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What to Sell for Your Mail Order Business

Consider these things when picking out the products to mail to customers.

This article has been excerpted from Start Your Own Mail Order Business by Rich Mintzer, available from SmallBizBooks.com.

To be successful in any business, you must define your own special market, one where a genuine need or desire for your products or services exists and one where the competition isn't overwhelming. To do so, you will want to conduct your own due diligence--or do your homework so to speak, to determine how full the market is and where you can make a dent. You want to carve a niche, but not one that is so small that your family is your only buying market.

Bright Idea

Give a common product a place in business.
B2B sales--terrific mail order markets--can encompass more types of products and services than you might think. Take a common product and give it a new twist. Instead of selling fine art prints to consumers, for instance, how about art for the office?

To determine your product choice you need to combine your personal interests and knowledge along with a commercial sense of what others will find as fascinating--and actually purchase.

Start by thinking about what you enjoy and know about, along with what your potential customers need or want. Then match your ideas up against these three guidelines:

Is your interest something that many people share? Are there clubs, organizations, numerous websites and magazines about this area of interest? This is a way of determining the popularity of your area(s) of interest. This will also help you determine if you have a large customer base from which to draw, or not. For example, you might know everything there is to know about fireflies. You may find them fascinating and have a huge collection under glass, and that's swell. But you're not going to find many people who will want to order firefly merchandise. If, on the other hand, you're into fly fishing, you'll have a huge number of enthusiasts all over the world from which to draw.

You must have a well-defined specialty. You may have a reputation as a shop-'til-you-dropper, and your friends and family may turn to you as the gift chooser of choice, but it's unlikely you'll succeed with a broad catalog of gift items or preppy clothing. There are already too many major big companies out there doing the same thing, and they're too huge to compete against. But if you choose gifts or clothing for a specialized market--say, children, seniors, cat lovers, or gardeners--you're moving in the right direction.

How easy is it to order, ship and stock your product of choice? You may love elephants, but no, you're not going to be able to send them by mail. Pianos may be hard to handle as well. Obviously, you will want to consider products that can be shipped without costing either you or your customers a fortune, can be stored in your garage if you plan to have an inventory on hand and do your own shipping, and have a fairly good markup. For this, you will need to begin looking up vendors and wholesalers to get an idea of how much such items cost. Remember, buying in bulk reduces costs, but other factors can add up--shipping, handling and packaging are the major ones . . . plus insurance, particularly on breakable items. Factor all of the above into your equation when determining what to sell.

Generating Some Product Ideas
Now, if you just can't come up with a line of products or services that's unique but widely embraced, don't panic. There are ways to generate ideas:

  • Get creative at gift shows and clothing marts. Once you've got your fictitious business name, you're official. You are allowed to enter the hallowed halls of these huge trade shows, which are held periodically at convention centers across the country. Displays by manufacturers, suppliers and wholesalers line aisles crammed with the latest in giftware and fashion apparel. Roam around. Try to get a feel for what's hot, what's not, and how you might put together a line of items that are related in some way--say, dolls for every season or high-fashion clothes for chubby kids.
  • Get crafty at craft fairs and art shows. Local artists often have terrific wares just waiting to be sold. Use the same strategy described above to sketch out ideas for potential products. How about a line of handcrafted jewelry or a line of art representing the region you live in? Bear in mind, however, that arts and crafts are not mass-produced, which can be a drawback in a business in which sales numbers are your bottom line. Therefore, if you go with handmade items, make sure your artists will be able to keep up with the potential demand, or have a large stable of artists and craftspeople. Of course, you could have lines of mass-produced products as well as specially handcrafted alternatives, thus allowing you to keep sales numbers high while also drawing from a market audience looking for diverse items.
  • Drop in at boat shows, home shows, garden shows and auto shows. Use your wander-and-wonder strategy to get ideas from all the products displayed.
  • Ask people. Ask your family, friends, and neighbors what mail order merchandise they buy and what they would like to buy that's not available through mail order. You might hear something that strikes a chord.
  • Surf the Internet. See what people are talking about in chats and on discussion boards.

Rich Mintzer is a journalist and author of more than 50 nonfiction books, including several on starting a business. He hails from Westchester, New York, where he lives with his family.

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