What do you do when you see a Chinese seller pop-up on Amazon selling a product for less than it costs just to make it? You order one and wait to see what comes!
Can you figure out how anyone could sell and ship a non-copyable product for less than the manufactured cost? Oh, the sublime irony of what actually showed up!…
My Friend Cliff
While the other kids were playing baseball and chewing bubble gum, my friend Cliff was writing a Turbo Pascal library to let programmers do complex calculations with arbitrarily high precision. Really. So it makes sense that when Cliff grew up, he continued to find ways to give people more digits. One of his labors of love is the amazing Pi Poster.
How Many Digits Can You Fit On a Poster? Six Million.
It is hard to imagine how big a number 6 million really is, and it is even harder to imagine how small a digit must be to fit 6 million of them on a poster…
So small that you can’t see them with your naked eyes. Even with the digits right in front of your eyes, you can only see grayness until you break out some serious magnification…
(That’s the edge of a quarter for scale)
These digits are literally microscopic.
…but it ain’t easy!
It is very, very hard to print a digit this small. Even harder to print 6,000,000 of them and have each and every one be crisp and distinct and readable. You need multi-million dollar machines and a huge amount of effort, experience, and patience. Cliff has literally spent years of his life figuring out how to make his Pi Poster dream into a reality.
Problem Solved Once- and for Everyone
The market for high-end posters of irrational mathematical constants is limited. It is extremely unlikely anyone else on earth would ever invest the time and resources required to make a competitor to Cliff’s Pi Poster. My guess is that the only reason Cliff was willing to do it in the first place was because he wanted one for himself, and he would not quit until either he succeeded or proved it was impossible. He is like that. There are other people like Cliff that also feel the need to physically own the most interesting 6,000,000 digits in the universe, but smart people like that are smart enough to follow their own idiosyncratic quests rather than waste effort duplicating someone else’s – and those people happily buy their Pi Posters from Cliff.
An Impossible Competitor
When Cliff put his Pi Posters on Amazon, it was to make them available to the widest range of people possible. He never, ever, ever once worried about the issue that keeps other Amazon sellers up at night – the problem of knock-off competitors jumping in and under-pricing them on their own product. The Pi Poster is just not a product that you can knock-off. There is no way anyone would (or could) make a 6,000,000 digit Pi poster and be able to sell it for even 10x the price Cliff sells his for.
….and so when Cliff showed me that a marketplace seller had just popped-up in the “Other Sellers” tab of the Pi Poster product page on Amazon, I was stumped.
Could some maniacal seller in China have actually invested the resources to replicate Cliff’s process… just so they could compete with him on Amazon on this niche product? There is no way!
Were they just putting up the listing, knowing that if someone bought from them then maybe they would turn around and buy a poster from Cliff and re-ship it to the Amazon buyer? That doesn’t make any sense at all!
Were they somehow buying up used posters from Cliff’s old customers and then reselling them as new? That’s silly!
What the hell was going on?
There was only one thing to do… order one!
…and wait ….and wait… and wait…
The bubble roll is in the mail
More than a month later, a sickly roll of bubble wrap arrived at my door…
Cliff spends a lot of money on the double cardboard tubes he uses to protect his transcendental treasures in transit, but this poor packing did not explain how they could even make a Pi Poster for what they were selling it for, much less pack and ship one.
Before you click on, see if you can guess what was in the tube. I had no idea what to expect when I opened the bubbly wrap, but the moment I saw what was inside I was mad at myself for not having figured it all out the instant I first saw the seller pop up!
The Punch Line
Here is what arrived from China…
Do you see the punch line?
This is just sheet of paper with the Pi Poster’s THUMBNAIL IMAGE laser printed on it! This is not a Pi Poster! This is just about the OPPOSITE of a Pi Poster as you could possibly get.
Of course the “digits” part of the knock-off Pi Poster looks grey to the naked eye, just like it does on a genuine Pi Poster. The difference is that on the knock-off, THERE ARE NO DIGITS just a grey field of color laser halftone dots!!!…
This is scariest, silliest, least-expected, and only-possible answer to this mystery.
What the hell happened here?
Here’s what I am sure happened….
Someone in China has a laser printer that can print OK quality images on large format paper.
They wrote a script that looked for Amazon listings with the word “poster” in them.
They downloaded the thumbnail image for each poster.
They added themselves as an “other seller” of each listed poster.
Anytime someone ordered one of the posters, they would print out the thumbnail image of the poster and mail it out.
Of course anyone getting one of these crappy printouts of the Pi Poster thumbnail image would immediately cry foul (and probably literally cry), but think about all the Wet Cat posters and Fat Baby posters and Sexy Fireman posters on Amazon. For any of these, the buyer getting the crappy printout of a thumbnail image just thinks they bought a crappy poster. The person who put all the work into making the original poster gets nothing, except maybe an unearned bad review of their product saying how crappy it is.
What to do?
If you sell posters on Amazon, you should watermark your thumbnails with text that says something like “This is a thumbnail image, the actual poster you will receive is a high quality, hi-res image”. This way if someone gets a poster in the mail with that text on it, they will at least complain and you’ll know what happened.
If you sell anything on Amazon, you should keep a close eye on your “other sellers” section. If any pop-up, it is probably a good idea to buy your product from them just to see what is going on. Is it really your product, or a crappy knock-off? If it is really yours, how did they get it? From you? From your factory making extra runs without your knowledge?
If you sell anything anywhere, it is probably a good idea to put a treacemark on every unit that lets you track where and when it was made, and hopefully even track back to when you lost custody of that unit (sold to end customer, dropped to distributor, sent to FBA?). This can help you find (and hopefully fix) any inventory leaks you have.
Add, of course, you should by a (genuine!) Pi Poster for yourself and everyone you know who loves math and digits!…