Nomads travel to America’s Walmarts to stock Amazon’s shelves - 20 minutes read

Nomads travel to America’s Walmarts to stock Amazon’s shelves

Chris Anderson moves through the Target clearance racks with cool efficiency, surveying the towers of Star Wars Lego sets and Incredibles action figures, sensing, as if by intuition, what would be profitable to sell on Amazon. Discontinued nail polish can be astonishingly lucrative, but not these colors. A dinosaur riding some sort of motorcycle? No way. But these Jurassic Park Jeeps look promising, and an Amazon app on his phone confirms that each could net a $6 profit after fees and shipping. He piles all 20 into his cart.

It’s not a bad haul for a half-hour’s work, but it’s not great either. He consoles himself that he hit upon a trove of deeply discounted Kohl’s bras the day before as he left East Brunswick, New Jersey, on his way here to Edison. Home is still 300 miles away, in Tyrone, Pennsylvania, and there are plenty of stores between here and there.

Anderson is an Amazon nomad, part of a small group of merchants who travel the backroads of America searching clearance aisles and dying chains for goods to sell on Amazon. Some live out of RVs and vans, moving from town to town, only stopping long enough to pick the stores clean and ship their wares to Amazon’s fulfillment centers.

The majority of goods sold on Amazon are not sold by Amazon itself, but by more than 2 million merchants who use the company’s platform as their storefront and infrastructure. Some of these sellers make their own products, while others practice arbitrage, buying and reselling wares from other retailers. Amazon has made this easy to do, first by launching Fulfillment by Amazon, which allows sellers to send their goods to company warehouses and have Amazon handle storage and delivery, and then with an app that lets sellers scan goods to instantly check whether they’d be profitable to sell on the site. A few sellers, like Anderson, have figured out that the best way to find lucrative products is to be mobile, scouring remote stores and chasing hot-selling items from coast to coast.

“It’s almost like I’m the front end of the business and Amazon is just an extension of my arm,” says Sean-Patrick Iles, a nomad who spent weeks driving cross-country during Toys R Us’ final days. It was a feeding frenzy Anderson and others also hit the road for. “I find the products, and then they mail them to people.”

Though nomadism offers competitive advantages, most of the merchants I spoke with cited more personal reasons for their professions.

“I love living on wheels,” says Rose Pile, who travels in an RV with her husband and four sons. “If you don’t like your neighbors, if you don’t like your location, you just move.”

“The best part is just seeing the country,” says Jamison Philippi, who recently spent nine months on the road clearing out closing Toys R Us stores. In 2014, he was sleeping on a yoga mat on a friend’s floor in Nashville and struggling to find work. He never took vacations growing up and always wanted to travel. Amazon selling seemed like a solution to both problems. In the last three years, he estimates he’s shopped in 45 states.

“Freedom,” Jason Wyatt quickly answers when I ask him why he decided to quit his job as an aviation electronics technician, sell his house in Georgia, and buy an RV. “Janis Joplin once said — though I believe it was actually Kris Kristofferson’s song — ‘freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.’ And I found that that’s actually the truth. Your possessions, you don’t really own them. They own you. The more you get rid of, the freer you are.”

This is not an uncommon refrain from the nomads, who often have a complicated relationship with consumerism. Too much stuff can be a burden on the road, so they can find themselves living like ascetics amid the clearance aisles, servicing, in Anderson’s words, “literally the best product distribution system ever devised by the human race.”

At 32, Anderson is burly with a youthful face and shoulder-length dark hair tucked behind his ears. His black shorts and T-shirt reveal tattoos of aliens, cats, skulls, and iconography from Radiohead and Misfits. Coupled with the white windowless cargo van he drives, the whole ensemble gives him the appearance of a cheerful roadie, one of the many jobs he’s briefly held.

Anderson adopted the nomadic life partly out of necessity. A restless person by his own admission, he dropped out of college three years in, getting all the debt without the degree. He started making jewelry — wedding bands and titanium plugs, like the Space Invaders ones he’s now wearing — but it wasn’t enough to live on. He worked retail. He worked in a call center. Then, looking for ways to sell his jewelry, he came across Amazon. It was a terrible platform for selling crafts. He couldn’t make things fast enough to meet Amazon’s requirements, but retail arbitrage looked interesting. He moved to Tyrone, and the nearest Walmart was 20 miles away, so any shopping trips would have to be road trips anyway. He figured he might as well keep driving — to Wisconsin, to Florida, to Nevada. Today, he runs a warehouse, packing products for other Amazon sellers, and spends half his time on the road chasing product.

When you spend weeks on end traveling the strip malls and big-box stores of America, you start to appreciate small differences in what can seem like archipelagos of sameness: the way the Targets get cleaner as you approach corporate headquarters in Minneapolis; the novelty of an unusually small Walmart in Indiana; the McDonald’s in Pomeroy, Ohio, that served pizza, the remainder of an abandoned experiment in the ‘80s.

How was the McPizza?

“Bad!” Anderson says exuberantly. “But that’s not the point.”

Finished with Target, Anderson stacks the Jeeps in the back of his van and gives the cart a shove, sending it rattling into its corral. Sometimes, he confides, when he finishes shopping late at night, he’ll bump his cart with his van to knock it into its pen as he leaves, a parting flourish in the empty lot.

There are a couple of ways a trip can go. Right now, Anderson is just browsing, something he does wherever he goes. Because these sorts of stores blanket the country, Amazon nomads often travel aimlessly.

“When I come up to Interstate 80,” says Chris Bond, a part-time nomad based in Nebraska, “there’s been a number of times I don’t know if I’m going east or west. It’s just whatever feels right when I get there. If I end up going west, I just make a big old loop out west. Or when I leave town, if I miss my road just because I wasn’t paying attention, it’s no big deal because there’s plenty of stores in whatever direction I’m going.”

Bond chose to be homeless for several years in the ‘90s while he bounced around the country going to Grateful Dead and Phish shows, but he no longer listens to music on the road, preferring to drive in silence. “It’s a nice quiet time to contemplate where I’m going in life.”

Like many nomadic sellers, Bond sticks to back roads and remote locations, avoiding the city centers that have been “stomped on” by other arbitrageurs. Anderson stays off the interstate, too. Others only shop at least an hour outside of town, or they seek out stores in places you’d only visit on your way to somewhere else. “If you get off the beaten path and into these other locations, you’re bound to hit little honey holes of completely untouched inventory,” Bond says.

Often, sellers will invent destinations to give their travels a direction. Anderson likes to follow bands. He recently followed The Mountain Goats across four states and is planning to do the same this summer when Tool goes on tour. Some, like Jonathan Baron, a former tattoo artist and part-time nomad, caravan to Amazon seller conventions with what he calls his “Amazon travel tribe.” National parks are a popular destination, which can create a distinctly American-feeling juxtaposition of natural splendor and commerce, big stores and open sky. Iles reminisces about waking up in his van to see the sun rising over the Grand Canyon after a weeks-long tour of closing Toys R Us stores. Pile recalls the sunsets over the Walmart parking lots in New Hampshire or a Black Friday run through Florida that ended with the family boxing up Skylanders: Imaginators toys on the shores of Key West. Anderson takes detours for roadside attractions like the largest basket in Ohio, and he always stops for caves.

But sometimes the Amazon app, acting as a Geiger counter of consumer demand, will light up on something strange, and it’s time to chase a product. Anderson recently hit half a dozen Walmarts buying Game of Thrones Oreos. Baron discovered the Oreos, too: “We had to hustle really hard, just driving from city to city, filling up the vehicle with every one of these Oreos we could get.” Bond remembers answering the call of a “ridiculous” deal Kmart ran on certain headphones. “I bought every one across the front range from Pueblo, Colorado, all the way up to Cheyenne,” he says.

You learn to develop an eye for things that could set off the scanner, and it’s not always the cross-branded cookie from a $26 billion food conglomerate and $195 billion telecom company.

“Ooh, weird cleaning products — I love ‘em,” Anderson says as he leaves a TJ Maxx aisle full of plastic avocado-half containers and Jim Beam-branded steak knives. There are objects that are intentionally scarce and marketed as such, like the Oreos, and then there are everyday things that simply vanish in the churn of seasonal redesigns and obsolescence. The attachments people develop for these unremarkable commodities can be intense, at least as measured by their prices on Amazon. For Anderson, the holy grail is the Bounce Dryer Bar, a $5 plastic oblong you affix to the dryer rather than adding a dryer sheet to each load. Now discontinued, a two-pack sells on Amazon for $300.

Discontinued nail polish, Pop-Tarts, hair curling products: Anderson has chased them all when the scanner has shown them fetching multiples of their normal price. He once hunted a particular brand of discontinued dental floss across the Big Lots of America, buying six-packs for 99 cents and selling them on Amazon for over $100 apiece.

He has no idea why someone would pay so much for such things, but the scanner tells him people do. His best guesses are melancholy ones. Discontinued cat food is a big seller, which he didn’t understand until his mom’s cat grew old and senile and refused to eat any of the new flavors. He once saw a post from a parent whose son was autistic and drank from the same plastic cup every day for 20 years. The cup eventually disintegrated, and he didn’t want to drink from any other vessel.

“I’ve always wondered if it’s something like that,” Anderson says. “But it can’t be that common. Plus, I don’t see how you get that attached to it. I can see a cup, but I don’t get a dryer bar.” In any case, demand exists. Someone bought a $300 dryer bar last month.

Pile, who travels with her family in an RV, specializes in these discontinued products. She focuses on remote chain outposts, seeking obsolete Sony iPhone docks, Scrubbing Bubbles pads with last season’s scent, and Walmart pajama bottoms that customers say were softer in years past. “If somebody likes a certain scent or how something works, they become loyal to that item, even if just the packaging has changed. They can no longer find that item in a store, and Amazon is one place they’ll look for it. It’s people like us who travel around that can find it.”

Life on the road isn’t easy. “They don’t realize how isolating it can be at times,” says Iles, who travels between New York and Florida in a Ford conversion van. Most social interactions are fleeting ones with cashiers, and being constantly on the move makes it difficult to form friendships. Anderson thinks the constant travel is part of why his marriage ended.

In lieu of neighbors and co-workers, many nomads form Facebook groups and chats with fellow sellers. Iles has Monday night conference calls with a group of sellers, and he recently upgraded his van stereo so that he can chat while on the road. Anderson plays Counter-Strike with a group of friends after checking into his hotel for the night, and he has a collection of sellers scattered across the country that he gets drinks with when he’s passing through.

There are other challenges: breakdowns, bad weather, decrepit accommodations. You need to be vigilant about bed bugs, says Philippi, speaking from experience. Law enforcement sometimes takes an interest in people loading dozens of game consoles into vans late at night. Philippi now avoids Airbnbs after suspicious neighbors called the police on him multiple times.

It also takes a tremendous amount of work to be financially viable. While there is a robust economy of influencers promising riches through retail arbitrage, the actual margins are unforgiving, and the practice has been declining for years.

Iles, who was studying to be a music teacher before he decided it wasn’t a viable career, pays himself about $40,000 a year and works long and strange hours, sometimes overturning shopping carts in Walmart parking lots at 3AM to serve as makeshift countertops as he packages goods to send to Amazon. Anderson says he makes “about $100,000” a year, of which arbitrage represents roughly half. “I’ve mentored quite a few people,” says Pile, “and a lot of people don’t make it.”

The nomads must also endure the overwhelming feeling of being confronted with so much stuff. I started to experience this as the afternoon wore on. By 4PM, Anderson and I had been to Target, Ulta, TJ Maxx, Walmart, Kohl’s, and had moved on to GameStop. We had seen quivers of yoga mats, pro-wrestling action figures, vast Nerf arsenals, and copper-plated pans that Anderson fondly recalled he’d once bought so many of that Kohl’s banned him from its website. There were plush Star Wars droids, plastic dinosaurs, Sour Patch cereal, Churro Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal (weird cereal can be lucrative, Anderson says), Elmos, Teddy Ruxpins, glittering purple bath bombs, body mist that a rival seller had registered as weighing 500 pounds so the scanner app registered it as unprofitable, skull-covered American Sniper-branded car seat covers with gun holsters, plastic succulents, TVs, drones, and a toy that was labeled simply “egg.”

“What kind of weird parent gets their kid an egg?” Anderson asks.

Perusing the clearance racks at GameStop, Anderson passed over a Stranger Things card game involving Eggo waffles (“There was a year that these were like 50 bucks on Amazon,” he reminisces), a rubber skillet somehow related to the game PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (“I love that game, and even I have no idea who would buy that”), and a Monopoly-branded toy gun that shoots hundred-dollar bills. There were rubber robot-monkey dolls called Fingerlings, which were so popular in 2017 that arbitrageurs made bots to buy them and incurred the wrath of Sen. Chuck Schumer. Here, they were half off by the rack. Anderson picked up a Red Dead Redemption 2-scented candle in the shape of a barrel, originally $100. “Consumerism, man,” he says, putting it back after his scanner told him it wasn’t worth it, even at half off.

There’s nothing quite like a clearance section for feeling the intensity and fleetingness of consumer desire: all these plastic leftovers of huge public appetites, which were shaped for a time by enormous companies and have since moved on to robot monkey finger puppets or whatever. The scale is overwhelming. Anderson recalls an auction for pallets of robotic hamsters called ZhuZhu Pets, which were briefly hot in 2009, with a Disney Channel cartoon and video games. The pallet was number 20,000. “That means somebody imported 20,000 pallets at least. That is an insane number.” Doing the math, he comes up with almost 800 tractor-trailers full of robot hamsters that had become so unprofitable on Amazon that he told the auctioneer he wouldn’t take them if he was paid to.

I was surprised at first by how often the nomads distanced themselves from material culture, speaking of their customers and fellow shoppers from an almost anthropological remove. But it makes sense when you realize that they make most of their money by immersing themselves in the pre-holiday buying frenzy. Anderson has Thanksgiving with his mom a day early so he can venture out to the stores, a tradition that dates back to his time working retail. He always brings a buddy; it’s too harrowing to face alone. He’s seen hungry-eyed adults fighting over TVs and parents crying out in desperation that, without a particular toy, their kid’s Christmas will be ruined.

“Too many people are unhappy, and I don’t think they know why they’re unhappy, so they’re like, ‘I’m going to buy a new toy, and that’ll make me happy,’ and it does not,” he says. “So many people are owned by their possessions.”

The holiday crush is part of what led Wyatt, one of the first traveling arbitrageurs, to reduce his Amazon dealings to books, making up the rest of his income in itinerant business consulting. “This consumerism mindset starts at Christmastime,” Wyatt says, with a southern drawl. “It’s all teaching kids consumerism: I need more stuff, more stuff, more stuff. It’s not like I was against it. It just didn’t fit well. So when I figured out how I could make money helping people, that’s what I did. And the book thing, I mean books are knowledge, and I don’t mind so much passing on the knowledge to those who want it.”

Pile, a mentee of Wyatt’s, finds the frenzy just as bewildering, though she’s more comfortable with her role in it. “Especially quarter four and Christmas, with the amount of toys and things we see, people buy a lot of things that they don’t really need,” she says. “It gets pretty amazing, the value people put on things and what someone is willing to pay for something. And that’s okay, that’s what they value, that’s what they want to hold on to, that’s what they need in their life. And I’m here to try and provide that as best I can.”

The travel, shopping frenzies, and financial unpredictability all take their toll, and many of the resellers I spoke with had become somewhat less nomadic recently. Pile’s four sons had gotten too big for their motorhome and she recently “stopped our wheels from rolling” and bought a house in Tennessee. For now, she’s taking long RV trips for goods, but she hopes to get back on the road full-time once her kids are grown. Philippi bought a house in New Jersey to use as a home base after three years without a fixed address. Bond has settled down, too, only traveling long distances for the fourth quarter pre-holiday spree.

Anderson is still eager to travel, he says, as we sit outside at a Starbucks along a busy road, cars whooshing home in the evening rush hour. He’s had depression for a lot of his life, and when he’s traveling is when he’s happiest. Yesterday, he drove through the Pine Barrens, which was beautiful. Tonight, he might drive down to Philadelphia and see his dad or up through Jersey to get dinner with Philippi.

“It’s kind of nice to just be carefree, you know? I’m gonna see.”

Then it’s probably off to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where he recently hit a rich vein of discontinued Pop-Tarts.

Source: The Verge

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