This article appeared in
May, 2023

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Mail Order? These Days?

After fifteen years of columns in Scripophily, I feel safe in assuming readers know I catalog stocks and bonds from North American railroads.

Less well-known is that my descriptions, price estimates and serial numbers are based on 1.1 million records of collector contributions, offerings and sales of certificates obtained from hundreds of price lists, auction catalogs and dealer listings. By no means have I seen every certificate or every serial number listed. I have, however, collected 110,000 images of railroad and coal certificates and have viewed twice that many. I hope that experience conveys the title of “observer” in the practice of selling, or at least attempting to sell, collectible certificates.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that a large percentage of certificate sellers do not fully realize they are in the mail order business. Face-to-face selling would be ideal, but few opportunities exist in the U.S.

Attracting collectors — In the days before websites, mail order sellers attracted prospects through advertisements in hobby magazines. “Prospecting” for buyers was proactive. Today, dealer prospecting is largely reactive, depending heavily upon collectors finding sellers. Collectors discover sellers through dealer websites, Ebay listings and, to a lesser degree, Ebay stores. Yes, I know there are other web-based outlets such as Etsy, that might be used, and advertising possibilities remain in numismatic magazines. While Ebay seems more effective in helping inexperienced collectors find sellers, sellers should still give other venues a try. If nothing else, off-Ebay listings might be more helpful in allowing prospects to discover dealers and their websites.

Converting prospects to customers — Conversion is where “the rubber meets the road.” Old-time mail order sellers deeply understood that success depended, to a very large degree, upon trust. Before they ever sold anything, successful sellers made prospective customers feel comfortable buying from someone they would probably never meet in person.

That meant that the most effective sellers focused intensely on viewing interactions from perspectives of buyers. In other words, they tried to learn what buyers wanted.

Discovering buyers desires then remains every bit as true today. Trust included.

As a mere observer, I suggest today’s would-be sellers concentrate strongly on viewing mail-order from collectors’ viewpoints. They need to ask what they can do to make collectors comfortable buying from them.

Price and presentation — It appears that many sellers, whether on Ebay and not, believe price is the only thing that matters. I constantly record information to the contrary, even on Ebay and even with the same varieties on the same day. Price is important to buyers, but is not the only factor.

Presentation is important. Better presentation frequently results in better sales prices. I think most collectors will agree that presentations will generally be transmitted across the web. That does not mean websites are always efficient at selling. In my experience, collectors generally want to avoid wasting time searching for desired certificates. It seems equally clear that collectors will buy more if they can find more. Given that web interaction time is statistically short, helping shoppers find desirable certificates quickly is highly important. Certificate inventories arranged like randomized junk yards are abysmally poor ways to sell. Sellers should always use categories and they should tune their categories to help buyers save time.

It hurts me to say this, but many dealer websites should reexamine their search routines. Many, if not most, need help delivering more precise search results. For instance, collectors searching for “New Orleans” do not want to see certificates from every company containing the word “New.”

Maybe I am overly picky, but image presentation is a constant disappointment. While scanners are highly affordable for people who anticipate doing a lot of scanning, part-time sellers often see them as unneeded expenses. Still, that doesn’t mean sellers should think poor images will achieve sales results equal to good images over time.

With ever-improving cell phones, there is little excuse for poorly focused, poorly exposed images of certificates. With ever-decreasing web storage costs, there is little excuse for using small images to display certificates on dealer and auction websites.

Yes, sellers constantly sell certificates on Ebay with mis-aligned, out-of-focus, dark, and junky images. Sellers may not realize their poor images tell buyers, with crystal clarity, that they think their certificates are nearly worthless. Essentially, those kinds of images portray sellers praying someone will take certificates off their hands at any price. Conversely, professional dealers routinely attract higher prices because they present their certificates with pride. Attitude is important and buyers notice.

Trust — What can mail order sellers do about trust? Money back guarantees are obvious necessities. Good fulfillment is equally obvious. Under-promising and over-delivering is another common and reliable approach. Trust and dependability can be also conveyed in less obvious ways, including consistent company identities (logos, letterheads), appropriate and consistent packaging, and professional-looking invoices. People crave doing business with people they know, yet practically everyone selling on Ebay tries to be anonymous. As an observer, I strongly suggest sellers project their services and presences in a personal manner. Professional, by all means, but personal.