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SCHOOL: Mail OrderFrom: Steve Cieluch
Subject: SCHOOL: Mail Order
Here is a first article on mail order. Your comments are invited.
Mail Order Business and the Description of a Book
A mail order business can be wonderful. On the up side, you can do it part-time or full-time. You can have flexible hours. You can take a day off and no one will know (or care ?). Versus having a store, the overhead can be incredibly low. It can be a great way to start your business. On the down side, most of your customers can not see your stock. Thus, describing the book for sale is a critical part of your business. Doing so well and accurately should lead to success.
Try not to over embellish the description. Although, you want to present your product in the "best of light" making it more desirable, this may indeed be a short sighted approach. Remember, as a seller, you tend to see "the glass as half full", however, as a buyer you tend to see "the glass as half empty". When you have completed writing the description, ask yourself "If I ordered this book based on this description and received the book I am holding in my hand, would I be happy?" You will often find the answer is no. Change the description of the book. Do so grudgingly if necessary, but change the description. You will likely shoot yourself in the foot if you do not. The cost (in $, your time, and your reputation) of taking a book back and sending a refund greatly outweighs the cost of taking the time to write an accurate description. For a good example of describing a book, read Jerry Gormley's FS postings. He does a good job of describing a book, be it a $10.00 book or a $250.00 book. (I am not one of Jerry's friends and I have not had the opportunity to purchase anything from him; however, he does write good descriptions).
Grading the books condition can often be frustrating to the novice. So much depends on your personal experience. By this I mean, you may think you have seen and know what a book in Fine condition looks like. Depending on your exposure to the book world, this may not be the case. If the thought "it's in great shape, considering it's age" creeps into your head - you're in trouble. The age of the book has nothing to do with condition. I found one of the most educational experiences in this area was attending one on the major ABAA book fairs. I remember the first time I attended the Boston ABAA book fair. I saw, well over 100 books, which were over 100 years old and each was a FINE copy indeed. It was one hell of a wake up call. I was depressed for week (I didn't have anything like that in stock). Don't worry, you will get over the initial shock. If you can not attend one of the major ABAA Book fairs, then try visiting the shop of the most expensive dealers in your area. Why do you think their books are so expensive. The books are either rare or in Fine condition.
One final thought regarding book descriptions and mail order. When dealing with a customer complaint, if the thought "Well, what did you want for $7.00" pops into your head - you're in trouble. The customer not only wants, but has a right to what you advertised for sale. You are legally obliged to deliver what you advertised. What price you asked for it is somewhat irrelevant. The description and price of a book for sale are two distinct and independent things. Keep it that way.
Eunice Ponce has written a marvelous article which has been on the Web Page for some time. I have copied it here for you to read and contemplate.
Books by E-mail: The New Mail Order
by Eunice Ponce
At one time, general catalogs such as Sears and Penney's dominated the mail-order market. Folks, especially those living in rural areas, could pick up the phone and order anything from overalls to saucepans. Today, almost any business can and does sell its products via mail order. A study in 1990 revealed that about $151.6 billion in products and services were sold through mail order, and that number has been rising ever since.
Books have been successfully sold through mail order for many years through book clubs. Rare, collectible books, however, were mostly sold in shops. A fraction of these shops' sales were by mail order, but only to select customers on the booksellers' mailing lists. Today, the marriage of computers and marketing on the Internet has allowed booksellers to post their catalogs electronically, saving on printing and postage expenses, while reaching a much larger market. It is no secret that the Internet has created record sales, even for dealers who previously thought of themselves as successful. By harnessing the power of computers, and abiding by mail-order regulations, booksellers can double, even triple their sales and establish a much larger base of repeat customers.
Electronic catalogs can save hundreds of dollars in printing, copying and mailing expenses. They're also easy to maintain and distribute (just post it on your web page). While many 'net-surfing collectors don't mind browsing through catalogs, they're still paying for that on-line time by the hour, so it's a lot better if you have a search engine as well. Offering a free search service is a plus, too. If the collector doesn't find his book nestled in your inventory, you won't lose him as a customer if you can find the book for him.
Ordering and Payment
If you have an electronic catalog, take advantage of e-mail to receive and confirm orders. It's quick and provides a good "paper trail" of the transaction. Make sure your e-mail address is either posted on the web page, or "hot-linked" as an on-line order form.
Credit Cards: Most people feel uncomfortable sending their credit card numbers via e-mail, and rightly so. Internet service providers (ISP's) don't provide encryption services, so virtually anyone with access to their computers can read private e-mail. Offer a fax and telephone number so collectors can send in their credit card information.
A note on credit cards: while you're not obligated to accept them, you should know that over 50% of mail order products are purchased with them. So, although you have to pay the credit card company a merchant's fee of 3-5% of the transaction amount, the increase in volume and size of orders gained will more than compensate for this. Also, don't try to limit your credit card fee expenses by demanding a minimum charge amount, this is illegal.
Cash: Some people will still prefer to pay by check. Allow the buyer to reserve her books via e-mail for a week or so, until her check arrives. If your policy is to hold shipment for two weeks pending check clearance, make sure this is stated up front to comply with FTC (Federal Trade Commission) rules of fulfillment. More on this later.
Installments: While it's understandable that you want to get paid as soon as possible, most top mail order operators agree that you should offer installment payment terms on purchases over $100.00. You can hold the books until they're paid in full, and to speed up the payment process, you can offer a discount for early payment of the balance.
Rules of Order Fulfillment
Both the Federal Trade Commission and the U.S. Postal Service have strict rules governing mail order. In a nutshell:
Merchants must not solicit orders unless they are reasonably sure that they can be fulfilled. The order must be shipped within 30 days of order date. If you still can't ship after 30 days, you must offer the buyer the opportunity to cancel for a full refund. If the buyer is silent, you must assume a cancellation.
In mail order, it is an UNBREAKABLE rule that you must guarantee satisfaction or money back, for any reason, although the return window can be limited to a number of days. The number of days must be advertised in advance, before any order is taken.
Merchants should take great care in packaging their products for shipment, especially when shipping rare books. Each book should be individually wrapped, either in tissue, poly bag or bubble wrap. This prevents them from chafing against each other.
To protect them within the box or envelope, you can use anything from newspaper to bubble wrap to the dreaded foam peanuts.
As a collector, I can say that a whole new world of books was opened up to me the day I discovered the Internet. Thanks to dealers who have taken the time to post their wares electronically, I have been able to expand my collection threefold. There are some great bookstores out there, and I still frequent those stores that have cappuccino and couches with fat, lazy cats dozing on them. But, for those rare first editions your collection wouldn't be complete without, the Internet is the number one place to browse.
For more information on mail order regulations, obtain a copy of the FTC Weekly Report or the U.S. Postal Service Monthly Mail Order Bulletin. The following tomes were of invaluable assistance in researching this article:
- Hoge, Cecil C. Mail Order Moonlighting - Revised Edition. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press, 1988.
- Simon, Julian L. How to Start and Operate a Mail Order Business - Fifth Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1993.
"...the overhead can be incredibly low..."
The overhead can be low if one is operating part-time or as a hobby. If one hopes to earn a living from the book business, overhead for a mail order operation parallels that for a walk-in store.
Except for search and brokering, bookselling operations require investments in inventory, space, equipment, supplies, labor, etc., etc.
A mail order business which provides a living has overhead comparable to a store. Copy equipment, postage meters, scales, charge card equipment, computers, modems, multiple phone lines, etc. Postage and UPS costs can be stunning.
A bookseller needs to understand that there is a 'cost to buy'. If one does not have a store, purchases must be made by trips to fairs, bookscouting at stores, reading catalogs and lists, monitoring the internet, etc. Advertising in journals or subscribing to various services. (Don't forget the time and effort associated with returning items which don't meet their descriptions, recycling and/or disposing of wrapping materials, etc.)
There is a 'cost to sell'. One must advertise to find buyers, get descriptions and the books to them.
An investment in a mail order business is a major one.
Steve's presentation of mail order operations and Jean's remarks have been most informative.
But I disagree with Jean's analysis of the costs of running a mail order business.
Overhead is the day-to-day cost of running a business. It does not include the purchase price of office equipment such as computers and fax machines or the cost of inventory.
Overhead includes rent, utilities, and consumable supplies such as paper and printer ribbons and even toilet paper for a bathroom located in a office or book storage facility. It could also include answering services when needed and electronic access fees such as on-line services, website rental, and subscriptions to services such as Biblio.
Depreciation and repair of machinery can be included in the cost of doing business, but buying the machinery and adding to inventory are capital investments and, as Jean knows, subject to taxation as is no item of overhead.
Jean's noting the cost of buying books is a real contribution. Our buying trips, whether an afternoon at the flea market or a trip of several days to make the rounds of bookstores and book fairs, are frequently such pleasant outings that it's difficult to think in terms of ledger entries. A book we buy for $5 and sell for $25 may have cost two hours of our time and a few dollars in gas and auto depreciation, yet we may maintain the illusion that the $20 profit on the book is net rather than gross.
Mail order offers an entry to the book business for those unable to quit their jobs and immediately become full-time bookdealers. It can lead to a large and successful business. And while some of the part-timers may eventually decide to open bookstores, few could afford to rent and stock a store which is open only a few hours a week.
rbrewer@Marconi.public.lib.ga.us -or - email@example.com
P.O. Box 202, Menlo, GA 30731 706-862-2650
Special Interests: Afro-American History & Literature; Labor History; Sixties; Socialism; Women's Studies; also ephemera in these subjects home page under construction: http://www.abebooks.com/home/chattooga
From Forrest Proper of Joslin Hall Rare Books:
The question of low overhead in a mail order business comes up again and again, and is (unfortunately for those of us engaged in mail-order) largely a myth, at least, as Jean points out, if you have to do it full time to make a living.
Having run an open store for several years and then closed it to concentrate on "mail order" for the past ten years, I find that the costs are roughly the same. I looked up the figures last night, and our printing and mailing costs for catalogs alone averages $1,400 a month. That is not to mention (as Jean did) little things like office supplies, insurance (both for oneself and for the van and stock), advertising (exceptionally important in mail order, because nobody sees you while driving by the nonexistent storefront, and you MUST always develop new customers), and the costs of buying books, which includes many road trips.
The plus side is that it's possible to put the answering machine on and curl up in the easy chair at 3 in the afternoon if your days' work is done and that's what you feel like doing. You can work at 6 in the morning or midnight, or do anything you like on your own schedule.
For anyone going into the "mail order" business (and I keep putting that in quotes because I feel it's a bit inaccurate -we sell by catalog, and our stock is presented to the customer through our catalog -or list- so we are in the catalog business -mail is simply a means of delivery, but I digress...) the two most important things are your mailing list and your catalog.
The mailing list is vital -these are your customers, and without them you don't sell anything. Always look for ways to expand your list and get new customers. You also need to be careful not to let your list get overgrown with "deadwood" -prune it every once in a while by sending out notes to people you have not heard from inquiring if they are still interested and/or alive. Develop a simple system for tracking customer activity so you can identify both the deadwood and that special customer who you may want to notify ahead of time about a special book.
The catalog is also vital. It is, in effect, your store. A good catalog shows the personality of it's creator, but not overly so. A catalog should have a "personality", a disinctiveness of its own that sets it apart (but avoid being too "cute"). Remember, many libraries and collectors are getting a half dozen catalogs (or more) in the mail every day -make them want to pick yours up first. Carry books that other dealers in your field don't carry, or offer better descriptions. Description is very important, not only in terms of being scrupulously accurate about condition (and you must be exceptionally accurate here or you will quickly get a reputation you may not want), but also in terms of selling the book. Remember, in a catalog or list your customer cannot see, feel or smell the book. He/she cannot flip through the pages and look at the pictures or feel the soft, sleek warmth of the leather... you have to convey all of this, somehow, in words. When you pick up the book to catalog it, ask yourself, what can I say about this book that will make someone want to buy it? Why would someone need to buy it? What first hits me when I pick it up and look at it? Then put this down in words.
Cataloging, really good cataloging, is a profession, an art, and a skill that develops over the years. Read as many of your fellow dealers catalogs as you can get your hands on, and analyze them. Ask yourself what you like about them and what you dislike. There are some very good cataloguers out there, and much to be learned about describing and presenting a book in words. Two final thoughts on cataloging -avoid the use of too many abbreviations and don't use clever or arcane abbreviations, and try, really try, to avoid using the word "rare" when describing the general availabilty of a particular book. Treat the word "rare" as if it were a fully-armed bomb waiting to go off in your face. (there is a very interesting two-part series being presented in the Magazine Biblio this month and next month, written by a rare-books librarian; it should be read by all cataloguers and would-be cataloguers, as it contains much interesting information about how our catalogs are seen from the other side of the fence.)
Lastly, find yourself a good printer. Look at other dealer's catalogs and pick a format to start with that is comfortable for you and you think your budget can support. Shop around for quotes from a half-dozen printers. Throw out the highest (there will usually be one much higher than the rest -he doesn't want your business) and throw out the lowest (just on principle) and ask to see samples of related work from the rest. Ask a few fellow bookdealers for recommendations. Lastly, talk to the printer. We are very fortunate to have found an independent printer who is a real, ink-under-the-fingernails, down-on-the-shop-floor-under-the-machine-with-a-wrench professional printer. He likes to print. He sees problems as technical challenges to be overcome, not bothersome details. Be sure to find someone, whether an independent or a chain printer, who you feel comfortable talking to, and who understands exactly what you need. If the printer isn't able to understand (or doesn't care to understand) what you need, you'll be sorry sooner or later.
well, that's one viewpoint.
Joslin Hall Rare Books
Here is my cut at "How to pack a Book for shipping".
HOW TO PACK A BOOK FOR SHIPPING
Transport a book from one location to another, such that it arrives in the same condition as you described in your quote. It is your responsibility to insure the book arrives in the condition you quoted. It is not the responsibility of the customer to accept what is delivered.
During transportation a book may be subjected to several "hazards". Some, such as the post office burns down with all the mail in it, you can do nothing about. There are two major hazards that you can and should plan on when packaging a book for shipment. These are water exposure and mechanical shock.
Your shipping container can be exposed to rain, sleet, and snow for extended periods of time. For instance, the package could be left on the front porch by the letter carrier, and the home owner is out of town for a few days and it snows 10 inches that night. That box is going to be buried in snow for a few days.
Your shipping container can be dropped or fall from a height of several feet. It will be thrown onto the back of a truck, conveyor belt, etc. Other boxes will be dropped on top of it, it will be kicked and pushed. A fork lift can run into it.
To protect from water damage, place the book in a zip-lock plastic bag (be sure to zip the lock). The one gallon size zip-lock bag will hold most books. For larger books use a larger plastic bag; but, be sure to seal the end of the bag (with tape) to prevent water from getting to the book. If you can not find a plastic bag large enough, then use sheet plastic and wrap the book like a gift, sealing all the seams with tape.
To protect from mechanical shock, both the shipping container and the interior packing material must be strong and resilient. A corrugated card board box will provide sufficient structural integrity if sized properly and appropriate packing material used. Mailers, padded and unpadded, are acceptable; BUT, you must compensate for their lack of structural qualities. The cardboard box should be large enough such that there is about a one inch "gap" on all six sides of the book. The gap is for the packing material. Put about one inch of packing material in the bottom of the box, then put the book in the box and then fill the box with the packing material. Make sure when you close the box there is enough packing material for a good tight fit. Packing material can be Styrofoam "peanuts", rags, sawdust, hay, foam rubber, and as a last resort, crumpled newspaper. (Warning: never let newspaper, magazines, or anything with ink on it make contact with the book). Bubble wrap is a very good packing material. Wrap the book in it like gift wrap and use enough so there is a snug fit in the box. Seal the box with packaging tape (clear, opaque or fiber tape). Never use masking tape, it does not hold. Seal along all broken seams of the box. Attach the mailing label and put clear tape over it. Remember, this box can be exposed to water, will your mailing label survive that without tape over it? Finally, when you are all done, ask yourself the following question: "If I drop the package off the roof of the house, will the book survive intact?" If the answer is yes, then you are done.
Mailers, envelopes, shoe boxes, shirt boxes, etc., provide little or no mechanical protection. Thus when using these as a shipping container, extra care must be used. These should be considered as a "balloon" that will hold the packing material around the book, and that is all they will do. You will need more packing material than if you had used a corrugated card board box. Be sure the packing material completely surrounds the book. Again, lots of bubble wrap works very well for this method.
Shipping paperbacks, magazines and pamphlets require some internal structural material to prevent folding and creasing. Cut two pieces of corrugated card board slightly larger than the article to be shipped. Place the article in a zip-lock bag, lay that on one of the pieces of card board and tape the bag to that card board. Place the other piece of card board over the article and then tape the two pieces of card board together. It should look like a "sandwich" with the card board as the two slices of bread. Install this sandwich in whichever shipping container you wish to use.
Extra care should be taken when shipping a book with a dust jacket. The dust jacket can easily be damaged in shipping. The preferred solution is to put a dust jacket protector on the dust jacket. If this option is not selected, then the book (with dust jacket installed) should be wrapped in plain paper and then put into the zip-lock bag.
When shipping more than one book in a single container, do not stack the books directly on top of each other. The books will rub against one another and the bindings or decorative paste-on labels will become scuffed. Wrap each book in plain wrapping paper, then they may be placed on top of each other. Then follow the procedures outlined above. If necessary, use more than one box.
Insurance is purchased at the discretion of the seller or buyer, and paid for by the person requesting the insurance. Insurance is not required, however, it is recommended for substantial orders. Each business must determine what dollar value of an order represents a substantial order.
SOME SIMPLE RULES:
Always ship the order A.S.A.P. (i.e. within 24 hours). Always remove your price and any markings you put on the book. Unless you are drop shipping the book, be sure to include a receipt with the book.
If you are drop shipping the book, send a snail-mail postcard or E-mail message to the buyer informing them their order has gone out to their customer using their mailing label.
Congratulations to Steve Cieluch for his thoughtful and complete article on packing and mailing a book parcel. I'd like to add two thoughts.
First, I pack each book in a PVC bag instead of a zip lock bag. If bought in lots of 1000 they cost about $.04 ea. I obtain mine from Chiswick, which offers them in 5 different thicknesses and about a million different sizes.
Second, without attempting to re-ignite the periodic threads on USPS vs. private shippers, I use the Post Office. All parcels containing two or more items are sent Book Rate (now called Special Rate) unless the customer specifies something else. It seems to take about 2 wks. to deliver regardless of destination although I do recall Rich Merritt saying he gets 5 day service out of Iowa. They do a good job although Steve's observations of leaving parcels exposed to the weather or having other parcels stacked on top of them seem to occur every now and then.
This is a topic which deserves a great deal of attention, both from the seller and the buyer. I hope that many of you will add to my remarks.Mail order businesses have earned a great deal of bad publicity over
the years, mostly I suspect because so many people have been seduced into starting a mail order business with promises of big rewards for little effort. When reality strikes, whether in the form of an avalanche of orders which cannot be fulfilled, or any of the myriad problems which are peculiar to mail order, many entrepeneurs simply close their doors and slink into the night. Sometimes with the proceeds, which of course is where much of the bad publicity has originated.
Those who do stay in business, and the people who use them, need to observe some simple rules to protect themselves: protection from bad publicity and protection from fraud or abuse. The following are some simple (perhaps too simple; if so, you will correct me) guidelines as a starting point.
For the Seller:
Qualify your Customer.
Twice in the last month I have been "stiffed" for a book. In both cases, I abandoned my usual practice and sent a book with an invoice to a new customer, rather than demanding payment in advance. Fortunately in both cases it was a rather inexpensive book, since it appears I will not be getting paid without more hassle than it is worth.
Before you send out a shipment of books, you should have one of the following in hand: a credit card number which has been "run" and approved. (Credit card security is a whole different issue which will be covered later.) A check which if not cleared has at least been verified if it is more than $100. Or a recommendation from another dealer, and even that should be looked at with a jaundiced eye.
There are so many issues involving credit card security, that my first comment is: get to know your credit card merchant services provider very well. Establish a relationship with someone in the customer service department of your provider and keep in touch. Know your provider's guidelines regarding charge backs, verification, etc. and follow them. If you need their assistance for a transaction gone bad the first thing they will check is if you have followed their guidelines as well as the rules and regs of Visa, MC, etc.
Second, if you have a customer who has provided you with a credit card number over the phone or by email, and is making many charge purchases, request that she make a photocopy of the front and back of the card, and mail it to you with a note that you have been authorized by the signer/owner of the card to charge purchases from time to time. And have her sign the note also. And save all email correspondence in hard copy, as well as any correspondence sent in smail regarding authorizations to charge the customer's card, etc.
Third, get to know the "scams" going around. For example, notice has been provided here from time to time regarding folks who call and order merchandise to be shipped as "gifts" to an address other than where their card is billed. They then claim they never ordered the merchandise and declare it was not received. Do not ignore the warnings about this practice, unless you are willing to part with books and suffer chargebacks to your merchant account. Excessive chargebacks, aside from costing you, can result in termination of your merchant services. Apologize for the inconvenience and tell your customer she will have to ship the book to the recipient of her generosity.
Fourth, trust your instincts! If something in the back of your brain is sending out alarums about a transaction, listen. Do not enter into a transaction that causes you discomfort or worry. It isn't worth the stress and the potential result of loss to inventory and bank account.
On checks: if you receive a large check for an order (large is anything that seems large to you; there is no limit), nearly all banks have customer service numbers you can call to verify availability of funds. Even if the check does not list an 800 number, spending a dollar or two on a long distance call to ensure the funds are available is a valuable investment in peace of mind. Of course, if you learn the funds are available it is only prudent to deposit the check immediately. Generally checks take no longer than 48 hours maximum to clear with the new automated Federal Reserve here in the U.S. I do not know how it works in other countries. But if you verify availability of funds on Tuesday, don't expect that the money will still be there on Friday or Monday next. Deposit the check on Tuesday.
On references: remember, simply because Joe Blow Bookseller says John Smith is a good and reliable customer is no guarantee that John Smith will be a good and reliable customer to you. If you feel the least bit of discomfort about sending books without prepayment to a customer you don't know, ask for prepayment on a first order.
SHIPPING THE GOODS
First, ship carefully and ship soon. We have already discussed how to ship a book. What we have not emphasized is the importance of sending the books out as soon as possible after receiving the order. If you plan on waiting until the check has cleared your bank account, you should tell the customer up front that you will ship, not after you have received payment, but after her check has cleared.
Not many things can aggravate me more than receiving a book with a postmark or UPS date which indicates the book was shipped many days after my credit card was processed or my check deposited. If you are going to have a delay of more than a day or two between the time you deposit the check or process the credit card and the time you ship, either hold off on processing payment or notify the customer. You can specify in your terms of sale how often you ship, or that customers should expect a delay of x weeks between the time they place their order and when they will receive the books. Of course, if you state something like that you should be prepared for a reduction in orders.
The comments above have to do with protecting your reputation. But there is more at stake here than reputation. There is also the potential for lost or damaged shipments. As a seller you need to protect yourself against the vagaries of the shipping method you use, and against possible fraud from your unknown customer. You will have to decide whether or not to insure. I will state that insuring a parcel for less than $50 with the United States Postal Service is an exercise in futility. It's a nice way to provide the USPS with a little extra working capital. There is no tracking number on those packages insured for less than $50. Thus, no way of following up, and therefore no way of collecting. This is where UPS becomes potentially the better choice. Unless you are willing to take the risk on under $50 worth of loss.
There is another form of potential loss, which has happened to a number of us recently. That is, an unknown customer claiming the books did not arrive and demanding a refund. Unless you used UPS or insured the package through the post office, you really have no way of proving otherwise. And collecting insurance generally requires the cooperation of the recipient (or non-recipient in this case). If you are the victim of a fraud, gaining this cooperation will obviously be difficult if not impossible. You can protect yourself on UPS shipments by using tracking numbers. Postal shipments are more problematic, but you can pay a little extra and require a signature with return receipt. I would definitely use this technique if you are shipping a large number of books or a high dollar amount to an unknown customer. If you insure, and if you have a return receipt signed, it will be difficult for the customer to claim the books did not arrive.
For the customer:
Recently we have learned of alleged fraud perpetrated by a New Zealander who apparently has moved on to somewhere in Eastern Europe. This person represented to many reputable book dealers all over the world that he had rare, desireable books for sale at a fraction of their established value. Many dealers have lost hundreds of dollars to this charlatan, who apparently has no books at all.
While one must be sympathetic over the loss of hundreds of dollars, I have to ask why on earth a knowledgeable dealer would send money to an unknown person for such books. The same question must be asked of a collector who would send hundreds of dollars or authorize a charge to her card from a dealer who she had never heard of.
So, the first warning to the customer: know from whom you are buying. If you ask for references, and the potential seller becomes defensive or argumentative, count yourself lucky for having avoided being ripped off. Any reputable dealer, or person of good character offering books for sale, will be happy to provide references. Don't hesitate to ask for them.
Second, be sure you know the returns policy of the seller before you purchase the books. United States postal regulations are very clear about requiring a refund for merchandise sold sight unseen if the customer is dissatisfied. I believe anyone may limit the amount of time in which a customer can return the books/merchandise. I am not aware if these same regulations cover merchandise sent via other carriers such as UPS, but I would guess that there are similar protections at least in the United States. In any event, you are purchasing an item you have not seen. It is only reasonable to ask that you be allowed to return the item if you are not pleased with it. My general advice would be: don't buy from a dealer/seller who is not willing to allow returns for any reason, unless you are prepared to keep books which may not live up to your expectations.
I am sure many of you will have suggestions and warnings to add to my comments. I want to make just a few summing up remarks.
The obvious theme which runs through all these comments is Clear Communication. Many problems, disappointments, and difficulties in doing business via mail order can be avoided by the seller clearly and precisely stating her terms of sale in every communication to potential buyers. And buyers need to ask questions and be certain they understand those terms of sale completely before sending money.
The Internet is being described by many as rife with exploiters and scam artists. My experience with the Internet both as a seller and a buyer tells me it is no different than buying from any other mail order operation. It involves purchasing merchandise sight unseen, often from sellers about whom you know very little. No more or less caution should be exercised in buying from Internet merchants than from any other merchant -- or in selling to an Internet customer.