132 Will Tjernlund on Selling to Amazon Directly – Part 1 of 3
Today, we have one of the giants in Amazon, Will Tjernlund. He’s a man that is always ahead of the curve and is always willing to help the rest of us catch up. This isn’t Will’s first time on the show, you can find his last interview in episode 45, and episode 46.
The big trend coming to 2017 will be selling to Amazon directly using Vendor Express, Vendor Seller, AMS, and all these other buzzwords we have to learn now.
First off, why is it a good idea to sell to Amazon directly?
Will says that it’s inevitable. Eventually, Amazon does want to source and sell themselves. If you can get ahead of the curve and get on their side early, it will only help you in the future. It’s one of those things that you know you’re going to do it three years from now, and you’re going to ramp up three years from now, why not go ahead and do it today. Will’s of the mindset that if you’re going to have to do it in three years, then do it now and be the expert in three years when everyone has to do it.
What’s behind the statement that it’s inevitable?
Because it’s their game plan. If you read The Everything Store, Jeff Bezos’ biography, he talks about it being the game plan to make it easier for third-party sellers to sell on their marketplace, take care of the annoying aspects like fulfillment, customer service, storage, and marketing.
Then, all they need is us third party sellers, essentially, glorified sourcing agents, to find the best SKUs and see what sells the best. Then they start from the top and decide if this product is easy enough to manufacture that they just want to come out with their own Amazon Basics version of it, or if they want to work with the biggest brands in that category and source their products directly.
So, if you’re not selling directly to Amazon, eventually they are just going to try to squeeze you out.
Third-party sales are becoming a bigger part of Amazon, something like 50% of sales were from third-party sellers this past Christmas season, but from the different advantages Vendor Seller gives you and the heads up if gives you, and also that it works better with Amazon’s business model, it’s for sure, the way of the future.
What you’re saying is that you want to be one of these big brands that Amazon goes to for sourcing, because it’s easier to source from you than from the Chinese, is that correct?
Right. Just think of a general catalogue, think of kitchen knives. Like a block with 10 knives in it for $29.99. Amazon can come out with that knife block for $29.99 and then there will be, like German manufacturers with brand names.
The customer has to decide if they want to get those cheap Amazon knives, do they want to get the expensive German knives, or something in between. That’s were you, as a third-party seller, has the advantage. You can offer that middle product that better than Amazon’s version, but not as expensive as the German brand. You make sure it’s good quality and all your packaging looks good, and Amazon buys directly from you because you’re filling a gap in the market.
Are you trying to find those mid-points in the market between Amazon basics and the expensive brands? Is that the general strategy?
It’s different for every category. For that category, that may be the best route taken. Also, think of it this way, when you jump on Vendor Express and get upgraded to Vendor Central in six months and you’re selling directly to Amazon, then everyone else who is selling those mid-level knives will get blown out of the water because yours are going to be shipped and sold by Amazon.
Two or three years down the line you’re going to have a lot more reviews than everyone because you’re shipped and sold by Amazon. They do different sales and they do different marketing things to push your products. Then, when these other mid-level sellers try to jump on Vendor Central, Amazon doesn’t want to work with them because you’ve got them covered.
How do you find these gaps in the market that works with this business model?
Will’s been taking a roundabout way by looking for big brand names that have terrible accounts and I go and consult with those companies. He will offer to run their Amazon accounts. He will then optimize their listings, fix violations, and get everything back in stock. From their, he’s been using these big brand companies as his private label arm. He will suggest new products. If they’re selling a bunch of kitchen accessories, he will suggest another one, which is smart for them since they own their own factories. They then will fly to China to get samples, and then buy every product on the first page of Amazon as comparison.
Right now, Will is looking for niches of these companies that he is already consulting for, let them handle the research and development, and he looks for products that are within their wheelhouse, but not being manufactured yet.
Let’s say they sell 40 different types of ladles, he will suggest a slotted spoon. He’ll look up that product on Jungle Scout, and find their review-to-revenue ratio. Check the revenue to review ratio: Let’s say slotted spoons have 10,000 reviews and $100,000 revenue a month, so $100 revenue to review ratio is good. He takes that information to the company and shows them that there isn’t much competition, it has proven sales, and it’s in the category they are already selling in.
Will uses the review-to-revenue ratio as a way to quickly gauge the lifecycle of a product and it’s maturity. Determine if it’s easy to ship. If every listing on the first page is being sold by Amazon, then you’re probably too late. From there you look at every facet and see if will work, and if you can’t find anything wrong with it, it’s worth a shot.
Do you have any other criteria you use to judge a product?
Will likes to find products that you have to explain what it is. It’s that niched down.
Would that not lead to negative reviews, if you have to explain it to the customers?
It wouldn’t be unusual within the niche. For example, a little tool that is only used for cutting fly fishing rod lines. Yeah, it’s a weird product. It’s a small piece of metal with a blade. It’s costs $.50 to make and the guy is buying it for $10. Not much by the way of sales, but there’s no competition and it’s $8 profit.
It also has to have a very specific keyword that the customer searches for. A woman recently came up to Will talking about her product that was a wireless bluetooth headset that you can sleep in. When asked how a customer would search for that, she replied with “bluetooth sleeping headphones that are wireless.” The problem with that is it’s too specific, no one will search for that, and you can’t rank with “bluetooth headphones” or with “wireless headphones” as as that’s too general/generic. Since she didn’t have a keyword in mind, she could even do a revenue-to-review ratio because she did know where to start.
First, we’re searching for keyword niches and then finding products to fit, is that right?
Exactly. Will recently started climbing and there is a tool called a grigri. Now, no ones knows what a grigri is, but if you’re in mountain climbing, everyone know what it is. Plus, how easy is it to rank for this very specific word, grigri? No one else is going for it. Anyone who searches for it, knows what it is and wants to buy, and if someone doesn’t know what it is, they wouldn’t need it anyway. Also, if no one know to search for it, then there isn’t any private labelers nipping at my ankles, looking it up on Jungle Scout.
That’s a really good strategy since there’s no competition, and I would imagine conversion rates are really high since the only people searching for it know exactly what they want.
Yep, and it works really well with US brands. Will contacts these climbing brands that have been in the niche for years, and they’re selling these harnesses for $140 when they sell them wholesale for $40 because they have this established brand. So, no one knows who Black Diamond Climbing is, but every mountain climber knows who they are. So when someone searches for them on Amazon, they are astounded that they can get the entire cataloge because no one else carries as much. From Will’s perspective, it’s amazing. There is high demand, he doesn’t have to do any research and development, and he can still make huge margins, and he only has to place an order once a month with a U.S. based distributor.
How do you begin to develop the relationships with these wholesalers and distributors? And what kind of capital do you need to get started?
Many of these distributors have very small minimum-order quantities. One particular company said their average yearly order volume from one of their distributors is $2500.
Will finds them by searching through Amazon. As he’s looking for climbing stuff, he notices that these major brands have three of the five bullet points filled out, their out of stock, or they have one of the five images. All sorts of these red flags exist and they tell you that these Amazon accounts are being managed poorly and they don’t understand the Amazon ecosystem.
It’s easy enough to contact these companies, become a distributor, and send them a message. Tell them who you are and that you were looking to buy one of their products on Amazon and saw that it was a mess. Let them know about the issues you found and that you can help them get their account in order. Ask them to make you the only distributor on Amazon, you won’t screw over the brick-and-mortar store by selling their product too low, you’ll pay up front, and keep their product in stock. All the things you can promise them that their distributors can’t promise them. These other sellers are only using them and not adding any value whereas you can actually add value to their company. You can be this A+ consultant, but you’re paying them instead of them paying you.
Another selling point is that it’s in their best interest to work exclusively with you. You can make sure to keep their listing looking good and their prices at the right level. They wouldn’t let big-box stores carry their products if they didn’t know who was selling it, at what price, or what the packaging looked like.
It really seems like these companies don’t understand e-commerce, or at least Amazon.
Imagine you’re a big mountain climbing company that specializes in making the best carabiner. You have been in business since 1975, you have 10 people working in manufacturing, 1 person in accounting, 1 person in HR, and 5 people in sales. Each salesperson has their region in the U.S. and they call up local shops asking if they want to place an order. Their whole job is to get as many accounts under their belt as possible. Then, all of these distributors start selling out the backdoor, and now they have 40 people selling on Amazon. This puts the company in a tough situation. They told these stores that they can only sell in the store. They can’t cut them off because they have been doing business for 40 years and they want as many accounts as possible. However, the Amazon market is hurting their brand.
These old-school companies will gladly sell to you because they still have the mentality of “sell to everyone,” but some will question the sale if you are selling it on Amazon because of this issue.
What do you say to those companies that are hesitant?
A lot of these companies don’t know the first thing about Amazon. They will contact seller support and demand they stop sellers from selling their products.
How do you deal with that? My understanding is that you can sell any product on Amazon.
There are some gated brands like Nike or Louis Vuitton, and there is no way you can sell their stuff on Amazon. You can go onto Amazon and gate your brand. If you explain that customers are getting hurt by counterfeits, then they will likely approve it. Make sure to put in the customer first mentality and use the word counterfeit and you’ll have a better chance.
Would you do that yourself, or would you persuade the brand to do it?
It depends on the company. When Will calls up these companies, he just feels them out on how they want to go about it. They might just want him to be a distributor, that’s fine. Or they might want him to be a distributor only if he can keep the price high, that’s a different conversation. Or they might want him to run their Amazon account, but it’s all going to be under their brand. Each time a company will ask for something different, and usually he will say yes because they are simple things. You just have to feel the company out.
If they’re making $20 million in sales on Amazon, then they’re making enough money to go and hire a whole team. Until they get to that point, it’s better to hire a someone like Will to handle it. It’s not worth it to take six months to hire and train a team when they don’t even know what to train them on.
Basically, you’re offering to be their Amazon front-end allowing them to focus on what they best.
Exactly. Amazon is like this big scary monster in retail. Instead of them trying to deal with it, Will is like the band-aid on the wound. They are sick of dealing with it, it’s not working with their business model. Just hand over that part of the business to an expert that will take care of everything. All they have to do is deposit a check.