A little later, Parsons appeared at the practice, and we started talking about Best Fares. After 9/11, the airlines had ended commissions to travel agents, and Parsons saw $1.5 million in revenue disappear overnight. Worse, airfares plummeted, and with them, Best Fares' subscriptions. From a high of 159,000 in 2000, membership had fallen by almost half, and much of the almost $5 million that evaporated was pure profit.
Parsons was refining a couple of schemes to lure his customers back. One was a promotion to steer members to airline websites, where they could book online for a $20 discount. Another rebated 70% to 75% of his commission on vacation packages. Parsons believed he could have kept a bigger cut--he did not think his members would notice--but he decided against it. "I'm really trying to give my subscribers one hell of a deal," he said in the twilight, as we watched Bryan, his friend Aaron, and their teammates run one-on-one scrimmages. "I want to push it as hard as I can to make sure more money gets into their pockets. As long as I'm saving the guy $50 or $80, he's happy. And I'm happy because he's going to go tell 10 more guys."
However compromised the lesson plan for P&S might have been, Bryan still grasped the credo his father lived by at Best Fares. Clearly a lot of people have decided that they do not need an intermediary to help them fly cheaply. Under such circumstances, customer service may be the best weapon the firm has left.
Those summer days were good ones for Parsons & Sons. Some merchandise did extremely well. A limited-edition Disney pin with Stitch holding an eBay auction gavel--a freebie that came with other cheap pins--reached $71 one week. The lots of 50 state pins, which Parsons cobbled together for $125, routinely sold for $300 or more, and once soared to $405. Also popular were Disney car antenna toppers, little plastic balls molded like Mickey Mouse ears and other characters that often returned at least $4 on an investment of $1.50. In mid-August, Parsons confidently predicted that in another month the firm would have $30,000 in the bank, with the peak shopping season still to come.
More than once he compared his sense of "mission accomplished" with President Bush proclaiming victory in Iraq.
At first, Bryan continued to put in long hours at Parsons & Sons even after school started. He reconciled himself to the monotony of the job--he understood it would be no better anywhere else, and he was grateful to have a flexible schedule and friends around. On the other hand, he had soccer and a girlfriend, too--a "long-distance relationship" (meaning she lived 15 minutes away), so he could see her only on weekends, when his dad wanted him at the office. By October his grades were slipping, and he was failing geometry. Something had to give. Parsons hired a woman who was between jobs to help out.
He, too, was reappraising the value of his time--"I make too much money to spend so much time on this," he said--and it was only partly a reaction to the ambivalence he detected in Bryan's priorities. Parsons knew he had neglected Best Fares. The latest talks to sell the company had stalled, and his thoughts turned to righting the course. He lured new vendors to the rebate program. He negotiated savings off his long distance, Web programming, and other expenses totaling between $1.4 million and $1.7 million a year. Membership picked up a bit.
In early December Parsons, claiming some $40,000 in the bank, declared Parsons & Sons a success. "I've given Bryan a year's worth of a run for his money," he said. But he did not sound completely convinced. More than once he compared his sense of "mission accomplished" with President Bush proclaiming victory in Iraq on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln back in May 2003.
Bryan Parsons suspected that Parsons & Sons could have avoided a lot of problems if his father had just let him keep inventory.
Perhaps that is because at the time the business was unraveling. As Bryan saw it, the trouble began in late November, after, he said, his father listed merchandise in bulk without checking to see if it was actually on hand. When it turned out that they didn't have many of the items they had listed and sold, they had to scramble to calm customers--either by coming up with the toys or by issuing refunds. Disorder snowballed: Spending so much time trying to fix the problems made it impossible to list more auctions, and when they finally did, they made the same mistake again--just in time for the holidays. If Parsons had listened to Bryan and David back in the spring about inventory, Bryan said, none of this would have happened.
"That's garbage," Tom spat, clearly annoyed, in a separate conversation. "There was no mistake. The mistake was delivery. The mistake was the kids didn't have time. It's not for a teenager, running the kind of shop we were running, and pushing as hard as I was. When school started, eBay went from one or two on their list to No. 10. Well, they can't do that." Parsons had a point here, and even Aaron Fenton admitted later that "we didn't take it seriously once in a while." Subsequently, Parsons discovered another culprit: The automatic listing service Parsons & Sons had retained for $4.95 a month had inadvertently duplicated some listings. As for the chaos that followed, Parsons was baffled. "That one last month, I'm not even clear how--how, how--that many orders got messed up," he said. "And I don't believe that many did get messed up. It could've been the post office they were shipped to."
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