Farewell Half.com / Dream On

Yesterday, I learned half.com is closing.  I had one day of notice, essentially.  I had just purchased two things the previous day.  How did I not know this beforehand?

Today, I’m searching for news stories about the closure.  There aren’t any stories of significance.  Maybe 2 or 3 in second-tier tech news sites.  Then there’s a few stories about 6 months ago when the announcement was first made.  Included in those stories is a posting about someone who only found news of the closing in the help section of half.com, and no contacts at half or eBay would confirm the closing.  How weird.  Supposedly, the sellers were notified of the closing, but for whatever reason, the users and buyers were not.

So, the expected plan is for everyone to move their listings to eBay.  But as far as I can tell, eBay is not designed for the sale of media.  The whole design of half.com was that you searched for media, then you see who is selling it.  On Ebay, you would search for media and you get a bunch of listings selling that media.  Every listing would be created by each person, so there would be little to no consistency between them.  Amazon is better suited for sales of that nature, since they have a product, then they have sellers of that product.  It’s the same way that Amazon is not well suited to sell things that eBay excels at, like collectables and one-off unique items.

At some point in the future (not near or far future, somewhere in-between), I was planning on opening an online presence to sell my excess CDs.  Half.com was the frontrunner.  Now I have to choose between eBay and Amazon.  Or maybe Discogs, but I think the buyers would be more discerning there, which would require more effort.

Well, in the meantime, I have plenty enough going on to not worry so much about it, but it is sad to see one of the few physical media marketplaces close down.  You know what would be cool?  What if… Barnes and Noble, who isn’t doing all that well themselves, resurrected the Borders brand (which they bought in bankruptcy court) and re-launched it as a used media outlet. (I hate the word outlet in this instance, but juggernaut is a word that has to be earned).  I’m going to call this idea “Boarders” to prevent any confusion or lawsuits.

So here’s how I would see it operating.  We have to recognize that used media, whether it be books, CDs, DVDs, VHS, or cassette, has a low value – except to collectors.  So, understanding this, margins will be low across the board, no one is going to make a real killing at this.

So you’d start with an online store, structured mostly like half.com.  That’s the cheapest way to get things started.  People make their listings, sell their products and life goes on.  Admittedly, getting the momentum started so it looks like you have lots of items will be difficult.  To help in this, the tools to create listings will have to be top-notch.  Something like having a pre-populated database of UPC codes with product descriptions and stock photos.  Maybe have automated imports of structured files to batch add items.

That’s all well and good, but it’s just another vanilla ecommerce platform.  How’s that going to be an Amazon?  So let’s go to phase two.  Amazon is already at phase two, so nothing earth-shattering here.  Phase two is having Boarders warehouse the inventory.  The sellers use the site’s control panel to create a shipment of product to the Boarders warehouse.  This submision includes the item and the price at which they want to sell the product.  Then they box everything up with a printed submission sheet and send it.

When the shipment arrives, the warehouse worker scans the code on the submission sheet, then begins scanning barcodes on the incoming products.  The items get added to the sellers listings immediately.  I’m no logistics expert, but I’d assume the warehouse manages the inventory in the most efficient way.  The warehouse also gets notified when items sell and would ship them out efficiently as well.

I’m not going to downplay the expense of shipping and processing hundreds of books or CDs or DVDs for both the seller and Boarders.  That’s something that would need to be overcome by the beancounters.

Since we’re still having fun with this, let’s move on to phase three.  Phase three is physical storefront.  These could be built into existing B&N stores or could be standalone.  Stuff that was sent to the warehouses is bundled up and sent to various locations.  Why would the seller care where the product actually is?  All brick and mortar stores become warehouses.

Since these are low-margin sales, you need low-margin maintenance.  You also need to know your potential customers.  So for CDs and DVDs, what is needed is a clamshell container that holds the CD/DVD case and the disc separate, so they can both be inspected for condition without needing an associate to assist.  I would have to think about how books would be handled because buyers would want to see inside the book.  But anyway, back to disc-based media.  You also don’t want to have cashiers deal with opening clamshells and ringing customers up, so you would have a self-checkout machine that accepts the clamshell in a slot, scans the barcode, completes the sale, then releases the unlocked clamshells for the customer to remove and bag up their purchases.  The money goes off to the original seller and life goes on.

It’s just kind of a pipe dream.  Realistically, there isn’t enough potential profit to engineer a checkout machine like that, plus manufacture tens of thousands of cases to hold media that is selling for $1.00 or so.  Not to mention the cost of processing other people’s inventory and shipping it to storefronts.

Or maybe there is, somewhere.  Or maybe, there can exists a company that makes enough money to survive, and doesn’t have to make its owner a multi-billionaire.


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