Doing business by the book

Zoe Miller has taken big strides in improving the fulfillment operations of Grassroots Books, the online retailer she runs from an industrial neighborhood near Reno-Tahoe International Airport.

Now she needs to woo more folks to sell those boxes of books, CDs and DVDs in their attics to Grassroots Books to boost its inventory.

And after about six years selling books exclusively online, Miller and her husband, Randy, have launched retail sales at the company's facility at 4890 Aircenter Circle, No. 201.

The company sells about 7,000 items a month some of them for as little as a penny plus shipping and handling and its staff of three moves quickly to price the steady flow of used materials that comes through the front door.

A key to the company's success, Miller says, was the decision she made shortly after launching the company to rely on to handle fulfillment.

In fact, Grassroots Books moved to Reno from Seattle three years ago so that it could be closer to Amazon's giant distribution center at Fernley, which provides rhird-party distribution services branded as "Fulfillment by Amazon." Grassroots Books, for instance, sends all its inventory to the Amazon center in Lyon County, where the online retail giant fills orders, ships them and if necessary deals with returns. A big benefit for the Millers: They don(1)t need to take a photo of each item they're selling because Amazon has a massive library of images.

As of last week, Grassroots' inventory at Amazon stood at 18,185 items.

While Amazon charges storage fees (they're higher during the busy holiday

season) as well as fees for handling individual orders, Zoe Miller says the arrangement is more efficient than anything Grassroots Books could do on its own.

And because the shipping fees charged by Amazon to Grassroots customers often are a little higher than the actual cost, the online bookseller can make money from the shipping even if books sell for only a penny or two.

Price competition among online sellers of books and entertainment media is fierce enough that some large players in the business have folded in recent months, and Miller says the key for continued profitability for Grassroots is its ability to control costs.

Equally important, she says, is buying well and pricing competitively.

Pulling items from large bins of used books, CDs and DVDs, Grassroots employees use the help of scanners tied to pricing software to set a price for each item.

But it's not all science, and experience plays a role as well. Holiday books and music, for instance, sell well at the holidays but hardly at all during other times of the year. Used microwave cookbooks don(1)t sell at any time of the year.

Books that aren't likely to find a market are send out to be pulped and recycled.

"We try to be competent. We try to do things well," says Miller.

Its customers notice. Out of the 26,200 online customers who have taken the time to grade Grassroots Books' performance, 98 percent have given it good marks.

But as the company has grown from the early days when Zoe Miller scouted library used book sales to find inventory, so has its appetite for used books and entertainment media to sell.

"The hardest part is sourcing books," Miller says.

Some come from wholesalers and publishers with overstocks or blemished merchandise. But most are purchased from the public, whether by the sack full or the truck full.

There's plenty of inventory nearby. Miller says she's convinced northern Nevada homes are filled with enough unwanted books, CDs and DVDs to keep Grassroots Books humming for years to come.


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