What Does Online Gaming Have To Do With Marketplaces like eBay & Amazon?

In this article I pose the following question with an aim to draw a comparison between features found in gaming, to that found on marketplaces like eBay & Amazon.

What Does Online Gaming Have To Do With Marketplaces like eBay & Amazon?

Before I can attempt to draw a comparison, I need to identify some of the core components of online gaming. Being a self-confessed hardcore gamer, I feel I’m at least semi-qualified to attempt to document some of the qualities that online games have to offer, as for the marketplaces comparison I also feel I’m semi-qualified there too.

 

Understanding Online Gaming

Team Fortress 2

Team Fortress 2

My history of gaming goes back to the original days of WON, which was the system that Valve used for multi-player games using the Halflife 1 (HL1) engine before it was migrated to Steam. This now includes games such as CounterStrike & TeamFortress Classic & the variations that spun from these, like FortressForever.

My online gaming has taken a specific slant, multi-player. I’ve never really been a fan of single player games, HalfLife 1 & 2 are prime examples, I’ve not played more than a few minutes with these two, but I must be into the realms of years now of the hours put in for the multi-player versions. Also it’s worth pointing out that I took several days off on the release of TeamFortress 2, so that I could sit down and enjoy the newly released game.

To give an indication of the extent of my lust for multi-player, I’ve dabbled with MMOG’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Games), however because I know my personal weakness for them, I’ve steered away from the likes of Guild wars & World of Warcraft, because I know I’ll have no life after them. I’ve recently been hooked on World of Tanks (WoT) and my gaming community lost me for over 8 months to a web based MMOG called Tribal Wars.

It’s also a good time to indicate that I am not a fan of football, this may explain in part my obsession with online gaming, as I miss the key elements I detail later in this article from bot being a “fan” that can readily port to the game of football as well, not just selling marketplaces like eBay & Amazon.

Tribal Wars is an interesting game to consider, as its not the normal type of game that you would consider as online gaming, as its all based in the browser & is highly focused towards strategy. Starting with a single village, you go plundering other villages to get more resources, the aim is to increase your buildings & troops to a level, where you can educate a nobleman, then go off and over 4-5 attempts, win over another village. This is all done in a web browser, while fending attacks from other villages, attacking other players,  joining tribes and plotting the demise of other tribes in the world that you’re playing.

Tribal Wars ignoring the core requirements that make an experience (XP) MMOG based game, also sunk into another passion of mine, coding & mathematics. Now this is where I seal my fate for that game as I’m now willing to admit that I wrote a masterpiece of over 52,000 lines of code to automate that game and this was the reason why I ended up dominating an entire continent (or K as they’re known). Naughty I know…

Flipping back to some current games, these being TeamFortress 2, CounterStrike Source and World of Tanks. While these games being in a different format (employing role play, first-person shooter, real-time strategy etc…) where you play an humanoid or tank object, rather than being focused on an image in a browser, the cross-comparisons are exceptionally similar.

Core Elements of an Online Game (for me)

Each of these games employ the following features:

  1. Ease of play, even for new players (called n00bs)
  2. Social interaction
  3. A scoring mechanism
  4. Team play, with real people (see note on AI later)
  5. An experience mechanism & Achievements
  6. A token mechanism (this is another form of Economics)
  7. A single or set of characters that you can improve over time
  8. Ability to be totally random
  9. Respawn events or never-ending

It’s critically important that new players are able to join and understand the game quickly, then to build a lust for gaining experience & achieve some or all of the other core attributes. Some games do this by having tiered levels of games, taking WoT (World of Tanks) for example, there are 10 tiers and players only play with other players in tiers up toa  maximum of 4 above them, to keep the game enjoyable for them.

Social interaction is huge for online games, it’s been known for people to get married in games! A really nice story to add here is that out of the gaming community I created a few years back, we now have our first real life baby that would not have entered this world without it. Now that’s the power of social interaction, forget the rest of the normal stuff, chatting, plotting, team work etc… Social can go to real world too and we’ve had some amazing nights out with the lads when we’ve all met up from all around Europe to a single place and take the virtual to the real-world (Big Chief looked pregnant, but he was a bloke).

Team play and the interaction of other real players is absolutely key, they’re needed to keep the game random and also to allow team work. Now this teamwork may be in dual units or as entire tribes of hundreds of people, but its this co-operation that can truly make a simple game, hugely addictive.

Now this is a good time to cover artificial intelligence (AI) and I’ll be back to the core elements shortly.

Artificial Intelligence In Games

You may also be wondering why I have spent a couple of hundred words with this topic, when you get to the marketplaces comparison later, AI has its direct comparison to “automation” and it’s critical you understand AI and how it’s linked to together.

Now this is where I’m going to slate one of my favourite game providers, Valve. Although to be fair they had a brilliant stab at it & I just prefer playing with real people.

Left 4 Dead Characters In two recent releases, Left for Dead and Left for Dead 2, this game is based upon a AI engine that works out the skills of the players and adapts the game to suit. The problem is, the more you play, it doesn’t take much to work out the trigger events and when you’re likely to find a witch (she’s lost a child& sits there crying and goes ape if you have your flash light on, then proceeds to attempt to kill either you or one of your 3 team mates) or a rank (a whopping great big zombie that can rip the floor up & lob it at you, you gotta burn that one with a petrol bomb and it takes some kill I can assure you).

The original incarnation was just a team of 4 players, this was an immediate fail for me, as I need at least 10 people each side to consider it worth my while, any less, the game dynamics start to suck. In later updates a “verses” game appeared, so instead of just 4 players, 8 could play and the first team, the survivors take on the opposite team, who play one of 5 roles as zombie-fied creatures. With random hoardes of zombies appearing, or not so random as you figure out as you play more and more. Yes, there was an hack to allow more players, but the amount of server load caused by the AI engine, made it unplayable.

So, for me AI sucks. I’d rather play with humans, you can never tell what they’ll do next and no game is exactly like the one before, ever.

Economics & the Other Factors

Economics are a curious addition to online gaming, not only can this provide an amazing gaming experience, but it can also allow game creators to find extra sources of revenue or even make it their sole revenue stream.

World of Tanks - American TreeTo focus on the gamers side of this equation, lets take WoT’s, in this game you start with a level 1 tank and you gain experience (XP) with each battle you fight, you get more if your team wins and less if your team fails. You also gain credits for each battle and they follow the same path as the XP, if you win, you get more coins. Its the combination of the XP to unlock higher tier tanks and you need coins (lots of) to buy the tanks. So the more you play, the more XP & coins you get.

Now while this game does not have sharing abilities that I’ll cover in a moment, this game does have the ability to buy gold coins that can be used for several purposes, such as having a premium account that allows you gain 50% more XP & coins each battle, or they can be traded to buy special tanks or ironically even to convert XP or buy normal coins.

world-of-tanks-gold-1As you can tell this can could get expensive, I did a few quick sums and with a small group of us, we’ve easily ploughed £1500-2000 in this game alone in the past few months.

Now flipping this to the game makers, this is where freemium kicks in and the best example is the TeamFortress 2 game I referenced earlier. In this game you play one of 8/9 characters in teams of up to 16 per side and battle it out in one several game formats capture the flag/point, attack defend or death match.

Bots (AI/fake players) were added, these were a feature in the original game Team Fortress Classic (by their modding community, as the game has an API), however again they’re actions are relatively poor compared to humans (although the way-pointing has come on quite a way since the original), however as per my earlier note on AI, these generally suck and the general community of players tend to keep away from BOT servers.

This is where it becomes interesting because this game originally started as a typical game, buy it and play as much as you like, however Valve at the time had started to implement a drop mechanism for extras in the games, such as weapons or items you can wear. These items could be stored and new items could be built, but in a stroke of genius, they allowed the items to be traded and then that’s where the whole game changed. TF2 turned into a free game and the revenue stream is now made from the massive user base sporting customised items, that new players want and can buy from the in game store.

Modding Engine (API)

In the case of Valve games, they have for a number of years now allowed 3rd parties to leverage the gaming engine, either to create new games or to change the way the current games are played.

This has been done via a link to the game engine on the server and communities like SourceMod that sports over 450 plugins that can completely change the way the games work and have allowed longevity to the gaming engine, because of the hundreds, if not thousands of addon’s & extensions that have been created by 3rd parties to the original games.

Achievements

In all the games I’ve covered above, they all sport the feature of experience & ability to improve from what they originally started from, this can be with time input or via paid for addons. Another important factor I have not covered up until now is the ability to “respawn”, this is where the player at the end of a round or game, starts again at the beginning, to play another challenge against the players.

In TF2, its normally a round based game, this could be to capture a flag or point(s), counter strike source is similar where a bomb needs to be planted or hostages need to be saved (or inversely,  a bomb site or the hostages need to be defended) and for WoT all the enemy tanks are destroyed or the cap point is taken.

In almost all the games I’ve mentioned there is the ability to be awarded achievements from the actions taken in the games. For WoT this may be sniper or a medal, for TF2, this could be the number of kills scored with a weapon or other combinations, some are obscenely hard to get, in fact one of the spy achievements due to a bug that was introduced a year ago, cannot be completed.

The most competitive of players will aim to unlock ALL the achievements for one or more player classes, the same as one of the players that I play with on WoT, he’s unlocked every tank & upgrade for an entire country tree.

This has literally taken him months and by his own admission that country tree (USA) & the tanks contained with in it, are crap compared to Germany, to the point that the highest tier tank in that tree is being removed and replaced with another, because its so under powered.

But he knew this & still continued, the game play itself was only one part of the game, unlocking the boxes on the screen was more important to him, than how the tanks actually played and invested months obtaining this level. That I hope demonstrates the power of achievements.

How Does Online Gaming Dynamics Relate to Marketplaces?

I’ve pretty much covered the basics of online gaming in ~1900 words, however how does this relate to marketplaces like eBay & Amazon?

 ebay-feedback-profile-1

Well the most obvious is feedback, when you first start selling on either Amazon or eBay (the game), you start from 0 and work upwards. The feedback system is incremental and ports directly to the experience (XP) model found in games, the more you sell (the game) the more feedback you’re likely to obtain.

Now this is where the game gets interesting, as Feedback is not entirely incremental, it can decrement too. So if you have a dissatisfied customer, they can leave you a neutral or negative feedback, this can be directly compared to the World of Tanks game, because even though you lost a battle, you still got something from it, albeit a negative and because you want more XP & coins (think feedback score & profit) then you do your best [as a business] to ensure that the feedback is positive.

Marketplace Achievements

When we mix in other dynamics of the marketplaces, lets take the eBay PowerSeller status, that has multiple tiers, Bronze, Silver/Gold, Platinum & Titanium and now the ultimate of being a “eBay Top Rated Seller” (eTRS). So that when you reach this level, you are allowed to leverage discounts on your eBay fees and gain extra exposure. This is very similar to the premium model found in MMOG’s and has distinct correlations to the items found in TF2, an item is worn, the same as the eTRS badge is worn.

Now chuck in the eBay “Detailed Seller Ratings” (DSR’s) where sellers (the gamer) can be scored on more than just feedback that had just three levels, buyers can rate sellers on a scale of 1 to 5 for their experience, this absolutely wreaks gaming levels, especially when you consider the business (or gamer) can electively choose to lower its risk to specific DSR ratings by tacking tactical/strategic decisions on the way they list (play the game) on eBay.

Flipping over to Amazon, Amazon is a slightly different game (or business), Amazon is a longer term game where you don’t gain access to the converted buy box for at least 3 months and in most cases is 4-5 months, after proving that you are a worthy gamer, I mean business, as you can see the line is now becoming blurred between business & gamer.

Amazon also leverage the feedback game, with ratings from 1 to 5 and with eBay too, you can play the feedback game by leaving follow up comments or attesting feedback that has been left by buyers. In a gaming scernio this is similar to appealing to the server admin or game providers for a cheat or foul play (think those scummy buyers that try it on) or appealing directly to your eBay or Amazon account manager.

The reviews & guides that is found on eBay is also an interesting gaming feature. As a business you’re able to write reviews for other gamers, sorry I mean eBay members to rate on how well the review is written / its usefulness. You can also sport an extra logo next to your eBay ID (player name) if the sum of your reviews meet specific requirement levels (think XP).

Administration

You can also make complaints about cheaters to the powers that be, this maybe someone stealing your images or breaking one of the marketplace policies or this could be a player with suspect game play.

This can also take an automated approach by either the markeplaces or the game providers, for example listing items that are under the VeRO protection on eBay or by a cheat being picked up by the anti-cheat VAC system that is used by Valve.

What Does AI & Marketplace Automation Have In Common?

I spent a good few hundred words explaining the AI (Artificial Intelligence)  system found in games and I did air a dislike for AI in gaming, this can be directly compared to automation of business processes for the marketplaces. Somewhat ironic that I’ve spent years working on tools to automate marketplaces, however just like AI it has its place, the same goes for automation.

In a recent article I released titled “The Top 8 Pitfalls of Using 3rd Party Software To Manage Your Business” I cover the common issues found when using such tools as eSellerPro, ChannelAdvisor, Linnworks, ChannelGrabber and so on, these are all caused by being removed from the games or businesses processes at ground level. The ultimate failure here is when the 3rd party provider goes down, this is the same as the AI engine failing and no-one can play the game, the business almost stops without it.

Don’t get me wrong, AI has its place, the same as automation tools, but if you rely too heavily on them and don’t report on them effectively, then the game or business is pretty much over.

API Access & Longevity

Another striking comparison between HalfLife engine games & the online marketplaces is the API access abilities. Having access to the core engine of the game/marketplace allows 3rd parties to expand on it further.

This could be as simple as feedback automation or it could go exceptionally deep as examples such as eSellerPro & ChannelAdvisor demonstrate exceptionally well.

The eBay API has to be one of the most comprehensive API’s out there and comes in numerous forms. Amazon Web Services rely heavily on API’s also and this has spawned numerous connected businesses, you only need to look at the eBay solutions directory to see the full scale of what can be achieved and its no wonder eBay Inc went for a new platform called X.Commerce, they know full well, without the integrations that millions of 3rd parties can provide will extend their core marketplace & associated companies offerings.

In all cases, because of API access, this has allowed 3rd parties to take extensions to the original platforms into areas that were not even conceived by the original creators, increasing customisation & longevity of the platforms.

Summary

All marketplaces whether knowingly or unwittingly employ several key features found in on-line gaming to keep businesses & users entertained with the marketplaces.

eBay probably have most of the bases covered, all though the XP model could be leveraged more, the feedback stars are nice, but multi tiered achievements could also prove lethal for competitiveness. A wild idea would be to have achievements for selling X value in one day, week or year, dominating sales for a category, badges based upon time, the options are endless.

Amazon have a few areas covered, but could leverage so much more from the core elements of online gaming to their advantage. In both cases, the marketplaces can be quick to leverage and as more experience is gamed (or did I mean gained?) and more automation is put into place, more coins, achievements or profit can be leveraged from them.

Yes, eBay & Amazon are different marketplaces or games, however the most starkest comparison that can ever be made between gaming & marketplaces is this:

Whether its a game or a business, if you take away focus, that is either working on despatching your orders (amongst other key business tasks) or playing the game, the game is going to cease to be played.

Did you enjoy this article? Did I miss out an element or a factor that you feel is important or have you spotted something I’ve completely over looked? Post your comments in the box below

5 Tips for Preparing Your Business for January Not Christmas

It’s now late November and we’ve seen a good couple of press releases from supporting companies on how to increase and keep your Christmas period sane. However, it’s all too late as preparations for Christmas really should have been in place at or before August.

If you’ve not trained seasonal staff, arranged stock transfers, deliveries, put automation software in place, heck everything that gets amplified due to typical higher sales volume, then the next 3 weeks are going to be “fun time” for the business.

 

I Forgot January Once & Only Once!

However… below I’m sharing a short story on why you should not forget January and learn from a mistake I made a couple of years back.

After having a pretty hectic Christmas period, I had decided that on the 1st of January I was going to have a week or two off. Oh boy did we need it. We had been flat out for the past few months preparing for Christmas sales and had thought we had done everything right, sales were good and were very much looking forwards to the break and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

On our return, we started talking to our suppliers and that’s where it hit home, it turned out that our two main competitors had been busy & done their homework. They had an amazing 3 weeks after Christmas. They had been negotiating special deals and jumping on the clearance lines that were abundant. They’re January had rocked to the point that they had cleared more stock in those 3 weeks after Christmas, than in the entire month of December.

I cannot tell you how sick I felt, I had missed one of the oldest tricks in the book.

No Slacking in January!

January has the potential to bigger for sales volumes that December, the reason is simple people are in “sales mode”. What happens just after Christmas or even just before, 99.9% of all high-street retailers go into sales mode. People queue & even camp out on shop doorsteps to grab bargains and ironically this is really straight forwards for you to hijack.

So instead of making the mistake I made, here are five tips for preparing for the first few weeks of January or before:

Tip #1 – Delay Moving Software Providers

Shelve any idea that moving software providers, that can wait until the middle or later in January, if they got you through Christmas, then a few weeks delay won’t make much difference. If it’s not completely broken, don’t fix it (yet).

Tip #2 – Speak to Your Suppliers in Advance

Ask them explicitly what is going on sale after Christmas, suggest that you’ll be able to take larger volumes or stock that didn’t do well at a discounted rate. Spell it out on them, you have extra buying power after Christmas and you can help your sales rep hit his bonus for January.

Tip #3 – Prepare Several Lines to go into “Sale Mode” Now

By using tip #2, you will have an idea on what product you may have at better rates for a sale, as such prepare any data around these in advance, it’ll only take a few minutes per SKU as you can easily create duplicates or variations of the SKU in advance, with new details and perhaps use a different listing template to go with them.

Also a slightly different method would be to consider products that you would feel comfortable sitting on for 9 months, that you know will do next year and scoop extra discounts now and take a punt on higher returns next year?

Tip #4 – Do the Artwork Now

Designers are typically not very busy at this time of the year and it could be a good time to grab a saving on a mild branding redesign for a sale period. Such as adding sale logo’s to an existing template and preparing the design aspect in advance, so that its a click & go event, rather than a rush job when it’s too late.

You might also want to look at the two articles I wrote earlier this year on How to Make Your Own eBay Daily Deals & Weekly Deals and another on How To: Using eBay Shop Keywords to Leverage the Extra eBay Shop Pages, as you can prepare these in advance and hide the pages in the shop, then when it comes to sales time, swap them over in your eBay shop.

Tip #5 – Email Marketing

The same as the visual aspect, if you’ve worked and have obtained a couple of product ranges that will be worthy of a sale, then combine in the updated artwork to your email marketing campaigns and prepare the notifications in advance, so when the time comes, it’s a quick check over and off you go.

As an idea, if you have multiple products, you could make an event of it, explain which products you have going on sale and when (a delayed sale) and notify customers on say a daily or bi-daily basis of the latest sale item (you’ll need to be careful with this not to spam, just make your offering exceptionally compelling).

Summary

Don’t make the mistake I made, prepare for January, what products can you clear, what products can you buy to clear and how can you leverage the “sales mode” that most buyers go into at or before January?

If you do this now, before competitors have started having the conversations, then you can be first in and negotiate the best deals in advance, prepare a campaign and take January easy, knowing that you’ve worked extra hard now and actually have a plan for the month, rather than just “seeing what happens”.

Import Duty Calculator For eBay Items (as a Buyer)

After receiving an eBay item I ordered from abroad, having to take a trip to the Royal Mail collection point & send ni-on a tenner in charges from Royal Mail, I wondered if there was a tool that work out the import taxes in advance. And there is!

Import Duty Calculator

At DutyCalculator.com you can work out in advance how much import duty you’re likely to be charged for an item, as a bonus, they have a tool for working out the likely duty to be paid for eBay items.

In the example images below, ironically the eBay item I picked as an example, incurred no import duties and most annoyingly used up the 3 free trials of the tool on the very same item.

I had a look around a couple of them and categories and sub-categories offered and the categorisation was relatively straight forward to work out which classification the items would fall under, as it’s not the simplest of jobs for one off items and varied orders,  as the import duty classifications are rather deep on the HMRC site and they change the exchange rates often too.

I’m not sure it’s worth the $19.90 a year for the basic version, it would really depend on the level of your buying habits from foreign sites, if its high and varied, this could be an excellent forewarning for items being received for which the contents are properly declared.

Import duty calculator eBay

import duty calculator eBay

eBay Import duty calculator

eBay Import duty calculator

Global / International eBay Site List

The following is the list of the global eBay sites, their links, country codes, site ID’s, currencies & whether you’re able to list with them directly.

Site Name/Country
SiteID
Abbr
Currency
Can List On?
(Via the API) 
Argentina AR ARS
Australia 15 AU AUD Yes
Austria 16 AT EUR Yes
Belgium (Dutch) 123 BENL EUR Yes
Belgium (French) 23 BEFR EUR
Brazil BR BRL
Canada 2 CA CAD & USD Yes
Canada (French) 210 CAFR CAD & USD Yes
China CN CNY
Czech Republic CZ CZK
Denmark DK DKK
eBayMotors (US) 100 N/A USD Yes
Finland FI EUR
France 71 FR EUR Yes
Germany 77 DE EUR Yes
Greece GR EUR
HongKong 201 HK HKD Yes
Hungary HUF
India 203 IN INR Yes
Ireland 205 IE EUR Yes
Italy 101 IT EUR
Korea KR KRW
Malaysia 207 MY MYR Yes
Mexico MX MXN
Netherlands 146 NL EUR Yes
New Zealand NZ NZD
Norway NOK
Philippines 211 PH PHP Yes
Poland 212 PL PLN Yes
Portugal PT EUR
Russia RU RUB
Singapore 216 SG SGD Yes
Spain 186 ES EUR Yes
Sweden 218 SE SEK Yes
Switzerland 193 CH CHF Yes
Taiwan TW TWD
Thailand TH TBH
Turkey TR TRY
United Kingdom 3 UK or GB GBP Yes
United States 0 US USD Yes
Vietnam VN VND

You are also able to add international site visibility from your UK & US eBay listings to gain access to a wider customer base & if US based, specifying the international shipping rates to Australia, Canada and the UK will enable the items to be shown natively on those sites (see here for more info).

The Four Standard Physical Product Business Models

The following two video’s are part of the UnderstandingE project I have been working on & I’m sharing them here for any feedback you may have.

This hasn’t been clearly defined before (that I know of) and will be an immense help if you are considering an eCommerce product business for eBay, Amazon, transactional websites, the other channels etc… Or as I’ve found, to help realise that you’re actually using one or more of these and why you’re actually using more than one of them.

Four Standard Product Business Models

There are four standard product models that a business can use when it comes to physical based products which are intended for resale, this applies to almost all incarnations of an eCommerce product based business.

These are:

  1. Stocked
    This is like a retail shop, where the items are pre-purchased, then used as the inventory to drive data for the online channels and to fulfil orders. I cover the advantages in the video, however this has one major disadvantage, the outlay of cash to fund it.
  2. Manufacture
    This doesn’t have to be as hardcore as making glass, where you take sand (silica) and add other additives such as lime (calcium oxide) and then adding immense heat & other processes, it can be the combination of two or more products to make a unique third product. In the second video I use the example of the lighting in my office, taking stands, plugins, blurbs & softboxes and combining them into a kit, which is a unique product offering.
  3. Virtual / Just-in-Time
    I personally hate the phrase “drop shipping”, a more apt description would be “virtual” or “just in time”.
    This is typically where stock is made available virtually and then put on offer by the business, when an order is taken, the stock items are ordered and then fulfilled. This may be directed to the customer, but also to the business for sorting and then sending out (as I learned two days ago, the correct term for the latter part is called “Cross Match”).
  4. Asset Recovery
    We can also include refurbished products under this model, as essentially they have gone through the asset recovery process and been re-manufactured. This model can enable the highest returns, but also some major downsides, such as availability and quality.

In their Purest Form

In the video below I cover each of them in the purest forms, you’ll need to watch this one before moving to the second as without the explanation of them in this form, the hybrid models won’t make sense.

Hybrid Business Models

However, in reality, there are very few business that use only one of these, instead in this video, I explain how and why you would want to use a hybrid of these standard models for your business.

I also cover a model that I have not included in the four standard models called “Flipping”, as I explain in the video, this is not a scalable model and if you do find a product base that you can scale with, then I would suspect that it falls under the asset recovery hat.

Summary

Documenting these have been exceptionally useful for me & I’m sure for you also.

I’ve found when talking with business owners about these, this has helped them realise why they’re doing what they are with their businesses. It also makes it a pick & mix exercise, however you can now see why you would want some elements of each, but to limit as much as the negatives as you can by combining them together.

Stop - Take Action!Which models are you using?

Image Source

eBay Sales Count/History Does Impact Sales

In this article I’d like to share an observation of my own buying habits and it actually surprised me afterwards once I had analysed my own buying activity and spotted something I had glazed over in the past when purchasing from eBay.

Picking Processes Apart

My online buying experiences are far from the norm, typically I analyse each & every step, work out what processes are being actioned and how they appear to the user. It’s an annoying habit I have, as I’m used to working those processes from the backend to the customer, so I’m always ultra curious on what the “I” as the “customer” sees of them.

I needed some professional lighting for my office, as the lamps were just not cutting it and had decided upon two softboxes as a kit from eBay. You would have thought my first choice would have been a seller that had an ultra clear description, in a professional template with superb product images and all the bell’s & whistles that I have become to expect…

But No!

I ended up buying from one of the worst combinations of font sizes, text colours and from a listing that had only one image. Pretty poor when you consider that the kit had numerous parts and didn’t show them individually, plus was out of the normal “comfort zone” for buying at £50.

A screen shot of the listing is below, I’d smirk, but it was actually effective for one reason which I’ll show you in a moment:

Softboxes-listing-1

And That Reason Was…

Sales history! Simply put, if +300 people had bought this kit and the sellers feedback was not trashed, then it had to be better than just “OK”.

eBay Sales History Affects Buying Decisions

There were 5 different sellers I was considering during the process and the one that won my business was the one that had the highest sales history count on the listing. Yes, there were cheaper options and this option was not the cheapest by any-means and some of the others on offer were described to a superior level, but they just could not compete with a sales history like that.

Yes, the best match is carried over when using 3rd party tools that reference the previous listing or by using the “relist” button at the top of an ended listing, however, if you do end the listing, then you’ll be loosing the visible sales history count on the listing and from my own personal experience, this can make the difference between making and not making a sale.

Stop - Take Action!Have you consciously bought from a listing because of the sales history on the item too?

Updated Amazon Seller Pages & How To Update Yours

Amazon have updated the Seller Details pages, from the old tabbed style to a new universal page.

To show this more graphically to you, I’ve made a quick video that shows the updated page and how you can edit yours.

Updated Amazon Seller Page Video

All the links used in this video are in the resources section below and its also worth noting that you may find this page more product for referring customers to over the category list pages on Amazon, as there are less “exit” points for the customer to follow.

Resources

Below are the links to the pages shown in the video and the links you need to update your seller information on Amazon.co.uk.

If you sell on Amazon.com the URL’s will alter differently and you can locate the section you need by using the “Your Information & Policies” from your Amazon Seller Central dashboard.

400,000 Businesses Choose eBay UK to Setup Shop

I’ve been working on a collection of articles for the new project around eBay shops, one curious question while I was half way through was “how many eBay shops actually exist?“, I didn’t know, so I counted them.

But I didn’t stop there, I put the numbers against them as well, which made for some very interesting reading and I’m sharing my findings in the table you’ll find below.

Running the Numbers

But before we get to the cool £81.4M worth of fees per annum and the approximate 400,000 shops that are on eBay UK, the numbers need a little explaining.

There are 3 shop levels, anchor at £350, featured at £50 and basic at £15 per month. Also I wanted to have a truer representation of actual numbers so for the basic shops. For the rough count of eBay shops (I counted the number of shops per page (25) and then times it by the number of pages). I deducted the featured & basic shops and then took off a 30% margin of error, because its possible for an eBay shop to appear in more than one category and also it took me ages to count them, so needed to factor in some human error too.

The total number of basic shops came in at 554,975, however with the other factors removed, I felt happy with the number of 377,037 for the basic shop count (yes I’ve rounded the total up for this article).

The Number of eBay UK Shops

SHOP SUBSCRIPTION LEVELNUMBERVALUETOTAL (PER MONTH)
Anchor1,075*£349.99***£376,239
Featured15,175£49.99***£758,598
Basic377,037**£14.99***£5,651,792

Notes:

  • * Some anchor shops are free for Outlet stores, so this number is distorted by 100 official outlets, so the number used is 1175 – 100 = 1075
  • ** The number of basic shops were calculated as a rough estimate of the total number of shops (found here), minus the number of anchor shops, minus the number of featured shops, minus a further 30% for duplication (as a shop can appear in one or more categories & 30% felt about “right”)
  • *** The prices quoted are from here and do not take into consideration any discounts that maybe given to sellers (such as VAT). its also worth noting that this is a monthly fee.

400,000 eBay Shops!

WooooHaaaaa that’s an obscene number (so is the amount of revenue this creates, but that’s besides the point) I don’t know of any other platform that can boast that number shops. Shopify can only boast a tiny number in comparison.

And the kicker, we’re not even accounting for the audience that eBay commands, some 17 million visitors per month (Nielsen / Netratings, August 2010), the 30 million items that are on offer on the UK site alone and an exceptionally interesting comparison is that out of this number, less than half (180,000) are registered as business sellers.

If you want to set up shop… Go eBay!

The Latest eBay Outlets Being Launched (Inc JohnLewis, Sony & ASDA)

eBay-OutletsThe following list includes accounts that even I didn’t know were being planned, some are almost ready to launch on eBay and some have gone live. Brace yourselves, there are some massive names included in this list.

The eBay Outlet Program

eBay have been on a huge push for well over a year now to bring high street names to the marketplace and the list that follows shortly clearly shows that while the fashion outlet has been a huge success (and was also duplicated in the USA recently, see article here that gives a complete run down), that they’re[eBay] beavering away in the background to bring even more retailers to the channel.

New eBay Outlets

This list is a run-down of eBay Outlet stores I personally didn’t know existed. Such as JohnLewis, Sony, My Protein & ASDA and if you look closely, some of these have not even launched yet. If I didn’t know about these, then you probably didn’t know either.

And ironically these are the ones I found in a few minutes, there are about a dozen in this list that I found elsewhere. I am sure there are more being launched that I’ve not found yet either. Not bad for a quick hunt around on eBay.

The question is, do you think this is approach is good for the eBay marketplace? Comments below!

The eBay “Best Match” Position Bias Modifier Hypothesis

In this article, I detail further the idea further on a sudo “modifier” that maybe in-place on eBay to restrict or amplify the exposure, thus sales given to merchants as a “group”.

It is only now possible from the discussion in the earlier article titled “Why do eBay Sales Stay Consistent?“. If you’ve not read this article, then I strongly suggest you do as this recognises that there is a limitation to any marketplace and what the implication of this means.

This entire article is hypothetical. I question myself throughout the article and I’ll let you make your mind up if you think I am “on to something” or not.

Hypothesis

I have toiled with this concept in the past, but now I am now even more certain that this is being used and I only now can I fully understand & comprehend the potential motivations behind this.

The hypothesis is:

Part of the “best match” algorithm on eBay modifies the sales velocity made by merchants (outside of the published factors) on a daily basis to share sales across multiple merchants.

Let’s consider this for a moment, as we’ve already considered the ultimate boundaries of what stops a merchant from selling more product, over any single day there is a limited number of customers on a specific marketplace (eBay in this example, but applies to all).

For the sake of example 5% of all eBay buyers are looking to buy footwear today. Now there are lots of “footwear sellers” on eBay, so we’re going to narrow this down further to say that there is 1% of buyers looking for “mens work boots”.

Also for ease, I’m going to use the number of shops on eBay as a reference for the number of sellers with these products, a search here says that we have 180 matching stores, judging that the numbers of items in these shops tail off pretty quickly and an estimate of 80 is fair. Also assuming that only 20% of eBay sellers are eTRS (Top Rated Sellers) then we’re left with just 16 sellers with matching products.

To summarise we have 1% of the total traffic of eBay looking for “mens work boots”, there are a lot of sellers with these products, however only approximately 16 worthwhile considering for this example.

Question 1 – What would I do?

I am now going to ask the question:

If I were eBay, what would I do?

What I would do and the results you’re probably seeing are about the same. Because exactly what I would do, is to share the buyers looking for “mens work boots” across multiple sellers.

To clearly spell this out:

I would purposefully limit the sales across all sellers in a specific category, to keep them all busy.

Thus, 16 “happy sellers”, rather than just 1-2 taking all the sales and thus reducing risk, but still allowing the newer merchants to move up a scale over time.

Question 2 – Which factors?

I’d also take this a stage further and work out what is a sensible sales limit for each of them, like a score rating, but hidden. Some of these are going to be factors included in the published “best match” algorithm, but this is from a different view, a view to spread sales across multiple sellers on a specific day.

Taking into account the following factors:

  • Age of the account
  • Ratio of sales to ALL disputes (including PayPal)
  • Use of a 3rd party tool/API usage
  • If the seller has defaults on their listing/FVF fees
  • eBay Shop level
  • Number of items listed
  • Account level (basic, enterprise and so on)
  • Historical conversion ratio of views v’s sales

And lots of other factors that I have not thought of either (this list could be endless). However to form a profile of the seller, to essentially see how trustworthy they are, what their capabilities are and where they are comfortable.

Using a quote from the ChannelAdvisor Strategy & Support Centre in the “Optimizing For eBay Best Match Results” article:

eBay incorporates the seller’s feedback information and overall performance as a factor in the Best Match search results. The Best Match algorithm gives a preference to users that have high DSR scores and policy compliance at eBay. Those sellers with lower DSR scores are demoted in the search results, which likely makes it even more challenging to achieve sales and improve the ratings.

With the SR2 release in September 2009, eBay introduced Top Rated Sellers as a new status to supercede the previous PowerSeller status. These sellers are promoted directly in the search results with an icon that denotes the seller is one of eBay’s Top Rated Sellers. As the seller account has very high performance on DSRs, the seller’s listings will already be preferenced and be at the top of the search results. With the additional notation from eBay that this seller is one of the Top Rated Sellers on eBay, it will influence the buying decision of shoppers on the site.

We already know that eBay take a number of factors into consideration when returning results already, this was indicated in quite some depth by Olivier Dumon in 2009 at the eBay DevCon, but they’ve removed the video’s from here.

Question 3 – And what would I do with these?

This is curious, because if you have a finite amount of buyers for a finite number of products on a specific day then, spreading the sales around the sellers would be beneficial as it would keep them all interested and busy. Which leads me on to “The Modifier”.

The Modifier

I’ve got a fair idea on how this would be implemented and this article is about the why and the how, so moving into the how, this is how I’d do the above.

At the start of each day I would give each seller a modifier. This modifier would increase and decrease the exposure rate of all the 16 merchants I used in the earlier part of this article for the keyword set.

Starting off with a modifier of 0.5 in the morning, then as the day progresses, I would decrease the modifier to slow sales for a specific merchant if they have already had a strong mornings worth of sales and inversely, if a merchant has had low comparable sales for the morning, increase the modifier, so that more traffic is delivered to that merchant.

Conclusion

This one has been bugging me for quite some time also and have enjoyed finally put it into writing and exploring it as I have formed this article.

We can all understand and would desire eBay to hold off/restrict sales from new merchants (as they do with selling limits), they’re untested businesses; however I’m not quite sure we’re ready yet to entertain the idea that seasoned merchants could also be under such limits also.

Google unlike eBay, who have left pretty hefty hints on what people should do to help them move forwards with their content & rankings. Beyond, what I class as the basics of DSR’s eTRS, recent sales, impressions (to sales ratio) and free shipping, very very little is known. This article could of course be complete rubbish and it’s unlikely we’ll ever find out.

Think of Bingo, but rigged. I’d work out who the top punters are and ensure that they “looked after”, but still leave room for others to also win and to become a “top punter”.

The overall game would to be deliver the results (sales) across all 16 merchants as evenly as possible over time, keeping within the factors I mentioned , so that all of them are kept busy, but not overwhelmed in a single day and allow the possibility for lower merchants to move up, over time.

I’m not suggesting this is a core modifier for results, however it easily could be a second or third level modifier behind eTRS, so that when “best match” is dealing with 16 top rated sellers that appear to be equal, this could be the deciding factor on who gets which sales (by product visibility).

I’ll leave you with this thought/question:

If it[eBay] was me, then I’d certainly entertain such a modifier to smooth out the risk and sales across multiple merchants. Would you?

Comments in the box below!

The eBay US Fashion Outlet Run Down – What Can You Do?

So the USA finally got the eBay Fashion outlet yesterday then. There are 12 retailers in total in the launch and an astonishing number of them are using Fooition shop designs & templates.

Where this article is going to be different, instead of focusing on why it exists (which in my mind an exceptionally positive event) and who is included, I’m going to break each of the stores down and explain where I believe they could do better in their presentation and implementation on eBay. Yes its just launched, but there is a lot to be learned from.

Scot Wingo from ChannelAdvisor has done a decent breakdown of what the extra perks are for them and who is included, he’s missed out the strike through pricing option that you’ll see in use on most of them and only hinted at the sheer amount of abuse that these retailers will gain in daily deals, exposure and PR from eBay. You only need to look at the eBay UK version of the fashion outlet to spot that it’s a heavily closed shopping experience to the outlet stores.

It should also be noted that Outlet stores have a different eBay shop structure to the normal eBay shops, that allows greater flexibility in what can be done. On the outside the implications are subtle,  however, they are exceptionally more powerful and I’m sure in time the rest of the community will get these options.

What Can You Do?

I’ve put together this video that runs through all the fashion outlets on eBay US. The question is to you, what can you learn from them to improve your eBay activities?

Why do eBay Sales Stay Consistent?

For new or smaller businesses, this entire article is going to fly straight over your head, however for larger businesses and for me personally, its a question that has been bothering me for quite some time now. Months apparently.

That question is:

Why do sales through a specific sales channel, tend to stay consistent?

In this article I address this question and it wasn’t until I asked for help, that the real answers came through. It’s also raised further questions, such as how do you deal with this, what options do you have and how can you tackle this with your business model. I actually feel I am now left with more taxing questions than I originally started with.

This really is the upper extremity that I am considering here, if your business is new or is not optimised using any of the 3 rules I cover in a moment, then you should not even concern yourself with this article at all. However, if you’re hitting “limits” on different sales channels, then you really need to read this.

Why this Question?

For a number of years now, I’ve seen merchants selling on multiple platforms hitting a limit of what can be done with a marketplace. For example, businesses that are in a specific niche, their sales will rarely go above or below a 20% window on a daily basis.

There may be “spikes” in sales on a daily basis and seasonality does have a positive effect on most businesses. But overall, most businesses stay consistent.

To understand why I’d be asking myself this question in the first place, I have been working on a set of 3 rules as the basis of expansion/profitability, they also spell “ESI” or are pronounced as “easy!”, which is the ultimate goal of where I am going with these and there is a fourth part that I discuss later in this article. Anyway, the for now these three rules are:

  1. Efficiency
    Both internal & external. Internal is everything your customer does not see, like tools, processes etc… and external is everything your customer does see, branding, the application of persona’s etc..
  2. Sales Channels
    By adding more of them or refocusing on a specific channel to “catch up” with others or to break into a new or refocus upon a competitive advantage.
  3. Inventory
    Either wider or deeper inventory. Range selling, new product verticals (widening the current range) or deeper inventory (thus better price points & supplier relationships)

However, it’s common for a merchant to hit a “limit” on a specific marketplace like eBay or Amazon and I was not happy that “operational efficiencies” were the cause. I know first-hand after spending a few months helping one specific company on-the-ground overcome these and was not happy with the standard reply to such a question. There had to be another reason.

Another aspect has concerned me greatly; what if a client I am working with is actually at 95% efficiency of a channel, what really are the options and what can I do to help them overcome this inherent boundary?

Asking for Help

There was only one person that I knew that could possibly hold the answer or even comprehend what I was referring to in the question. This person was perfect for a number of reasons, the first that he has been in this arena longer than I have, seen more merchants than myself on the differing marketplaces and critically seen the sales data to back this up. That person was Marshall Smith from ChannelAdvisor.

Here is the first email, that I sent over to Marshall. Noting that I have been bothered by this for months. In a conversation on Monday of this week, it was pointed out I had been asking the participant the same question in January.

Hi Marshall,

Here is a question, that I think only you can answer.

Its a question that has been bothering me for quite some time, “Why do eBay sellers sales stay consistent?”

To be more precise, I have noticed that specific sellers sales, never move out of say a 20% window, for example seller X has a average sales of £10,000, the daily fluctuations mean that their sales will never (or rarely do) move outside of 2K below and 2K above.

Surely there are too many factors for a business to consistently land in the same “window” of sales every single day. I understand why this maybe engineered to happen, but that raises more questions that it answers as the most obvious one is “how to you break or work this limitation?”

Have you seen this also?

The first reply is below, it clearly shows that Marshall understands the common issues that occur and why I was right to ask him in the first place.

Matthew –

When I see that situation it’s the same as a regular retail business that’s hit a certain volume and ceiling in their current business practices, so that growth is just not an option for them as they’re trying to run things. They might have a software solution that’s put a ceiling on how much they can get done because it’s not as efficient as they need and a lot of time is spent managing the technology.

They might be short on people (or have chosen to stay at a certain size) and they’re doing all they can every day so there’s no room to grow. Even more common is that people get comfortable and aren’t looking for a change – look at all of the people that have complained about eBay’s changes in the last few years rather than embracing them and recognizing that being ahead of the curve means they’ll pick up the business their competitors lose. There have been plenty that are willing to do that, but even more that had gotten comfortable and just want to keep doing what they’ve always been doing.

One of the things that I’ve found hardest over the years when trying to explain the value that we provide to users is getting them to value their own time. Many times there’s a sole proprietorship that’s been running things using something like Turbo Lister and spending hours and hours every day just to manage their sales. They see it as “free” but aren’t accounting for how much time it costs them to manage that information. Even if they just stay on eBay, coming over to us is going to save them time that they can use to grow their business or go do some other leisure activity instead.

If we just cut the amount of work they’re doing from 6 hours to 3 hours every day (and we’re usually a lot better than that) then we’ve saved them 60-90 hours every month. For that fee that we charge, broken out on a per-hour basis, they’d be hard pressed to get someone that could handle that amount of information and that level of capability to guarantee their business keeps running the same as it’s always been for that amount.

They free up their time to expand their business or focus on customer service, areas that usually didn’t get handled nearly as well before. Yet, they see it as a “cost” because they weren’t calculating the value of their time that they were spending inefficiently to run the business before.

So many of those people have gotten trapped in a pattern where they have something that’s working that they don’t want to change because they fear change or don’t think they have any cash to invest into the business. Most of the time those types of sellers never even get to the level that we’re going to be dealing with them as they fall out of the sales cycle for one reason or another.

If they’re a serious business and want to grow then there are things we can do for them, but if they haven’t figured out the business cycle and a mid to long range plan to grow then we’re going to be big and scary to them.

We’ve had people tell us we made changes to their business that took 8-10 hours of daily work down to just 1 hour a day. Then they finally had the opportunity to grow their business, source more product, expand product lines, hire more employees, and finally get growth back into their business.

Marshall

Note: I understand that the above is quite a lot for most of you to take in, what this question did in short was highlight that Marshall was the right person to ask. We both [Marshal & I] had reservations that some of you may just not “get this” at all. If this is the case, then the rest of this article is probably a waste of your time.

Redefining the Question

Ignoring that Marshall has created a dozen articles worth in that reply alone, lost about 90% of the people that may read this [Stay! This really does hit gold shortly], it clearly showed that he was the right person to ask.

However I needed to redefine it, we had missed the goal I was looking for. And trust me, we hit it the jackpot in his reply to the following:

Howdy Marshall,

Ah it shows that you understand!

Now remove the users and the software as variables or imagine they’re 90% efficiency.

Why do their sales stay within a 20% window all the time? No major fluctuations, yea some days less, some days more, but never outside of their “boundary”.

Take Amazon sellers, they get the buy box, the sales flood in, its price dependant for sales volume (ignoring lots of other stuff), eBay its different, there is some form of cap or barrier in place??

Jackpot

Now this is where we hit the jackpot and I strongly suggest you read this at least twice as it’s that important:

There’s no buy box in the eBay experience, so you’re subject to the whims of what people are buying at any given point. At a very macro economic level, the demand for most items is pretty consistent and follows a standard pattern.

People replace their shoes on a certain cycle. At a macro version of the economy, there are always X% of people that are shopping for shoes. That keeps the demand at a pretty consistent stream. Then when there’s not something adjusting the demand direction like the Buy Box, then the sellers are exposed at about the same rate that they always are, causing the sales to be within a reasonable statistical level of average.

To parallel to another environment, think of the casino – any individual user might win or lose on the smaller scale, but at the big picture of all of the people playing all of the games the house knows what their rate is going to be and how much they’re going to make as a percentage of the overall bets. That house advantage is the macro version you’re seeing among these sellers where the growth pattern is to:

* improve their placement in the exposure to capture a larger proportion of the regular buyers (Buy Box)
* expand their product line to make the universe of potential buyers for them to be a larger group
* expand the distribution channels to open up the existing product to a larger overall audience

Since you can’t (really) get the Buy Box on eBay (eTRS and Best Match only goes so far) then really the only way to grow is to expand the product line or do additional stuff off-eBay.

A lot of people get comfortable with their products and what they know of eBay, so they don’t change any of these things and grow up to the point that they’ve captured “their share” and then are stagnant from that point forward.

That was okay in the past when eBay was growing at such a clip that people were seeing 20-30% annual increases because they were just riding on the coattails of eBay growth, but when that slowed down they weren’t ready and just got frustrated and confused.

When they pay attention to the types of things we both talk about, that’s when they’re able to address one or more of these points and expand their business again instead of being stuck on a plateau.

Marshall

Kipper Slap

What Marshall had highlighted were the following:

  1. There is a pretty much consistent demand for some product ranges, like shoes.
  2. With all factors being equal, sellers are exposed to buyers at a consistent rate
  3. There is only so-much you can do in a single marketplace
  4. There is only so-much you can do with a specific product range
  5. If you just tread-water, then you’re not going to see the high increases that you used to see, as eBay’s growth rate has slowed down

You cannot imagine the gravity of these 5 points were to me. I had been pondering over this for several months and in this one reply, which was comparable to being hit in the face with a kipper. It all became clear. It’s also raised bucket loads of other questions, but it was finally answered.

What Does this Now Mean?

In short, as Marshall puts it so aptly, “You can no longer ride the coattails of eBay for growth”. This also extends to every other marketplace there is as well. There is an inherent cap to the number of people looking for a specific product on a specific day on a specific marketplace.

Yes, globally this number may be a huge, however on a macro level each and every marketplace, the number of customers you can reach and convert is limited.

The E, the S, the I and the?

In the 3 rules of ESI, I give equal value to each of rules, that is, that efficiency carries a weighting of one, the same as sales channels and inventory. However within each of these, the weighting is not equal and it’s the combination of them that equate to something higher than just 3.

However, if just one is exceptionally poorer than the rest, then that heavily out weighs the others. In simple terms (I like to use metaphors, get used to them, there are more) its like a Ferrari with elephant as a passenger and coal as the fuel, you got some of the right gear, but you ain’t going anywhere.

If you’ve got a great listing template and no inventory, if you’ve got a world class backend system, but no sales channels, if you’ve got masses of inventory and a limited backend tool and only a single marketplace. You’re not going to get very far and there is no way you’ll ever hit the boundaries that we’ve been discussing in this article.

This is why its absolutely critical to your business that you pick the right tools for the job, because without them you’re not going very far and with them all in harmony, you’ll outpace “The Stig“.

I hinted earlier that I am working on a fourth part to the ESI structure, this is one is special, because this one is a multiplier. While the others cumulatively have a positive effect, this one is ultra special because with this one executed currently multiplies the gains of the first three.

The multiplier is “Why”. Why are you doing what you are doing and what guides you to what you are doing. A business with no drive is pretty much only ever going to tread water, however, if you lob in the magic of a say a CEO like Steve Jobs that will ensure that a company will succeed huge personal cost, then this is a multiplier.

My equation (again I am trying to keep this as a simple as possible) looks like this:

Results = (Efficiency +  Sales Channels + Inventory) x The “Why” Factor

As you can see, even if the sum of the E, S & I are low, if you say have someone or a purpose to add in a “Why Factor” then all these are multiplied and that is why I believe that most small businesses that stick longer than a year, have this very special ingredient.

Determination and grit are absolutely required and its these kind of factors that multiply the results. I am reminded over a conversation in a meeting a few months back, where it was blatantly obvious that my role in the conversation was to highlight that what they lacked for, did not matter. What did, was that they had the determination to make it happen, “The Why Factor” and I think you might have already guessed it, they are winning.

Conclusion

A stark summary of this entire article, is that there is a limit to what you can do on a single marketplace.

The inherent cap, does not impact all business models, if you’re business is subject to multiple customer bases (eg. B2C & B2B) and/or irregular stock levels, then this cap is going to yo-yo and give inconsistent sales on a frequent basis, by its very nature. However if your business is homed-in on a specific niche then if you’re not at this wall yet, then you will be soon (or later).

I’d like to extend a public thank you you Marshall from ChannelAdvisor. It was not my intention to use his replies in this article, but as I started working on it over the course of over a week or so, it became apparent that without his replies, the story of arriving at the final answer, would fall far short without its inclusion. Thank you.

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