Many of us who are not essential workers are feeling a mix of relief and guilt at the same time, while also trying to figure out if we remember how to sew or if there is another way to help those in need. Staying at home is a public health service, but many of us want to do more. Through the past weeks, I have found meaning in my situation, having started with a feeling of fear for my mental health and guilt for being temporarily successfully self-employed.
I am a small business owner of over twenty years. By small I mean that I am the CEO, the accountant, the strategist, the packer, the logistics manager, the buyer, etc. I wear all the hats except during the holiday season, when a couple of friends and a family member or two help me pack.
I’ve enjoyed gross sales of over $100,000 for maybe seven years over the years, enough to make me feel as though I were contributing something financial to the family besides my unpaid labor. Having given up in frustration with Amazon and eBay, for years I tried to make a go with my own websites, but almost eight years ago I ended up returning to the large marketplaces.
Had I made this a full-time endeavor, my story would be different. I never took out a business loan. I never had a business plan. I maintained my own websites, which quickly meant mine became old-fashioned and cumbersome. Except for on a couple of occasions I didn’t invest in professional development or any other professional services. I worked on my business as I progressed through graduate school, as I homeschooled my kids, all along wanting to keep this part-time since I was also interested in other work .
Before the pandemic I received a letter from Schleich, a name brand toy company I have carried for over fifteen years and have primarily sold on Amazon.com, (as well as eBay, Sears, etc.) with only a few sales on my own website. They told me I wouldn’t be allowed to sell on the large marketplaces anymore, even though they had just sold me thousands of dollars of toys. They won’t give me an answer as to whether they will take any inventory back, despite one of their representatives in December assuring me that if Amazon took my listings down or pulled any more tricks they would take back the inventory I had purchased (for a couple of years I had been having multiple issues on Amazon with my Schleich listings, because they are trying to be the sole carriers of Schleich and other name-brands and so would make it very difficult for me to list in ways I can with less-known brands).
Schleich’s agreement with Amazon states that Amazon will be the only retailer selling Schleich toys on Amazon.com. This takes away at least ninety percent of my business.
Having already purchased much of what I would need in 2020, when Minnesota started to shut down, I had $38,000 in inventory, but with business so slow during the year, I had no idea how I was going to get rid of this without just donating it and taking it as a loss. I kept emailing Schleich asking about returning items, but they won’t respond properly. I marked everything down and put a sale on all Schleich items, plus I lowered my shipping and handling costs.
In the third week of March, the orders suddenly started coming in. It wasn’t as busy as during the holiday season, but much more than usual for this time of year. As I realized what was happening, I felt guilty. So many people were suffering around the country, and they wanted to get their children a toy. They were suffering, while I was getting rid of inventory. Sure, it will take many months to rid myself of the majority of it, but still, I was busy and successfully self-employed (not that I have ever been eligible for unemployment). I reconciled myself with the thought that at least the children were getting toys without costing their parent’s too much.
As the weeks have passed, while I still feel lucky and privileged to be safe, fed, and housed, I also realized it is okay that I am getting rid of my inventory. It’s not okay that others are suffering greatly. It’s also not okay that this billion-dollar corporation sold me thousands of dollars of inventory before basically putting me out of business. It’s not okay that Amazon is allowed to determine the online marketplace to the extent that they do. It’s not okay that Amazon and other large corporations don’t pay any taxes, while I do. I don’t have employees, but I still work hard for what I earn, and I then put money back into the economy.
After a month I have realized a deeper meaning for me. For years I have insisted that I didn’t want to be a retailer, because I am a historian, and I wanted to do something else that felt more meaningful. Besides writing, I wasn’t sure what that will be – if I would tutor more people, edit more essays, or what. I started writing again about ten years ago, and this helped my sense of purpose, but things had fallen into place yet.
Now in 2020 the corporate bullies have pushed me into action, ideas have landed in my lap, and I have a new sense of purpose knowing that I can use my other talents to make the world a better place. Still, I wasn’t sure how to lose myself of so much inventory without taking a great financial loss, but the pandemic has allowed me to ship out hundreds of toys, for which I don’t need to feel guilty. Instead, although I do see value in providing children with quality toys, I am grateful that sooner rather than later, I will be able to focus on other areas in my life. So as I sit at home waiting out the pandemic and packing toys, I keep my dream of more meaningful work for myself alive each day.