When we moved in, we had a conservatory added to the back of the house, and over the years it has (a) got full of junk, and (b) had various failures to keep water out...

This week we have a new one being installed. I am unimpressed with Anglia Windows giving basically zero notice - they called after 5pm on Friday and said they were coming Monday.

My wife has spent all weekend (with some help) moving stuff out of the conservatory.

What is worse is that we need to move some of the air-con piping for the new conservatory and had that all booked in for a couple of weeks time. I am really pleased that 4 Seasons air-con were able to change plans and come in today (Sunday) and move the pipework.

So we are ready, but really, not impressed with Anglia so far. We'll have to see what the new conservatory actually looks like when in, starting tomorrow.

Update: Seems Monday's work was about an hour of removing old conservatory, and then they are back tomorrow.


Selling promotional products

This is an interesting one which one of my staff raised, and I had to think about a bit...

We have several promotional products, and Ignis, the cuddly FireBrick dragon, is an excellent example. He is not cheap but we had them made (a couple of thousand) so we could give them away as promotional products to help raise some awareness of the brand among those that may consider buying FireBricks.

We gave a lot away at a technology show - indeed I think we were the most popular stand at the show as a result. The dragons alone cost many thousands for that show!

Now, we could just "give away to all", but that makes no sense as anyone who wants a cuddly toy would ask for one and not really help in terms of marketing. Already, most suppliers or customers that come for a meeting at our offices, if they have any kids, usually leave with a dragon or two...

We do give them out to FireBrick customers and potential customers. They hang around a lot, which is ideal for any promotional product - people see them and ask about them and the logo, and so on. Nobody wants to throw away a dragon, so they stay on desks!

But what about selling them? Is that a reasonable thing to do? It seems wrong somehow...

Well, there are people that really like Ignis, as a cuddly toy, and people that like the playing cards that "go up to 11" as playing cards. People to which we would not otherwise send such things.

I gave an Ignis to a neighbouring company many years ago, and their manager's son still has it as his main and favourite toy that he will not got to bed without. It is a good quality toy! Indeed, when on holiday in Venice, a small child fell in love with an Ignis (I was taking pictures with him) and we gave him away.

So I think it is sensible to sell these (as well as give them away in various circumstances, obviously) but perhaps aim to do so at around cost price. Basically these are advertising as well as a product so not something it makes any sense to make a profit from really.

Of course dragons and playing cards are proving to be ideal experiments for understanding how we deal with Amazon before we start selling something more serious like FireBricks.

After all, there are loads of brands that you see on all sorts of merchandise that is sold - often by third parties paying to have the brand on the product, but still, buying a branded thing is not actually that unusual.

So that is the plan. I think I have Ignis listed on Amazon at a price that maybe covers costs - but may need to be tweaked. The same is true for the A&A "goes up to 11" playing cards listed on Amazon, but that may actually go down in price slightly. The cards should be available to buy from Monday.

Is that reasonable?


Amazon - fulfilled by us?

So, another thing to try, testing how Amazon works when we are shipping the product.

This is, of course, easier to set up. We don't have to ship stuff to Amazon, we can simply say what the product is, price, picture, etc, and, of course, how many we have available.

Still not going for anything too serious on Amazon yet, but as we have literally hundreds of these in the office I have listed "Ignis"...

Using a GS-1 EAN seems to "just work", and no issue with "FireBrick" as a "brand", it seems.


Update: Wow, one sold already!

Another tip for small items on Amazon

This time I included the size and weight when creating the listing.

When I listed the first pack (Goodall & Son), I did not include the size and weight. They are fields only in the "Advanced" section. I then went through the "Fulfilled by Amazon" which, amongst other things, asked size and weight.

This time I did fill in when creating. I went through the "Fulfilled by Amazon" and right at the start it said I may qualify for Amazon "Small & Light" scheme which is lower postage and lower fees.

I cannot figure out how I change the first deck of cards to this. But it seems it is well worth ensuring you fill in as much detail as possible when creating the listing so that things like this are available.

P.S. No, I have no idea why the dimensions have 3 values but 4 units pull downs.

More on Amazon (Brand Name)

I have been trying to list the A&A deck of cards for about there days now. I kept getting this error :-

The support people said my EANs need "whitelisting". I went and got a GS-1 prefix even, and still no luck. I have waited until showing on the GS-1 search, and still no luck.

However, a bit of experimentation and I have found the problem, and the error message is not at all clear!

Basically, it is the "Brand name"!

I just added the A&A deck, but by mistake I put "RevK" as the "Brand name", and was going through the images and so on, and all working. I assumed because the GS-1 code was now listed and tickets I had raised with Amazon had somehow fixed something.

But before saving I realised I meant to put a brand of "A&A". Suddenly the same error message.

I can put "A", "A&", but not "A&A" nor "AA" in the Brand box. WTF? Note we have a registered trade mark for "AA" in the UK even. So this looks like some Brand protection issue.

Well, now I know, good. I could use something else, maybe AAISP, or Andrews & Arnold Ltd. Anyway, I saved the listing, and then went in and edited, and changed the Brand to A&A, and it saved. Oddly it then lists as "AA" not "A&A".

So, err, this "brand protection" does not work well if you can just change the brand after adding the listing with a different one.

I wish they had let me know that this is what the error message actually meant.


The Real World

I finally had them printed! Just 2 decks for my own use, but they have come out just as I expected.

It will be fun playing with these on my next holiday.

Basically, it is a normal 52 card deck, but with Alteran characters for the indices, plus 8 "jokers" that are the gate address from Atlantis as dialled from Earth.

I'd love to sell them, but I am waiting for MGM to confirm if any licensing is needed (if so, I doubt it would be viable). I have not used clips or stills from the films or series, just the gate and glyphs from wikimedia commons (with a credit). I think I understand correctly that this CC licence allows commercial use like this.

The inspiration for the jokers is, of course, series 3, episode 6, of Atlantis "The Real World" where Dr. Elizabeth Weir has been invaded by nanites and thinks she is back on Earth in a mental hospital.

She deals a game of patience (solitaire) but the face up cards are the gate address for Atlantis from Earth (with two glyphs swapped for no apparent reason). It is a classic scene, and one that can now be reproduced with these cards:-


Dealing with GS-1 and Amazon

I have gone and joined GS-1 and got barcode numbers.

This is a shame in some ways, but Amazon seem to be insisting on GS-1 checks. It looks increasingly like the listing I got with a re-sold UPC code for a pack of cards was somehow a fluke.

It is a simple process and you get codes instantly, but that does not help as apparently the on-line checker does not show instantly (WTF not?) and you do not get a "certificate" for a couple of days (again, WTF not?).

So even with a GS-1 prefix I cannot list anything else on Amazon (yet). Stupid or what.

I appreciate the orders for my first deck of cards, and the reviews, thank you all. Keep 'em coming.

However, I noticed something odd on GS-1 which I had not seen before. They list the codes you have (and even, helpfully, have worked out the check digit, which is not hard).

But they do not provide the graphic/artwork for the barcode simply. You have to click some button to ask for it. OK, but then it says I have "3 image credits" and can "buy more".

Hang on, seriously, they will make bar code images for £7 to £16 per image?

Making a barcode image is not hard, seriously. I did this in school in the early '80s (I sold RML some s/w to scan UPC and EAN codes as well when in sixth form). But it really is not hard. I have a simple program to do it, and it can even be coded in raw postscript.

This is how much work it is in postscript, with checksum calculation... Why charge for images at all for "members". How is that the behaviour of a non-profit members organisation, really?

%%BoundingBox: 0 0 132 120
% EAN Bar code printing system
/EAN_dict 20 dict def EAN_dict begin
/w 1 dup dtransform exch round exch idtransform pop def
/h 60 def % point size height of bars
/m[{3 2 1 1}{2 2 2 1}{2 1 2 2}{1 4 1 1}{1 1 3 2}
   {1 2 3 1}{1 1 1 4}{1 3 1 2}{1 2 1 3}{3 1 1 2}]def
/r[[0 0 0 1 1 1][0 0 1 0 1 1][0 0 1 1 0 1][0 0 1 1 1 0][0 1 0 0 1 1]
   [0 1 1 0 0 1][0 1 1 1 0 0][0 1 0 1 0 1][0 1 0 1 1 0][0 1 1 0 1 0]]def
/b 1000 array def
/lhs 10 array def
/rhs 10 array def

/EAN_ck{% str with ? EAN_ck string
 dup[exch dup{48 sub}forall pop 0 9 7 counttomark 4 sub
 {dup 5 -1 roll mul 4 -1 roll add 3 1 roll exch
 }repeat pop pop 10 mod exch dup length 1 sub 3 -1 roll 48 add put pop
}bind def

/EAN{EAN_dict begin
 [exch{48 sub}forall counttomark /l exch def
 l 13 eq{13 -1 roll r exch get /rr exch def}if/p l 2 idiv def
 rhs 0 p getinterval astore pop lhs 0 p getinterval astore pop pop
 [1 1 1 0 1 p 1 sub l 13 eq
 {{lhs 1 index get m exch get exec 5 -1 roll rr exch get 1 eq{2 1 4{-1 roll}for}if}for}
 {{lhs exch get m exch get exec}for}ifelse
 1 1 1 1 1 0 1 p 1 sub{rhs exch get m exch get exec}for
 1 1 1 counttomark b 0 3 -1 roll getinterval astore true exch
 {w mul exch
  {gsave 0 h rlineto dup 0 rlineto 0 h neg rlineto
   closepath fill grestore false}{true}ifelse exch 0 rmoveto
 }forall pop pop
end}bind def

/EANP{EAN_dict begin gsave
 gsave dup EAN_ck EAN grestore 0 -5 rmoveto w 1 scale
 /OCRB findfont dup setfont(0)stringwidth pop 7 exch div
 scalefont setfont
 dup length 2 mod 1 eq{
  dup 0 1 getinterval dup stringwidth pop neg 0 rmoveto show
  dup length 1 sub 1 exch getinterval}if 3.5 0 rmoveto
 dup length 2 idiv 1 index 0 2 index getinterval 3 1 roll dup getinterval
 exch 2{gsave 1 setgray
  dup length 7 mul dup 0 rlineto 0 10 rlineto neg 0 rlineto closepath fill
  gsave dup show grestore length 7 mul 4 add 0 rmoveto
grestore end}def

% This is an example :-
%36 dup moveto (5060319060290) EANP showpage

If there is a market for this I will be happy to do it for £1 a go, LOL!

Update: I used their £16 a shot tool (well I had three credits) to make one. It took over 10 seconds to make (WTF). It makes an EPS which looks like this...

So I ran my C code to make this which makes an SVG and comes out much nicer, actually uses OCR-B, and works just as well. Took 4ms user time to run. I mean really, WTF are they doing?!?


Trying out Amazon...

As you probably know, at A&A, we sell mostly things like broadband and telecoms as services, but there are a number of things that are just stock items that we sell (everything from routers, splitters, cuddly dragons to ISP grade Firebrick costing tens of thousands). So we thought it may be an idea to try out Amazon and see how it works as some things may be better and more convenient sold through Amazon.

Time consuming and tedious at first

To start with, it was quite time consuming and tedious to set up the seller account. They don't just want company details, but also passport numbers and expiries of all beneficial owners of the company, scans of passport, scans of bank statement to prove account number, credit card number, the works. It probably took me a couple of hours to sort that all.

Listing a product

Listing a product is not too hard. It involved a title, description, images, and so on. It was not entirely clear what each field did in terms of the listing, but easy to play around and learn how it goes.

As an experiment we decided to list something simple to start with, as this is a bit of a test to see how well it all works. Some playing cards (please buy some). These are actually the ones from my previous blog post, which A&A are selling now.

Of course anyone that got them free from me are welcome to leave an Amazon review - the funnier the better.

Fulfilled by Amazon

One of the things we wanted to experiment with is the whole "fulfilled by Amazon" thing, where they hold the stock for you. Now this has costs, related to the volume of the item, so playing cards are a good test for this. I suspect cuddly dragons are not so good.

To my surprise that was easy. I had to update the listing with weight, and dimensions. I had to advise the overall weight and dimensions for the box of 50 packs we are sending. It ended up with a shipping label to print. UPS collected later that day. 24 hours later, Amazon are selling!

It is meant to shows as Amazon Prime as well, not sure if I have missed something or being impatient on that one. It could also be I set the price a tad too low to make sense for 1-click and prime. I'll see if I can work that one out. I can see Amazon Prime being useful for things like DSL routers and splitters and so on. [update: increasing price by 99p means it is now 1-click and prime, but I could not find the help to tell me what the price has to be for this.]

The hard part - barcodes!

It turns out product barcodes are a bit of a complicated area!

There is a group (GS-1) that manages product bar codes world wide. Wikipedia explains it a bit.

It seems that, until 2002, you could buy a block of barcodes and they were yours forever and nothing prohibited you from reselling them to others. This is the sort of model I like for such things personally. There are some rules or guidelines on things like barcode reuse after a product is discontinued, but it is all pretty simple.

However, these days, you have to be a member of GS-1, on an ongoing basis, and so you effectively rent the barcodes.

However, if you google, you will see that loads of people sell barcodes, outright, for quite reasonable prices. So I bought some. Simples.

Is this legit? Well yes, from what I can tell, as these pre-2002 barcodes could be sold and re-used, so that is all that is happening.

However, it seems Amazon have a bit of an issue. They use barcodes, these UPC and EAN unique barcodes, to track stock. Indeed, if a barcode is issued to a product they will treat all stock of that product the same and interchangeable. When you create a listing you, ideally, need to give them the UPC or EAN barcode number. (There are other ways with labels on the product with Amazon issued codes).

So why is that an issue. Well, the problem is that you can just make these up. Amazon seem to accept any barcode they don't yet have in inventory. So even if you have barcodes, you can find some Chinese company has effectively hijacked them and so you cannot list your items on Amazon. Apparently Amazon can fix this, but apparently it is a hell of a lot of work.

It also turns out that it does not matter if you got barcodes directly from GS-1 or from some reseller. Indeed, it seems, the resellers check on Amazon first to eliminate any that have been hijacked. I do not know if GS-1 do the same.

As it happens, having bought 100 barcodes in March, most are now magically allocated to clothing or iPhone cases on Amazon! I did not realise this at first, as my listing for the above pack of cards using a barcode printed on the pack, works. But there was a slight clue - the control pages for setting up the listing showed this image...

That is, perhaps, a clue that someone had tried to do a listing using that code (for a dress?).

Now I come to trying to list the A&A decks of cards I find the code is not available as it is an iPhone case! This is a tad infuriating as we printed the barcode we allocated on the box! Not being listed on GS-1 as the owner, I cannot even go through the apparently time consuming process of disputing with Amazon, I don't think.

My only choice will be another barcode, and stickers on the packs (or, Amazon can do labels that go on the product for you, which would be a shame on my nicely designed boxes). I think I would rather do the stickers myself...

So what can be done?

Well, Amazon have a solution, it seems. They plan to only accept UPC/EAN codes where the manufacturer matches what GS-1 have listed. This means, apparently, these older re-sold barcodes won't work. What is odd is that, just yesterday, one did work, one we got.

If Amazon do actually go through with this new policy, even if just for new listings, that should stop the hijacked barcodes happening. However, it will mean we have to join the club and pay the ongoing fees to have directly GS-1 allocated codes, which is a shame. What we hope is that existing, legitimate, re-sold barcodes are not suspended on the Amazon site, which may possibly happen one day I guess. At this point that only impacts selling some playing cards for a bit of fun, which is why I am glad we did an experiment on this.

Even so, I can see people selling stuff, using made up barcodes, simply telling Amazon the item they are selling is "manufactured by Andrews & Arnold Ltd" which they can just look up on the GS-1 web site, and Amazon would accept the listing. After all, the seller does not have to claim to be the manufacturer. It is possible Amazon would take such issues more seriously, who knows. It would also be interesting if GS-1 would handle the arguing with Amazon for us as a member given the claims GS-1 make about how much better it is getting codes from them directly.

More to learn

We have to fully understand the costs in practice, and the processes for payments, and for VAT invoicing as well. Things will be shipped without us having issued an invoice, so we are going to have to import in to our accounting system. It is exactly this sort of thing which a trial on something simple like playing cards is worth doing.

We also need to consider what sort of things will be sensible and cost effective to sell via Amazon rather than shipping ourselves. It may be that Amazon is not for us (except perhaps for playing cards), we will see.