, you know, make it easy for customers to figure out what the next book in the series are. We definitely do some curation in terms of making sure we know what the books are in a series, et cetera. And you know, suggesting to folks you might also enjoy the next copy in this series. So it both at during the browsing experience, the shopping experience, and then later through email. So we do try to make that
Stephen: [00:38:36] easier for people. But no, I’m asking the question on it. So let’s say there were seven Harry Potter books a do, is it possible that if I bought the seven from you based on yours, cause I say I want to buy the set. So magically new software geniuses put together like you created this, you have this set, which you might not, but because it’s, you know, connected to whatever and they could actually get a book from this part of the country in a book from this other, I mean, is that, is that farfetched? No, it does happen. You know, our goal is to put all of the books into one package obviously, but we have the physical inventory spread out around the country. And so there are times where, you know, take for example, you know, a book that sells very, very quickly, very, very popular book.
Stephen: [00:39:20] We may not have a hundred copies spread out where there’s some in every site. You may just only literally have one copy that came in one hour ago. And if somebody buys it, I’m just stuck shipping it from wherever it happens to be. And so, uh, you know, that’s, that’s the challenge we have to face. It’s almost an art. It’s gotta become one of the bigger challenges, right? Is how to anticipate demand in what part of the country. Right. You know, think of the election coming up. How, you know, how crazy it is, right? When I don’t know, I mean I’m not taking sides, I’m just saying how uneven it can be in some ways. So if you get a candidate who writes a book or gets a book written for them and they put it out yet, you know, how do you, how do you do that?
Stephen: [00:40:07] I mean that’s gotta be, I mean, is it just based on history of other similar light things and then those trends and then you put those trends into your algorithm. Yeah. All of those things go in as factors. So we are looking at those, those things. I think primarily you want to find out what the algorithm to tell you, your likelihood of selling the item period. Uh, and then when you have choices to make beyond that, you may say, oh, well, you know, I know I get 10 a day across all these sites. Where do I want to stack up the most? And yeah, the algorithm takes care of that on a, on a per ESPN basis. Okay. I mean, let me change direction here a second. It says on your site that in 2016 you open a Chicago location and that was interesting, but it’s large and yet a handles.
Stephen: [00:40:55] So it says it’s tripled the size of your first facility yet to handles 10 times the volume. So how much learning, I mean, is that the place where all the learning of everything that you’ve done up until this point you’ve been able to apply? And if so, which I think you’re going to answer is going to be yes. How do you, how do you, how do you go about putting that out there? Because I, you know, I try to think of a master plan. I mean, how, how do you put that in place? Maybe that’s the best way to say it. So the answer is yes, I figured, yeah, some genius all of a sudden, whoa. And you know, we, we definitely
Mike: [00:41:34] have continued to grow even beyond then. Oh Wow. That that point in time, you know, so you know, the, the, the, the square footage of the facility is a constraint, but it’s not the only constraint. You definitely, you need to be able to process and grade and, you know, had to have the, the room and the space and the ability to put that much volume through in a very efficient way. So a lot of that is the learnings that we’re, that we’ve been able to accomplish over the, over the many years since we started our first facility. And there’s probably still head room to do that. I mean, these, these are big facilities. I, the Chicago facility is a good example. It’s pretty standard of our large size facilities, you know, of which we have more than Chicago now have several that are of that size. What size is it?
Mike: [00:42:25] Well, it’s roughly about like a big Costco, you know, so she’s, you know, on average anywhere from north of a hundred thousand square feet. So basically imagine a Costco with nothing in it except for books. And that’s what, that’s how I usually describe it to people. Um, I just can’t imagine, uh, the, uh, the logistics, the moving through. How long does it take for a book to come in one end of the business out through the other end? Have you, I’m sure you’ve done that study, I’m sure not fast enough, right? That’s probably the answer. Well, it depends on the book again. So you know, by the time we can get a book, by the time we buy a book by a load of semi-truck, usually we’ll have the, the items from that load for sale and online within a week. And [inaudible] I mean how many, how many pallets are on, how many, how many pounds are in that tractor trailer terminal truck?
Mike: [00:43:22] A hold about 40,000 pounds. So what four pounds on average? No, for us it’s a little over a pound. A book. So you, you know, 1.1 so it makes it really easy back in the Napkin math. So you know, you could say a typical tractor trailer could hold about 40,000 books. Like I said, there’s VHS tapes and other garbage in there, but that’s pretty, pretty rough. Numbers are pretty accurate. So 40,000 books of which little less than 10% are probably syllables. So in theory, 4,000 books could come through that load and it could be 40,000. Right. And it could be 400 and whatever the averages, but it’s 4,000 books in a week. You could get them all graded and listed. Oh, in a in a day. I mean a single, a single truck like that can get processed in a matter of hours in any of our facilities today listed. Uh, yeah. So once a book is graded and on the shelf, the computers will list it instantly. Now are you housing, uh, this, uh, on Amazon’s AWS? Uh, no. Our software inventory management system is all built in house. So we use Microsoft’s technology. So we’re using, yes. So we use Microsoft SQL server and their stack of technology, but it’s all software we’ve built. Really.
Stephen: [00:44:45] Um, it blows my mind to think that you guys have created a marketplace this large. Is there another example out there? Um, you know, I think objet however that was done with all kinds of funding from silicon valley and that, um, is there another example of a marketplace that is become as large as you guys that has been homegrown that you can think of?
Mike: [00:45:07] No. You know, I s I struggle and, and you know, we don’t like the word marketplace necessarily because we, you know, we’re not selling any third party items. So we think of ourselves as a retailer. [inaudible] our own filters. What was that thing you were saying? Yeah, refrigerator filters. Yeah. Read filters. We’re just selling books and they’re all our own books. And so we’re not in the marketplace business. We are in, we’re a retailer. And so yeah, there are certainly examples of retailers that are far larger than us. Um, but you know, selling a single product, so to speak. It’s an interesting paradigm because on the one hand you could say, we sell a single product, uh, but on the other hand you go, Oh, well we’ve got 15 million different titles for sale, uh, at any given time. And nobody out there that I can think of has that many skews.
Mike: [00:46:05] I mean, we, we go, you talking about building our own software, we go out there and, and talk to big companies that, that run retail sites for retailers like Shopify, et Cetera, and u s and they say, Oh yeah, we’d love Your Business and, and, and tell us a little bit about it. And we’d say, well, we’ve got 15 million skews. And they say, oh, nevermind. That’s not gonna work, right? A Magento, you know, these companies, uh, would love our business, but they really, really struggle with the skew count. And so we’ve had to customize it specifically for our business because not only did we have to manage that many skews, we were dynamically pricing them all. So they are constantly updating their price. So that’s, you know, you asked for a comparison similar to the airline industry that is constantly tweaking their prices on every single flight. They’re doing that a couple of times a week, maybe, maybe once a week across a few thousand, you know, maybe 20,000, 30,000 flights, something like that. You know, we’re doing that on an hourly and sometimes to the minute level on 15 million items too. So, you know, again, we need to be a just customized, uh, at a level that, that’s kind of kind of insane.
Stephen: [00:47:21] When, when I went to the last time I went to Barnes and noble, there’s still one in my market. Um, a bit of a hall. They have a, they have a Starbucks. Um, their version of a Starbucks, the coffee is pretty good, but more than half the store, I’m not exaggerating. I mean, just think about this more than half the stores has a music or Legos mean just toys everywhere. Um, and it’s very surprising too because I was like, wow, I didn’t realize Barnes and noble sold toys. How come? Thrift books where maybe they do, maybe you sell legos. Do you sell Legos? No, we don’t tell just box. You just booked. How come? How come?
Mike: [00:48:00] Well, you know, that’s been something on our consideration list for some time and uh, I’m not closing the door on that opportunity. It May, it may come about for us at some point. Maybe not specifically toys, but uh, you know, just that question, the, the broader question of would you ever sell something other than books along with the books? And the answer is, you know, maybe, uh, at this point the opportunity in the book space has just been so large that we’ve, every year when we set our goals, we, we look at that list of opportunities and we say, let’s continue to focus on books. The opportunity there is still quite large.
Stephen: [00:48:37] Is that, is that the advice you would give somebody who’s a Steve [inaudible] waterfalls on man, there’s a beautiful water bottle sitting on my desk and it’s gone well and I’m doing well with it. I don’t think I’ve sold every person a water bottle. There might be a few left to buy. So is that your advice when, when people come to you for advice as you know, build out that and before you try to jump into all these other things?
Mike: [00:48:59] No, I think my advice to the listeners in your, in your group that do that, it would be the opposite. I think. I think what we do works for us because of the large, large, large quantity of skews that we have. I think there’s inherently some danger in having a single product that you, that you sell even a highly successful one. So if you’re an Amazon seller and you’ve got a water bottle, uh, and it’s selling really, really well, there is no guarantee. In fact, there is a guarantee that it won’t sell that well forever, right? So I think if, you know, your listeners are in that kind of a business, they probably recognize as well that, you know, product development is something that you need to be continuously doing. So you need to be preparing for what the next thing can possibly be. And, and to some degree, taken that VC model of saying we’re going to invest in these 10 new products knowing really well that only one of them is going to win, or two of them are gonna win and the rest aren’t.
Mike: [00:50:02] And so you need to be churning consistently on a, on that pipeline of new products. I think what protects us is that that sort of constant churn and ability to look forward is built into the business. So, you know, we talked about the life cycle of new books. We know that the newest titles and, and the new, um, best-sellers that are getting released today are going to come to us for six months. Right? You’re going to be selling. Yes. Okay. Yes, that’s right. So I, I don’t think that model works perfectly well for sellers of other kinds of product lines. How come you haven’t opened up bookstores? You know, we kinda in a pre-talk, we talked about, I was in New York and I was at the Amazon bookstore, what they call a bookstore. How come thrift books doesn’t have bookstores all across the u s yeah.
Mike: [00:50:48] It’s just never made sense to us. You know, we, we don’t, um, what makes our business unique is that we, you know, fundamentally are, are the opposite of a bookstore. So we take supply from a specific region. So the inventory that we sell, we take, we buy books from, you know, Atlanta for instance, and then we expose those items for sale across the entire planet. And so it’s effectively a store, uh, with, you know, a few thousand thinking about one truck, right? You get one truck of stuff from Atlanta and it’s got several thousand books that you’re going to sell online. And in theory, those may be, aren’t going to sell very well in Atlanta, but if you open them up to the entire planet, you are going to sell more that way out of that load. Then you would have, if you were to just sell it to a local audience.
Mike: [00:51:44] So our, the, the planet is our store and you just can’t do that in the brick and mortar world and what you guys have done, especially if you go check out three books aren’t calm, you still have the relationship. I mean, there’s still a relationship. I mean, you go in there, you could see it’s not just a bookstore. I mean it’s, there’s stories there. I mean there’s, it’s like an involvement. I mean, is that a weird, you get what I’m saying? Well, absolutely. Maybe that’s the right way to say engaged. Well, absolutely. And you know, I do take friends and family into our facilities and they love it. My kids love it. It’s, um, but we don’t, it’s not set up for retail space. I mean it’s set up for, for scale large scale and um, you know, holds, you know, a million books at a time or a little more close to two, some of the big ones.
Mike: [00:52:33] And those are just in any order, right? They’re placed on the shelf in the order that we get them roughly and then sorted a little bit for size and shape. So there’s no way you can browse the shelves. Um, it’s just not set up for that. Um, it is a fascinating story. I just, I think books are dead, Mike. I just think somebody’s going to have to tell you that pretty soon. Is it too late? If somebody says, Hey, I want to start selling books. I mean, do you steer them away and say, you know, we’ve got, you know, Amazon’s got, you know, well let’s just say realistically they’ve got 60% of the market, including your percentage, which is a huge probably number one on there. And then you guys probably have your unique 20 or 30% of the market and then the rest is spread out amongst, you know, thousands of other little book things. Um, or is the opportunity still there today? Yeah, I think it’s hard. I think it’s hard to get into that business. You know, we learned a lot of our lessons and head of our had a lot of our growth back when there was a lot more cushion in the profits.
Stephen: [00:53:37] Any books made sense in a day, right? They did. There was a day that made sense.
Mike: [00:53:40] Yeah. Well, and for your listeners that may not know the term, I mean that that came about because of Amazon’s model that allowed sellers like me to list a book for a penny plus the three 99 in shipping and handling that Amazon would mandate these that you added a book. So, you know, all in cost to customer $4 and the listing price of the book was a penny. And so that we called those books penny books. And those were the ones like the Davinci code where there were millions of them in the market and you could make money on a penny book. Uh, he really can’t anymore on, on those. They just don’t, they don’t exist. We’ve, we’ve basically moved out of that model completely.
Stephen: [00:54:19] Yeah. And, and, and let’s face it, with shipping, um, it’s only going to get more expensive. There’s no chance that’s going down as zero chance. A matter of fact, I’m still paying gas a surcharge fees from the last gas thing. They’ve kept them in place for years. They’re never going away. Matter of fact, they’re getting ready to go up again. Okay. So thrift books.com is the website. That’s where all the information is. If somebody had a question for you specifically, um, let me see if I click through on your team. Can we get through to you? Are we going to hide us? Uh, let’s see. Oh, you got an alphabetical. Uh, I don’t see you out there. You hiding on me? Oh No, you’re there. You’re there. I got it. Yep. And you’re there and is there, oh, you might be
Mike: [00:55:02] pretty easy. I’m pretty easy to find on Linkedin if people want to find me there. Uh, yeah, we’d love to love to connect.
Stephen: [00:55:09] Okay. So the goal of the podcast is to help people who get stuck. And I can’t imagine how many times, and I know you have a million people, you have almost a thousand people working for you. So that sounds like it’s easy to manage. It’s like juggling cats. I mean, it’s just impossible. So while you have the muscle to be able to tackle challenges, they just must come up more and more often. And how do you push past it or how do you recommend to your staff to push past those stuck points in their business?
Mike: [00:55:41] Yeah, I mean, good question. Um, I don’t have a secret formula for that. You know, I will say as you grow, you definitely need to be adding process and um, and doing it as gracefully as you can
Stephen: [00:55:58] necessarily only mean it, right? It doesn’t only have to be technology and process.
Mike: [00:56:03] No, it means it means organization. It, you know, I, I take my background as, um, as an engineer and I apply it to people now. So you know, you’ve got, when our company was tiny and we had a handful of folks, 20 people, you had guys like me, I was the programmer that leading the development team and I had a relationship with the US post office and for no reason other than we were at Wendy’s eaten lunch and I raised my hand and said, hey, I got that one. Um, as you get bigger, that doesn’t make as much sense, right? You need to be taking tasks and roles and you need to be putting them into the right pockets and you need to be assigning them to the right people. And so that’s, that’s organization, that’s, that’s defining who’s going to do what and in a way that makes sense.
Mike: [00:56:52] And then putting process around that and procedure around that and policy around that so that it can maintenance maintain itself over time. And you have to be careful because when you, you’re small and entrepreneurial, there’s uh, some really big benefits to being able to be nimble and fast and you know, everyone kind of doing everything, uh, but it doesn’t scale well. So you need to shift slowly but surely and as gracefully as you can over time. So that as you add those processes, you’re not just putting red tape in for the sake of red tape because your employees are not gonna like that either. But you absolutely have to be putting processes in place if you’re going to grow. So my encouragement to the folks that are listening to this, if they’re on the small side and you’re probably thinking in the back of your head, ah, yeah, I got a couple of things like that, if I pick a couple of them and reorganize those, assign them to somebody else, figure out a way to, to put a policy or procedure in place so that it will maintain itself going forward. And you as the leader don’t necessarily have to be stepping in and babysitting every little decision because if your intention is to grow and your model is allowing you to grow, then doing it sooner rather than later is gonna just help you grow faster.
Stephen: [00:58:14] And I assume you still go back and review that even over time. Right? So it’s not a long period of time that you set it in place. Right? It’s not a set it and forget it. Maybe that’s the better way to say it.
Mike: [00:58:24] Well yeah, always right. I mean, so we’re always re-examining the business and anytime you see something happen that’s a stumbling block or a mistake or a learning opportunity, you tease it apart and you go, well why did we miss this? Oh well we had a blind spot, right? Someone thought it was you know, job, you know for guy number a and the guy number a thought it was diabetes job and it wasn’t it. It got dropped, right? Ball got dropped. So then you modify the policy, modify the procedure and you move on,
Stephen: [00:58:55] man. Oh Man, I can see why you guys have been so successful. It’s a fascinating story. It’s amazing. Thrift books.com. I’m Mike Ward. I really appreciate it. Um, mind blowing. I mean, just to think about the millions of skews. I’m literally, I’m worried for you of all those things. I’m sitting there thinking about that. Just try to try to get my head around that fascinating stuff. Thank you so much. I wish you nothing but success. Uh, I appreciate it. It was great with you today. What a great guy. What do you, what a great story. What a great company. Um, and again, there’s more to it than just selling books. They are, they’re keeping something going. They’re keeping their, I mean, and when you go look, I mean, just go pull up thrift books.com and just take a look at their site and just look at the titles that are there.
Stephen: [00:59:38] You know, three, $4 for a book and it’s there and you can have it. You could still get it. It’s still in your hands. To me. They’ve keeping that alive there, you know? And yet he sees no limit in their growth. He’s like, oh, I think we can double that. I mean, just, you know, it’s not cavalier. I mean, he honestly believes it because they’ve done it so many times. That’s what’s so cool. Um, I just love, I love the story. I love the fact that they invest in their people. They’re not forgetting their employees and their staff. Um, to me that’s just so smart. And, uh, what a, what a lucky group of people they are to work for a guy like that. So, um, e-commerce, momentum.com e-commerce, momentum.com take care.
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