Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Webmaster’s Work Is Never Done

A great deal of time is spent managing Classical Coins’ website, . When I began development of this business (back in the mid ‘90s) the first thing I came up against was that contracting out development of the website I wanted would run well into six figures. I would have to do it all myself, and thought I could do it in about a year.

Naturally, I grossly underestimated the magnitude of what I was getting myself into. It actually took more than five years. Including learning to manage search engine optimization, the scope and complexity of what I had to learn has been comparable to all the numismatic knowledge that must be acquired to become a coin dealer. Would I perform that task for someone else for $100,000? Today yes, because I have the knowledge and it would not take five years to do it over again. I could easily do it in a year now. I have become so proficient at website development that it is now one of the services offered by my Engineering consultancy.

It’s still a lot of work though. There is always something that has to be done. Even when I’m not making site design changes, I have to deal with all the changes that others are making. Many are initiated by my Internet hosting provider, and there is a constant battle to get their technical support staff to give priority to fixing my problems when my shopping cart suddenly stops working or I can’t access my website statistics. Other changes originate with software providers.

Tonight, for example, I have just finished reconfiguring the site map for Classical Coins - . When you visit a well designed website you will notice that it always has a site map. The purpose of the site map is to provide an organized table of links to all pages of the site, so that visitors can easily find their way around. You might think it was very considerate of the developer to give you such a handy navigation resource. In reality, whatever benefit you may derive from the site map is incidental, because the developer was really thinking about spiders.

Normal people think of spiders as eight legged bugs that spin webs to catch insects. Computer geeks think spiders are bots (a bot is a self directed computer program) that crawl around the World Wide Web visiting all of its pages.

Why would anyone care about cyberspiders? They are spies whose job is to learn and report on the contents of a website to their controlling program, usually a search engine. Spiders are very fast, but not very bright. Thus, to be sure a spider visits your entire website and is duly impressed with how wonderful and important it is, it is essential to give it an easy to use road map of your little piece of the Web – your site map. If you don’t have a site map your website will be hard for the spider to navigate.

I didn’t have a site map. I had a site map page, that once contained a very nice site map, but now it was blank except for the header and footer. I hadn’t changed anything in the site map in quite some time, but a software update had been installed. The update reduced the size of the text windows in the page template. Because the operative part of the site map is a large and very complicated table, the table became too big to fit in the reduced text window and was not recognized when the html compiler parsed the page. You can imagine how much fun I had doing all the detective work to figure out what had happened.

Now I had to completely redesign my site map to drastically reduce the number of cells in the table. That was even more fun. It was so much fun that it is now past four o’clock in the morning, and I haven’t yet gone to bed. I enjoyed myself so much, in fact, that I decided to record how delightful the experience was in my blog before I called it a night.

I think my dreams tonight might include visualizing the entertainment awaiting the guy who changed that text window, when he arrives in the corner of Hades that his deeds deserve.

Friday, March 03, 2006


Classical Coins ( ) is a “one price” store. Many collectors don't understand that concept, so let me take a moment to explain it. A “one price” store offers items at fixed prices that will not be discounted. Haggling over prices is not allowed.

When you go to an automobile dealership to buy a car, have you ever wished you could short circuit the bargaining process with the salesman and just get their best price up front? After all, these guys bargain car prices for a living. They are bound to be better at it than you are, they know all the angles and have important information that is not available to you, such as the promotional discounts they receive, or what they actually paid for a used vehicle.There are car dealers who do operate one price stores, offering cars at the minimum they are willing to accept without allowing any bargaining, and I got the idea from them. I purchased a vehicle from such a dealer in 1996, and it was a very satisfactory experience. The price was fair, the transaction was fast and I still own that very satisfactory vehicle.

Thus, every coin listed at Classical Coins is offered at the minimum price, and you don't have to bargain to get it. Why should I sell ancient coins for less than I could get if I bargained like other dealers? Because I'm not a used car salesman, or a rug merchant in a Middle Eastern souk. I dislike haggling, which impresses me as undignified. Collecting ancient coins is a noble avocation with a very long and impressive history dating back to the days of Augustus Caesar. It was once the avocation of kings and the nobility, who began the great national collections now housed in the British Museum, Bilbliotheque Nationale and similar institutions. Also, although my business does have to make a profit to continue, I am really not in this for the money – I can make far more money per hour working as a consulting engineer.

You will find lots of dealers who will be very pleased to bargain with you. They abound at every coin show, and they hold all the cards. They know the market better than you possibly could, they know what they paid for their coins, and they know how to size you up and accurately estimate what they can get from you. They have already gone through many thousands of bargaining sessions, and they have it down cold. Many dealers who like to bargain don't display prices, and after “sizing you up” will start the bargaining by casually mentioning a figure that may be as high as twice the price they would ultimately be willing to sell the coin for. I know this because I regularly buy coins from such dealers at shows. I routinely make brutally realistic offers that are less than half the “sticker” price, and they are quite often accepted.

You would be surprised to learn how often collectors (particularly new collectors) just pay that initial asking “sticker” price. When that happens, the dealer’s profit may be four times as much as the minimum he would accept. It's a real challenge for a collector to manage the bargaining process so as to find out what the real "bottom line" price is, and only the most experienced and savvy collectors (or other dealers) can expect to do that. You may occasionally be able to get a bargain from such dealers that is better than you would get from me, but in the long run you will save quite a lot of money by buying from a "one price" dealer.

If your collecting pleasure depends on feeling that you “got a bargain,” there are two ways to look at it. Your odds of genuinely “getting a bargain” by haggling over each coin purchase are in actuality far worse than your odds of breaking even playing the lottery. You could certainly get better odds from your local numbers runner, and over the long run you will get far more real bargains from a “one-price” store. Haggling over prices also takes a lot of time, time that I do not have enough of and would much rather devote to more constructive activities such as cataloguing and listing coins for sale.

Finally, an Internet ancient coin store simply is not a good venue for haggling. The software that manages cataloguing and order processing does not know how to haggle (God forbid that it ever should). Consequently, bargaining would involve logging into the “back office” to manually adjust the sale price for each transaction - a great deal of unnecessary work. I prefer to keep prices low and sell coins as efficiently as possible, instead of squeezing the maximum profit from each transaction.

Life as an Ancient Coin Dealer

The profession of ancient coin dealer is among the more unusual and interesting ways to earn a living. Offering ancient coins for sale is certainly one of the most exclusive professions. In all the world there may not be as many as two hundred ancient coin dealers, and they are a rather interesting group.

The greatest benefit of dealing in ancient coins is that this is such a fascinating field. Unlike modern coins, all struck alike on high speed machinery, ancient coins were struck with hammers impacting hand held dies at the rate of one every second or two. This created innumerable variations between individual coins struck from the same dies, and since dies were all engraved by hand, no two ancient coin dies are exactly alike. Every ancient coin is to some extent unique and different.

Offering Greek and Roman coins for sale to collectors is a challenge when approached as a business, not a hobby. A large and costly numismatic library is essential to an ancient coin dealer. That of Classical Coins ( took ten years to acquire, and hasn't yet been fully inventoried, but 1000 titles and $50,000 invested are milestones passed long ago. Another capital intensive aspect of providing ancient coins for sale to collectors is coin inventory. Collectors demand a large selection of attractive ancient coins to choose from. Being extremely value conscious, they then expect bargain prices. There is a constant struggle to maintain an attractive, balanced inventory of nice ancient Greek coins for sale, for example, since many issues sell rapidly while others may take more than a year to find the right collector.

Dealers are essential to the economic cycle of coin collecting. Few collectors give this aspect of their avocation much thought, but dealers are the key to providing attractive coins for acquisition and a market for collections when the time has come to sell. Dealers make the market. They even things out, providing pricing continuity at auction sales in much the same way as stock specialists do on the New York Stock Exchange.

The life of a coin dealer is hard for collectors to visualize. Much painstaking research must be done, in authenticating, attributing and cataloguing coins offered for sale. Homework for acquisitions is equally important, and a dealer who does not pay attention to this will not be in business long. When Classical Coins bids on a coin at an auction, or makes an offer for a collection, the selling price has already been accurately established and as many as a dozen price comparisons per coin may have been involved.

Processing orders is time consuming, painstaking detail work in which absolute accuracy is essential. When an order is received, the coin(s) are first retrieved from the vault. Each order is entered into the accounting system, an invoice is prepared, funds are captured by depositing a check or money order, or billing a credit card, and then the order is packaged and shipped. More than a dozen individual steps occur before the package is taken to the post office. An accountant is a heavy financial burden for a small business, so David fills that role at Classical Coins as well as that of webmaster. The task of developing a major website such as Classical Coins has to be experienced to be believed.