Robotic hamsters and discontinued Pop-Tarts
July 11, 2019 10:08 PM   Subscribe

A longform look at the people who travel cross-country to trawl discount bins for resellable oddities. Nomads travel to America's Walmarts to stock Amazon's shelves (The Verge)

hris Anderson moves through the Target clearance racks with cool efficiency, surveying the towers of Star Wars Lego sets and Incredibles action figures, sensing, as if by intuition, what would be profitable to sell on Amazon. Discontinued nail polish can be astonishingly lucrative, but not these colors. A dinosaur riding some sort of motorcycle? No way. But these Jurassic Park Jeeps look promising, and an Amazon app on his phone confirms that each could net a $6 profit after fees and shipping. He piles all 20 into his cart.
..
Anderson is an Amazon nomad, part of a small group of merchants who travel the backroads of America searching clearance aisles and dying chains for goods to sell on Amazon. Some live out of RVs and vans, moving from town to town, only stopping long enough to pick the stores clean and ship their wares to Amazon’s fulfillment centers.
posted by Umami Dearest (28 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
Back in the late 80s I worked for a summer in Zion National Park and the closest "town" was St. George which was back then a sleepy tiny down but it did have a K-Mart (at which I bought car parts and repaired my car in the parking lot at least once, fist-bump to K-Mart!).

That K-Mart had a double wall length of specialized displays full of 8-track tapes still in their original wrappers all for 99 cents.

Oh lordy, if only 19 year old me had realized the potential. Spent $300 and pack it away in a climate controlled space and...
posted by hippybear at 10:28 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


You know, Ticket to Ride is a great game and with all the pieces there is definite necessity to eventually need to buy a second set to compensate what your kids drop on the floor and step on / you lose under furniture but... 4 shopping carts full? That might be a little excessive.
posted by Nanukthedog at 10:44 PM on July 11


Yeah, these people are arbitrageurs, but they're intrinsically limited by the dwindling numbers of unexploited stored; the limited availability of profitable items; and the need to personally travel while seeking stock. The best they can hope for is that the supply lasts them long enough to retire. If this is their retirement plan then they had better hope the fully automated gay space communism kicks in before they're forced to quit.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:50 PM on July 11 [6 favorites]


I really like looking at old stuff, but what a grim life this sounds like.
posted by jamjam at 10:50 PM on July 11 [5 favorites]


there is definite necessity to eventually need to buy a second set to compensate what your kids drop on the floor and step on / you lose under furniture but... 4 shopping carts full?

Dear lord, you don't know my kids. We haven't had a complete set of anything since 15 minutes after it gets opened ever. I don't even know where the pieces go, we've cleared out entire rooms to get carpets cleaned and there aren't pieces lurking anywhere. It's like there's a portal to hell in our house, and it swallows exclusively game pieces.

I don't have any kids myself, but I've had friends with kids I know say things which have led me to create this fictitious narrative because if you add them all up, the entire world is full of hell portals in neighborhoods everywhere.
posted by hippybear at 10:50 PM on July 11 [2 favorites]


“What kind of weird parent gets their kid an egg?”

I'm feeling personally attacked.
posted by sacrifix at 11:14 PM on July 11 [9 favorites]


Why doesn’t Walmart get the app? Would they lose face if they gave Amazon stuff to sell?
posted by Segundus at 1:43 AM on July 12


Why doesn’t Walmart get the app? Would they lose face if they gave Amazon stuff to sell?

Would they actually make more profit this way? They would need to pay people to do this work, pay people to ship, have management to oversee, etc. As it stands now, they don't have to do that but still get to make some money off unsold merchandise and don't have to worry about disposing of it. Effectively, they've just outsourced that function with no effort on their part.
posted by thegears at 3:39 AM on July 12 [5 favorites]


Walmart would also need the warehouse to store and, most critically, they'd need to be able to manage inventory according to which items are valuable or will be soon, which sounds like a very high labor cost relative to margin.

It's more profitable for Walmart to accept the break-even on clearance items and move on. It doesn't hurt them if somebody else makes an extra few bucks in their stead. And the rag pickers are in it for the occasional big scores, not the more frequent modest profits. I suspect not many of these people would be interested in doing this if it was a salaried job at Walmart.
posted by ardgedee at 5:04 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I have been seeing people do this at our annual library book fair for years. They walk down the tables scanning UPCs with some app and decide to buy the book for 50 cents or not depending on its sales potential on Amazon.
posted by Jacob G at 5:39 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


Late stage capitalism. Terminal I'm afraid. We haven't been taking our meds. No one to blame but ourselves really.

Not to pile on you specifically, but this is such a cheap canned Metafilter response to... just about any topic that come up on the blue. I mean, here's a story about some people who make a living filling the cracks in consumer demand that big box stores can't be bothered with. And, the gall, kind of enjoy it to boot. Here comes a Metafilter comment that could be copied and pasted into half the threads that pop up on a daily basis, and get plenty likes. Because... who knows why? Some MF sensibilties don't approve.

Yeah, these people are arbitrageurs, but they're intrinsically limited by the dwindling numbers of unexploited stored; the limited availability of profitable items; and the need to personally travel while seeking stock. The best they can hope for is that the supply lasts them long enough to retire. If this is their retirement plan then they had better hope the fully automated gay space communism kicks in before they're forced to quit.

The people involved seem more or less OK with it. But I'd question why you'd think "they're intrinsically limited by the dwindling numbers of unexploited stored; the limited availability of profitable items; and the need to personally travel while seeking stock"? There's always products of this nature. And the need to travel may be an enjoyable part of the job. How many of the enlightened reading this thread have such a secure retirement plan?
posted by 2N2222 at 5:58 AM on July 12 [17 favorites]


Ah, it sounds like it's an exhausting life. I guess there's a lot of freedom in not having a regular schedule and all that, but I would find it so difficult to feel settled in any way if I were constantly chasing the right products.
posted by xingcat at 6:24 AM on July 12


they're intrinsically limited by the dwindling numbers of unexploited stored; the limited availability of profitable items; and the need to personally travel while seeking stock.

I am watching the difference between the response to this story and the Curiosity, Inc guy and it really strikes me how classist our view of stuff can be.
posted by warriorqueen at 6:30 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


I'm definitely not made to be a nomad but there is a lot of fun to be had in exploring clearance sections. I try hard not to shop too much now but the thrill of the deal is a real thing and probably plays a part in their decision to take on this job.
posted by brilliantine at 6:42 AM on July 12 [7 favorites]


Keep in mind, too, that this is not exactly a new occupation, as anyone who's ever been to a used book sale will know.

The big church rummage sale in my mom's town was last week while I was visiting. The rate at which dealers could go through books without needing to check prices was impressive. (I'm sure the people doing the art books where checking prices, but there was basically a run on fiction, which started at $1, a price where you better be buying things you know will sell.)
posted by hoyland at 6:46 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Similarly, after the legendary guitarist John Fahey retreated from performing in the 1980s, he was flipping collectible records found at thrift shops as a source of income. Without the internet to lean on, he had to rely on his musicology background and sensibilities to make a profit. The magazine profile written about him during this period of his life doesn't make it sound like a cushy job, whether or not it's fun. (Fortunately that profile helped kickstart his career; he only lived another six years but in that time started a new record label, began touring again, and issued a new flurry of records that managed to redefine his career.)
posted by ardgedee at 7:16 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


For Anderson, the holy grail is the Bounce Dryer Bar, a $5 plastic oblong you affix to the dryer rather than adding a dryer sheet to each load. Now discontinued, a two-pack sells on Amazon for $300.

For years I had an ongoing Ebay search for these dog-hair removers that were the only thing that worked for our particular combination of dog+couch. They weren't originally meant to be reusable (and by the time someone figured out that that would be a good idea and made them reusable, it must have been too late to boost sales - probably why it was discontinued), but we would keep reusing them until they broke. The original price was something like 5 bucks each. By the last time I bought one, my price ceiling was $15 for one of the (pricier) reusable models. They're selling on Ebay now for around $35 - $50 each, and on Amazon - yeah.

And up until a few months ago when we finally found another brush that works as well as those do, I would still find myself thinking over the insane price and alllllmost being able to justify paying it.
posted by Mchelly at 7:35 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


It's more profitable for Walmart to accept the break-even on clearance items and move on

I have a suspicion that Wal-Mart doesn't need to drop its margins on clearance items, and that most of the mark down is passed back to the suppliers, which of course would mean that selling at a higher price is not that interesting to them.
posted by ambrosen at 7:38 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I feel like we had a word for seasonal workers with no fixed abode who traveled to where the temporary work was.
posted by The Whelk at 8:08 AM on July 12 [11 favorites]


I'd forgotten about the clearance marketeers who frequented the big box bookstore I used to work at. There was a steady stream of them, and then they mostly stopped. The nonbook clearance at that book chain was (and is) very good quality but maybe there was not enough of it? It also seemed like an incredibly inefficient process. They would come in with certain items in mind which appeared online but were not actually available in that particular store. Then they would start asking you to call around other stores and see if they had it, which you weren't going to have the time to do for a clearance item for somebody with a scanner in hand, and often they would be stressed out because they had already offered the thing for sale. So, probably too limited and inefficient but some of that stuff was GOOD! If they hadn't had a prohibition against employees doing resale, I might have tried it.
posted by BibiRose at 8:19 AM on July 12


A friend of mine spent time doing this in the late 90s, the early days of eBay. I would drive him from small Oklahoma town to small Oklahoma town, where we'd find the local Wal-Mart, search for certain rare Star Wars toys, and buy them. He'd then auction them off on eBay (which was purely auction-focused at the time, no set prices for goods), package, and ship them. The profit margin was not worth it, but we were both college students and needed to fill the weekends somehow.

The interesting thing is that there were still arbitrageurs then doing the same, although they tended to be connected to comic shops or vendors who would resell products at conventions. They would find certain rare toys or known mistakes - the late 90s Long Saber Ben Kenobi is the one that sticks out in my head, which was simply a 3 inch Obi Wan Kenobi figure with a saber that caused the figurine to imbalance - and because money was tight, they'd hide the figurine rather than buy it. So you become good at understanding how retail shelving is put together, and where products can be hidden in them. We would find the hidden toys and buy them ourselves.
posted by suckerpunch at 8:19 AM on July 12 [4 favorites]


Friends of mine and myself did this as well in the late 90s when Ebay first popped up. We did it initially with Canadian food products that we'd just buy at Costco (Kinder Eggs and the like) but we'd also do tours of the small town video stores in the last days of VHS and pick rare tapes. I was just out of university so it was a cheap way to supplement my income and pay off student debt (which I had wiped out by the early 2000s by largely being arbitrageurs). We'd sometimes pool our resources - one guy would pay for gas, another guy would list the stuff, another would drive... And we'd also have our little niches - I was good at figuring out what movies (and particularly kid stuff) would sell, used books and cameras but another friend was good at toys and magazines and another was good at sports cards & comics. We knew a woman who specialised in second hand purses and another who would buy these little figurines from Dollar Stores and she'd repaint them and group them together which would sell for decent money. Its definitely not for everybody and it definitely is weird but no one we knew thought of it as particularly depressing or horrible (though some of the places you'd go were kind of depressing and horrible). I don't think it is particularly demonstrative of late stage capitalism either - doing arbitrage between Canada and US has long been an effective way to make a living (though on some products it can be a grey area).
posted by Ashwagandha at 8:47 AM on July 12 [6 favorites]


Selling Trader Joe's items at a huge markup is also a thing, apparently. Also IKEA.
posted by Mchelly at 9:43 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


At the beginning of this year, after the dismaying news that the Lego Elves line was being discontinued, I drove to four different Target store to locate the one set that my daughter has put on this year's Christmas wish list, and finally struck gold in the last one. (Once items move to Clearance, Target's inventory tracking falls away.) There was about 10+ various Lego Elves sets being marked down at a good discount, and I could just imagine somebody making a neat profit on them on Ebay in the future. Temporarily, I saw that person being me and my heart rate increased. But then the reality of needing to find all the boxes for shipping the Lego sets intruded, and I decided that I'm glad that person won't be me after all.

About 6-7 years ago, Joann was selling discontinued cross stitch kits from Dimensions at 50% discount (and you could even use their 40% off regular item coupon on those), and for cross- stitchers who do a little flipping on Ebay on the side, that was truly a golden age. (Cross stitch kits are flat and fairly light, and very easy to ship.) Even now, I can't shake the tiny anticipatory shrill I feel whenever I walk towards the back aisle of a Joann store, where the clearance items usually are. The Pavlovian response has proved to be pretty enduring.
posted by of strange foe at 10:20 AM on July 12 [1 favorite]


haven't had a complete set of anything since 15 minutes after it gets opened ever

It was so bad with my kids, that I tried to mandate a family rule - NO, you are not allowed to open your "shiny, new thing" in the car - you have to wait until you get home. Because, even though the car is a "finite space", apparently it acted as a black hole for any small pieces/components, which would inevitably get lost immediately upon opening, never to be found again. (And then, "shiny, new thing" is now garbage...)
posted by jkaczor at 11:01 AM on July 12 [2 favorites]


I can definitely see the appeal of the nomadic lifestyle (this seems to be an ideal job for people who RV fulltime, like the one woman mentioned), but I also feel that this must be a difficult hustle that would get old and tiring after a while.

The sociology of "consumerism is a prison, but I'll happily allow people to imprison themselves in order to fund my freedom" is the most interesting bit in this, I think.
posted by asnider at 12:42 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


Thanks to the vagaries of YouTube's recommendation algorithm, on a whim I watched a video by a young guy who calls himself Resale Rabbit, found it interesting, and have wound up watching a bunch more.

He does some of this kind of retail arbitrage, buying stuff from brick-and-mortar stores on clearance and reselling online. But he also has a variety of other sources for stuff to sell - he buys storage units at auction, goes to garage sales and Goodwill stores, buys the merchandise and fixtures from stores that are closing, and more.

It's interesting to see what sort of stuff people buy & sell, and he seems to be doing pretty well with it as a business. But he also seems to work a lot of hours & hustle pretty hard, so I definitely can see why it's the sort of job that's not for everybody.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 7:04 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


The most valuable thing I see in those photos are the blue IKEA bags. Worth their weight in gold.

When I take stuff to charity shops in them the staff are always super excited by the idea that they will get the IKEA bag. They never do because I will never give them up because they can carry just about anything. However, I have thought about just buying a bunch of them and giving them out to homeless people.
posted by srboisvert at 7:33 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


« Older Content Warning: Nature is Red of Tooth and Claw   |   Navigating Hyrule by sound alone Newer »


You are not currently logged in. Log in or create a new account to post comments.