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EBay and Other Online Auctions: Richard Seltzer's Advice to Sellers

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Guide to EBay for Sellers

Let's examine EBay. It isn't a Web site, a store, or even an auction house, in the traditional sense. There is no auctioneer, no master of ceremonies. And EBay does not act as the proxy for any seller. It resembles a massive electronic flea market or bazaar. At the same time, with its thousands of categories, it links people with common interests, in an open, self-regulating way. Millions of people gather here, and millions of items are for sale. In number of users and in diversity of content, it is comparable to the entire Internet back in 1993, just before the Web took off. You might easily be overwhelmed, become lost, not know how to begin to sell.

If you have not sold anything at EBay, now is a good time. Do some spring house-cleaning and find items to sell that are in good shape. The odds are that what you don't want, someone else does. You might make some money while you learn a lot about how Ecommerce works, even having your own business. You have the possibility of having your own  "Ecommerce" business without needing your own Web site. In any case you can use EBay as a global recycling facility.

First  Steps

Marketing at EBay

For any single auction, your results may be random. But if you sell regularly, a number of factors will determine how high the bidding will go. These include:

Picking Categories and Writing Titles

Today, eBay has over 2 million auctions organized in over 1600 categories. And EBay only lets you list any given item in one category at a time. How can you determine the best place to post your items -- without endless experimentation? And how will potential buyers ever find your items if you don't find that perfect category? How do they navigate through this maze?

While some people, as matter of personality, will naturally browse through categories and subcategories and sub-subcategories, and so on; many simply click on "Search" and enter words that they'd expect to find in the titles of items they are interested in. (The more sophisticated will change the default setting of the search box, clicking to search for words in both titles and descriptions. But, apparently, most people don't know they have that choice).

To get started as a seller, you should think what words you would use in the title for your item and search for those words, then click on a variety of items in the list of matches to see

If you see that some individuals have multiple items listed in the same category, search by the user name of those particular sellers to see the range of what they have on sale, and whether they are listing the same kind of thing in just one or several different categories.

Also keep an eye out to see if some individuals are bidding for many different items of the same kind. If so, then search by bidder name and see what you can determine about what draws these heavy buyers to one item rather than another.

For new and near-new consumer goods, the category is likely to be very important -- just as it is in navigating through a department store. But for collectibles the category often doesn't matter because so many buyers use search to find what they want.

In other words, try to pick a category that will help your sale, but don't over-estimate the importance of category. In some cases, buyers, using Search, will find you regardless of where at eBay you hide your auction. And, also, if your item doesn't sell the first time around, you can always relist it in a different category.

Think of eBay as made of numerous sub-communities: collectors and buyers of particular kinds of things. Over time, these people build relationships with one another at eBay and through email messages to one another and other online contact. Their expectations of one another depend on their common experience. The behavior of newcomers (people with little or no feedback) is likely to be unpredictable, while that of the veterans will be more consistent. The newcomer might misinterpret a standard description of the quality and condition of an item, and be disappointed with a purchase even though the seller was quite precise and accurate. On the other hand, a newcomer might well bid far higher on an item than an old timer -- not knowing what such items have sold for in the past and how frequently such items are likely to appear again for sale.

You might be reluctant to sell at eBay, even though there is an enormous audience of potential buyers there, because you are afraid that your item will get lost among the millions of others posted there. You might think that you would do better at a focused auction site, devoted just to the kind of thing that you have to sell -- such as baseball cards or comic books. In my experience, that is not the case.

For instance, selling comic books at eBay, I got many bids from people who had no specific interest in comic books at all. They were searching for "dogs" or "Disney" or something else that they avid collect, and my comics happened to have the right words in the title. If I were selling at a comics-only auction site, I'd never get bids from those kinds of buyers. And those buyers, because they are unfamiliar with prices in this particular category, arriving here tangentially, are likely to bid out of all proportion to what you'd get from regular collectors with experience in this sub-community of eBay and with ready access to reference books about prices for this kind of collectible. Remember, you don't need for millions of people to see your item. All it takes is two enthusiastic bidders to raise the price beyond rational levels.

This buyer behavior means that the words in your title are probably more important than the category you choose. Remember, that's the "title." Today eBay's search engine does not look at words in the description -- only the title.

Reputation and Feedback

In the real world, you sometimes rely on word-of-mouth reputation, but far more often you think in terms brand name. Yes, brand is based largely on paid advertising. But what matters in that context is not so much what the companies say about themselves in those ads as the fact that they are large enough and properous enough to advertise enough for you to remember them. That means that you should have no problem finding them if you have a question or problem related to your purchase.

At an auction site of this kind, whether buying or selling, you are dealing with individuals whom you have never met, and probably never had any dealings with before, and probably never heard of before. In theory, feedback comments are indications of trustworthiness, like word-of-mouth reputation. And the star labels that eBay gives based on cumulative ratings are a makeshift form of community-based brand.

Both for fear of shame and for practical reasons -- not wanting people's distrust of you to interfere with your ability to make deals -- the community-based ratings system means both buyers and sellers have good reason to deal fairly with everyone, and even to go the extra mile to be sure that everyone they encounter has good reason to think well of them.

I find that for low-cost items (under $20), people at Ebay tend to be very trustworthy. My policy, (which is counter to what nearly everyone else there seems to do) is to ship the merchandise immediately upon receipt of the buyer's address. I don't wait for payment. Often I receive payment days after the buyer has received the goods. But that practice

There's no quicker way to build someone's trust than to trust them -- immediately, with no strings attached.

The typical eBay seller waits for arrival of a check or money order, or even waits until the check has cleared. Shipping immediately means that the buyer gets the goods far more quickly and is also likely to be pleased by this unexpected sign of trust. The value of the positive feedback you are likley to get from such a policy is far greater than what you are likely to lose from the rare person who will try to cheat you (especially given the feedback system). If I can raise the average final bid for one of my items from $4 to $16 through trust, then if I lost a few payments the benefit is well worth it. (And after several hundred sales, everyone so far has been good about paying).

For higher priced items, you need to weigh what you stand to gain, with what you risk, and decide what makes sense for you.

Self-policing

The rating systems also operates as a self-policing mechanism, similar in effect, though quite different in practice, from the way newsgroups operated before the dawn of the Web. With newsgroups, if anyone misbehaved, acting rudely or inappropriately, other members quickly spoke up and reprimanded. You don't see newsgroup-style candor here. Most people are afraid of getting negative feedback and go far out of their way to avoid it. At the same time, they are very reluctant to give negative feedback, even when they believe strongly that it is deserved; because whoever they give that negative feedback to might give negative feedback in return.

You could take issue with the EBay practice of lumping together all feedback -- both as seller and as buyer. An individual selling something might have a very impressive star, but may have earned that reputation entirely as a buyer -- never having sold before. And the fear of feedback retaliation seems to lead to a stalemate, with no one really saying what they think.

On the other hand, this stalemate in the formal feedback mechanism means that most misunderstandings and dissatisfaction are dealt with in the privacy of person-to-person email. And the threat -- without the necessity of the reality -- of negative feedback encourages everyone to be considerate, reliable, prompt, and accurate in their descriptions of what they have to sell.

In general, unless you have a major gripe against someone (which is likely to be a very rare occurrence), you should immediately enter positive feedback for every buyer, as soon as the transaction is done -- and send the buyer a quick email saying that you've given that feedback, which is a gentle reminder that you would appreciate feedback as well.

Particularly for used items and collectibles, the description of the condition/quality of the item is extremely important. The difference in value between a baseball card in "fair" or "good" or "fine" or "excellent" condition can be enormous. But a bidder must be sure that the description is accurate before taking the bidding high. Vendors who have very little feedback will find that most bidders don't take them at their word, and assume that the condition is probably worse than the description indicates, and will bid cautiously. But bidders who have lots of positive feedback, and especially those where the actual comments praise the accuracy of the descriptions, will command top dollar. In this environment, as a seller, you benefit from being very conservative in your descriptions -- mentioning every little defect. That increases your credibility for that item, and at the same time makes it likely that the buyer will be pleased, helping to build your positive feedback.

For collectibles, what does feedback mean in terms of price? I sold several hundred comic books at EBay. When I started -- and had the "shades" to indicate I was a newcomer -- I only got bidders on about 30-50% of my auctions, and the final price was often the starting price: $3. After a month, the shades went away, and I was well over the 10 positive feedbacks needed for a "star". Soon comparable comics were generating prices of $15 to $30; and one brought over $120. The mechandise was the same. Thee descriptions and categories were the same. All that had changed was my reputation -- both in the formal feedback system and also in direct dealings with regular buyers, who saw that my descriptions were conservative and accurate and seeing that I shipped immediately, and hence went out of their way to find and bid on my auctions.

Relationships With Buyers

Keep in mind that along with the community-based reputation of feedback, you are building direct relationships with individuals. Someone who buys one thing from you may well be interested in bidding in other auctions of yours. In the description, tell how you acquired the object. Be chatty and friendly as well as accurate and informative. Then include friendly questions and comments in your correspondence about payment and shipping. By so doing, you can uncover what else they are looking for and why they collect what they collect. I've done many deals offline with eBay customers, based on their interests. You can also get clues as to how to better group, organize, and describe what you have to sell at eBay. For instance, selling bottle caps -- what is the optimum number of caps to have in an auction lot and should they be mixed (many different kinds) or all of the same kind?

If you have many items that fall into the same general category, over time you develop your own niche -- establishing a reputation in that sub-community at eBay and perfecting your descriptions and email messages, based on what you've learned from your previous auctions and related correspondence.

Another side effect of selling at Ebay is the people you meet. For instance, someone who bought a Wild Bill Hickok comic book from me had just sold a script to a TV network for a pilot for a series set in Deadwood. Someone else bought an old copy of Playboy because there was an Elvis Presley poster inside. The buyer is an avid fan, who legally changed her name to "Presley", bought a house next to Graceland, and moved there from New Jersey. She now makes a living selling Elvis-related memorabilia.

Credit Cards

If you already have a small business, you may have a merchant credit card account -- an account which allows you to accept credit card payments. If that's the case, you should give customers the option of paying by credit card.

You might be reluctant to do so with small (under $10) transactions, because the credit card processing companies take fees out of every transaction. But keep in mind not only that

How do people pay you by credit card? In all probability, you do not have a secure encrypted ecommerce system of your own, and eBay does not provide that for you. But it is a simple matter for buyers to email you their key credit card information -- number and expiration date. If they break that information up in a series of two or three email messages, that makes the transaction extremely secure -- probably far more secure than giving your card to a waiter at a restaurant or telling it to an operator over an 800 number.

As my feedback rating and personal reputation at eBay grew, the percent of buyers who wanted to pay me by credit card climbed from zero to about 15%, with most of those from eBay veterans who have bought many items that way and have learned the value and convenience of trust.

We often hear that many people are concerned about security in doing credit card transactions over the Internet. I'm seeing the opposite at Ebay -- far greater levels of trust than you'd normally expect in the "real" world. About 10% of my customers send me cash through the regular snail mail -- including a customer in Germany who has no problem at all about sending $100-200 at a time that way. Some of these people don't have checking accounts, and don't want to go to the hassle of buying money orders. Others are overseas without credit cards, but with US currency. Rather than jump through hoops to come up with a secure and mutually acceptable payment method, they find it's simpler to just stuff the cash in an envelope.

Starting Prices

If you are selling something unique that you only have one of, it can be very difficult to determine the starting price, because that may well be what you end up having to sell the item for. Depending on the item and its value, that could be a major gamble. With a high starting price, you probably won't get many bids and may get none at all. But with a low price, you could give up a valuable item for practically nothing.

eBay allows you to set a "reserve" price in addition to the starting price. This is the minimum price at which you would be willing to actually sell the item, but the bidders do not know what that number is. The theory is that a low starting price will interest bidders, but, with the reserve, you protect yourself from letting the item go for too little.

In practice, however, bidders hate auctions with reserve prices. It is very frustrating to come back again and again over the duration of an auction (typically 3-7 days), to finally enter the winning bid, and then to discover that there was a reserve which is higher than your final bid, which means you don't win at all. Hence most bidders will not participate in auctions that have reserves.

You might consider testing the market, by running an auction with a reserve to see how high the bids go. If they go over your reserve fine. In any case, you'll get an indication of the level of interest in your item. And if you relist without a reserve and maybe with a low bidding price -- which you can and should highlight in your description -- the bidding will probably go higher than it did with the reserve. But it's still a gamble.

It's a lot easier to deal with prices when you have many similar items or many that at least fall into the same general category, and when you wouldn't mind selling a few for $2 or $3, if the average sale were up around $20 or $30. Then you can fine-tune your pricing over time, based on experience.

For my auctions, I put the starting price as low as I can -- just a little more than break-even given all the time involved in posting the description, communicating with the winner, then preparing, packaging, and shipping the goods. A low start attracts a first bidder and activity breeds more activity. Remember, for many people, online auctions are entertainment. They get caught up in the excitement of competition. Hence you want to do whatever you can to attract a second bidder and a third -- to make it a contest. And a low starting price is an excellent way to get that rolling. For instance, a comic I sold for $34.00 was posted with a starting bid of $2. Other similar comics that I posted with a start of $10 or even $6 got no bids at all. In other words, if you have enough items in the same category to build a niche for yourself, low starting prices are likely to bring you higher average final sales costs.

The vast number of participants at eBay makes this possible. It's a bit like brownian motion -- if you get enough of these bidders banging around and you have enough similar items for sale, the bidding on any individual item will be random, but over time the results for a large number of items will be very consistent and predictable and you can, with confidence, sell valuable items with very low starting prices.

There is one important exception here -- beware of seasonal variations. For many collectibles, activity at eBay drops precipitously over the summer. Keep a close eye out for the seasonal buying patterns associated with the kind of thing that you have to sell.

Timing

When should you start and end your auctions?

The market fluctuations for different kinds of goods tend to be different. Experiment to determine the optimum pattern/rhythm for what you have to sell, and adapt your behavior accordingly. Is spring, summer, fall, or winter best for you? Do you do better with auctions that end on weekdays or on weekends? If weekends, is Saturday or Sunday best? And what time of day do you want your auctions to end, to make it more likely that interested buyers will be connected during the final, potentially exciting and hectic moments of your auctions?

Also, what is the optimal length for your auctions? As of now, you only have four choices for the length of your auctions -- 3, 5, 7, and 10 days. Which works best for you?

People buying for hobbies and personal use are likely to connect evenings and weekends, or maybe over lunch break from work. People buying items for use at work, may prefer business hours.

Also, remember time zones. 6 AM on the East Coast of the US, pretty much rules out participation from the West Coast where the time would be 3 AM; but might be convenient for folks in London, where it is 11 AM. If you end auctions at around noon Eastern Time, that will allow Western Europe and California to get involved in last minute auction frenzy for your items.

Also, remember that the audience is global. If you have a potentially large market south of the Equator, the seasons are reversed there (winter there when summer here). And for Australia and the Far East, noon time there is midnight on the East Coast of the US.

From my experience selling collectibles, I do best with auctions that end on weekends -- Saturday a little better than Sunday. And 9 PM Eastern Time works best for me as an end time. For others who are selling new and refurbished merchandise, like digital cameras and computer gear, week days may be better than weekends.

Having done your calculations, the general setup at eBay makes it difficult to get the ending time you prefer. The time of day that you start is the time of day that you end. If you start your auction at 8 PM, it will end at 8 PM -- you cannot select an ending time. So you have to plan ahead and post at the right time to get the right setup. And if you have dozens of items you want to post, it will difficult to get them all in with an end time close to what you want.

Shipping

In the auction choices, be sure to indicate that "buyer pays shipping." If you already know how much that cost will be for your item, include that information in the description.

Remember the cost of packaging as well as the postage, and also try to minimize the time that it will take you to package your item and drop it off for shipment.

If you have a choice, sell small items rather than large ones. Sell items that will fit in a standard size box that you could send parcel post, rather than selling furniture or pianos. And better still, in the US, sell items that will fit in a flat-rate priority mail envelope.

In the US, for an item that could cost $2 or more to mail first class, you are better off sending it in a flat-rate priority mail envelope for $3.20. If you went with first class, you would end up spending nearly $1 for a padded envelope, which would add weight and raise the postage cost. Even if the first class postage would be less than $2, you sitll might be better off with priority mail because the cardboard flat-rate envelope provides good protection for paper goods, like comic books, and your package is likely to arrive sooner at its destination, with more careful handling.

Also, with flat-rate priority mail, you know the shipping cost right away without going to the trouble of weighing -- if it fits in the mailer, then regardless of weight, the cost of $3.20. This gives you the opportunity to use the shipping cost as an incentive for people to bid on more than one item from you.

In my case, if the buyer is getting one comic or five, the shipping price is $3.20, because that many can fit in a single flat-rate envirope. When the typical winning bid for a comic might be $2.00 to $10.00, saving on shipping can be a strong incentive for someone to bid on more than one from the same person, which helps drive up bids, and also greatly simplifies my logistics. For 45 comic book auctions, I might end up having to ship just 15 packages (and just keep track of 15 customers).

But priority mail isn't the only way to use shipping charges as an incentive. You can make special offers in your product description -- for instance, free shipping to anyone buying a certain number of items. Or you might, in followup email messages to winners of your auctions, offer those individuals a special break on shipping costs on future purchases of theirs from you (either from Ebay or arranged directly between you by email).

The importance of shipping cost as an incentive or disincentive varies widely. Some people will pay without hesitation shipping charges that are equal to the cost of the goods, or even double the cost, perhaps because the item you are selling is difficult to find or perhaps because the buyer lives in an isolated area or for one reason or another finds it difficult to get to physical stores where they could find anything comparable. Other people will drive many miles to pick the goods in person and thereby save a few dollars in shipping cost. Be flexible and understanding.

Global Marketplace

Even if you indicate in your product description that you will not ship internationally, you will get bids from outside the US. You should welcome, rather than discourage, such bids. In some cases, the special circumstances of the bidders make it likely that they will be willing to pay out of all proportion to the perceived value of the item in the US.

The cost of shipping a package that weighs less than four pounds is less than $10 to most countries. And, in any case, you can set the terms when you post the item, and should have it as "buyer pays shipping."

At one of our chat sessions, Ron Rothenberg noted that he had just sold a keyboard to someone in Brazil. The winning bid was $30, and the shipping charge was $40. Even at a total cost of $70, the buyer was delighted -- to him, in his local marketplace, this was a bargain.

My best comic book customers were in Germany, the Netherlands, and Qatar (on the Persian Gulf). Two of them paid with credit card, and the other sent US currency in cash by snail mail (see the section on "credit cards" above).

Photos and Marketing

Using photos at eBay, I've rediscovered the obvious: "seeing is buying." Words bring traffic to a Web site (that's a favorite theme of mine), but pictures sell. Text conveys information. Photos convey emotion. Text can tell you about a product, but a photo can make you fall in love with it. A picture's value for conveying information is over-rated -- in most cases, it is certainly not worth 1000 words. But the emotion conveyed can be very important when you are selling and especially when you are selling by auction, where price is not fixed, but rather is set by the irrational, emotional decisions of bidders.

Once I was able to take good digital photos of my comics, I found myself literally falling in love with some of those old comics, with their amazing cover art. It became hard for me to part with them. Fortunately, bidders fell in love with them, too. (Keep in mind that decorative graphics and photos that have nothing to do with products for sale are still of very questionable value, and are often negative. But for e-commerce, you need to show what you want to sell.)

Whatever you have to sell will probably sell better if you include a photo in your posting. You could take traditional photos and when you get the film developed request them in digital form, on diskette or on CD ROM. Or you could use one of those low-cost video cameras you plug into your PC for online two-way video, and save still images. But it's simplest if you use a digital camera.

At first I used the "Big Picture" video camera and capture card from US Robotics, because I already had it installed for videophone kinds of things. But that confined me to taking picture a short distance from my computer, because it was connected by a short cord. And it was difficut to get the lighting right. But even with those drawbacks, I could see that my items sold better with than without photos.

I signed up at Xoom (www.xoom.com) for 11 Mbytes of free space and uploaded my photos to Xoom using FTP. Then I entered the URLs of the photos in the auction form at Ebay, along with the descriptions of the items, etc.

After a couple of months and a few thousand dollars in revenue from selling comics and bottle caps, I decided to splurge and buy a digital camera. I decided on a Sony Mavica, because it is so simple to use and stores photos on ordinary 3-1/2 inch diskettes, that I can pop right into my computer for viewing, editing, and uploading.

The new camera cut the time it takes me to take photos down to about a fifth what it was before -- which is very important if you are selling dozens of items at a time. It also allowed me to take the photos wherever I like, because there is no cord. That makes it far easier to set up for the best lighting. In addition, the resulting photos were larger and sharper -- giving a much better idea of the true condition of collectibles.

If you've been itching to get a digital camera, this could be the excuse you've been looking for.

In general, you should set up a "studio area" -- with dark non-reflective background and lights set up the way you want them; so you only have to deal with those details once.

With the camera I have, I can zoom. In any case, I see the image that I'm going to get on the screen in the camera, which means that I can get just the image I want, without having to crop afterwards. Remember you are taking these pictures for a business purpose -- not art. You want a clear, sharp, appealing picture, but you can't afford to spend a lot of time getting it, unless your item is going to sell for a lot of money. For something that is likely to sell for under $10, you really don't want to take more than two minutes taking the picture.

About the only editing I do on these photos is rotating the image, if I held the camera sidewise.

Auctions and Collectibles

In all your dealings as a seller at online auctions, remember that many bidders participate for the entertainment value, and that they my bid irrationally high because of the emotion and the competitive excitement. Do whatever you can to foster that state of mind -- in your descriptions and even in your follow up email. The person with the highest bid is a proud "winner," not just a consumer. They have won the right to buy this particular item, and they like to feel good about it. When you first write to the winner of one of your auctions, always say "congratulations."

There are some people who "shop" at auctions, wanting to get a good price for a quality item, but just wanting to get in and out with a minimum of hassle. Those aren't the folks you want to cater to. You want to appeal to the folks who enjoy the auction experience.

And if you sell collectibles, you also want to tap into nostalgia. Many of today's online auction buyers are looking for items that they once possessed as children. In our society, many families move frequently, and parents typically throw out many items that they believe are of no value or that they believe their children have grown out of. Years later, when those kids hit middle age, they have an urge to get back in touch with their past, and will go to great lengths to obtain long lost items they associate with their childhood.

Experimenting at Ebay, I've discovered an interesting law of economics. (Perhaps this is well-known, but I had never heard of it before). The less the intrinsic value of a mass-produced object, the more likely it will become valuable over time as a collectible. (Their lack of intrinsic value means that few people will save these objects, which means that they will become rare. And the fact that they were mass-produced will mean that they are imprinted on the consciousness of many, and thus subject to nostalgia by association, and hence will be in demand.)

As a result, I can get more money selling a fair-condition bottle cap than selling a 100-year-old book that's in fine condition.

This changes the economics of collectibles. There used to be a large gap between the prices a dealer could get selling to collectors and the prices an ordinary collector could get selling to a dealer. Now anyone who knows how to play the online auction game can sell at dealer prices. In fact, anyone with a little knowledge and ambition and online savvy can become a dealer -- buying and selling in the same online marketplace and serving the irrational but very real needs of those who want to buy a piece of their childhood past.

Additional Promotion

Each of your auctions at EBay has a unique URL, which makes it easy to send or post pointers to your auctions. You can even use the link on each of your auction page to "mail the auction to a friend."

If you have your own Web pages, you might want to include links from there directly to each of your current auctions. As an alternative, use Search at EBay, to look for yourself as a seller. That brings you to a page with a list of all your auctions. Copy the resulting URL and make a hyperlink from one or more of your Web pages directly to that list -- that way you won't have to change links as auctions of your end and start.

You might also want to add a line to the standard signature file you automatically add to your email messages, pointing people to eBay's list of your auctions.

If there are related newsgroups or email discussion lists or forums, consider posting brief notes about your auctions there (if that is appropriate behavior for that particular group). Or join in newsgroup discussions on topics related to the kinds of things that you are selling, and append to your postings your signature file with its link to your auctions.

If you send out paper communications about your business and your auctions are related to your business, be sure to mention your online auctions. Depending on how important this is to you, you might even include a brief plug in your voicemail message.

Even though the traffic at other person-to-person auction sites like Yahoo (auctions.yahoo.com) and Amazon.com is far less than at eBay, you might want to post a few auctions there, and in the descriptions point people to your similar auctions at eBay. Even if you don't get many sales, the promotion value might make the postings worth the effort.

As Tracy Marks noted in one of our chat sessions, one clue to how well this "outreach" effort works is the number of bidders who have "0" next to their names -- in other words, the number of first time bidders. Some of these may be just random visits by eBay newcomers. But if you see a sudden rise in newcomers right after you do heavy promotion outside of eBay, it's likely that many of them are coming in direct response to your messages.

The Gray Zone

As you begin to get creative in your promotion, some tactics will occur to you that eBay prohibits. Be sure to read the eBay community rules carefully.

Since eBay provides you with the email addresses of everyone who bids on any auction -- not just yours, you may be strongly tempted to build mailing lists of people interested in the kinds of things that you have to sell. For instance, you can click on "bid history" and get a list of the usernames/"handles" of all the bidders; then click on an individual handle and, after entering your own eBay username and password, see that person's email address. The temptation may be very great, but don't go down that path. As a rule of thumb, never add anyone to an email list without their explicit permission. Otherwise, many recipients of your promotional messages are liable to consider them as "spam" -- unsolicited and unwanted advertising. Some will probably be mad enough to send you nasty messages in return, to remember you and not bid on your auctions in the future, perhaps to give you negative feedback at eBay, and perhaps to complain to eBay management, who frown on "misuse of bidder information." They don't want their members subjected to spam, and will take steps to prevent a recurrence.

In general, it is not a good idea to initiate contact with an unknown person who is a bidder at EBay for the sole purpose of selling something to them off-line. But there's a wide gray area, involving personal rather than mailing list messages, that you might want to explore. For instance, if you have more than one copy of an item that you put up for auction, when the auction ends, you might want to contact the second highest bidder. This message could let them know that you are starting a new auction with the same kind of item. That kind of message would be perfectly acceptable to eBay management. Or you might want to ask them if they would like to make a deal off-line for a similar item. eBay management would frown on that because they don't get posting and transaction fees for your off-line deals. But what matters most is how the recipient of your message would take your suggestion. If the bidding was intense, and this person really wanted that item, your message may be very welcome. On the other hand, if you were sending the same kind of message to someone who was the second highest bidder at someone else's auction for an item similar to what you have for sale, that would be taking a step out of the gray and into the dark side.

At the other end of the gray spectrum, when I conduct business at Ebay, I build relationships with repeat bidders and buyers. People email me with questions while an auction is going on. They ask me if I have a certain related item and would be willing to sell it to them off-line. And when someone repeatedly bids on or buys items of mine, and we repeatedly correspond on the subject, I feel no qualms about letting them know about other related items of mine that they clearly would be interested in. The auction takes place within the community. But what I do in other ways with folks that I met there is really my own business.

But keep in mind that the acceptability and desirability of a given tactic depends on the kind of item that you are selling. Personal off-line communication is common and generally welcome with regard to collectibles, especially rare items. But if someone is selling brand name, mass manufactured merchandise, the temptations to over promote and the reactions of potential buyers to their messages are likely to be quite different. For instance, someone might try to operate like a vulture, watching other people's auctions and offering the very same merchandise to bidders at a lower price. While some people might welcome such a bargain offering, such behavior disrupts the auction environment an is a clear violation of community rules.

On the other hand, if you are a regular seller at EBay, with many items in the same general category, you can expect that frequent bidders will occasionally contact you and ask for an "off-auction" price for a similar item. As Ron Rothenberg noted in one of our chat sessions, "Some people find the idea of auctions just awful and don't have the patience." Those kinds of people might use EBay as a way to identify sellers and then make their own separate deals, quickly and simply.

Publicize Your Web Site

Search engines Search engines such as AltaVista (www.altavista.com) and Google (www.google.com) index the contents of Web pages for free for the benefit of people who want to find information on the Internet. They send out webcrawlers -- robot programs that automatically find and retrieve Web pages and add the information to their indexes. They find Web pages from links to them on other pages. If your Web site is new, there are probably very few links to it; and it could take many months for the webcrawlers to find you on their own. So go to each of the search engines and where and how to "Add URL". )For links straight to the free submission pages of the major search engines, go to www.samizdat.com/submit.html, (so you don't have to hunt and click multiple times, working your way through the maze at each search engine site.) That article also includes brief descriptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the various search engines.

Enter the URL of your home page, or better still the URL of a "sitemap" of your page. Keep in mind that some crawlers will only go one layer deep at your site. In other words, if you submit your home page and it has links to about a dozen other pages, and then have links from them to other pages and from them to others, etc., the crawlers will only follow the links from your home page. Hence you are best off creating a "sitemap" page, with links to every page at your site and submitting that page, instead of your home page. For details on that approach see the article at www.samizdat.com/site.html

Your information will probably be indexed eventually, don't hold your breath -- it could take anywhere from a month to three months from the time of your submission. Recently, search engines have been pushing hard to convince Web site owners to pay for rapid and/or guaranteed inclusion of pages in their indexes. As part of that effort they have degraded and slowed down their free submission process. If you are desperate and have money to burn, check their offers. But they typically charge for each and every URL to be included (not just for a complete crawl from your home page or sitemap page), and the cost can be astronomical for even a medium-size site.

By the way, if you follow the design recommendations discussed in Chapter Two, your chances of being found and well indexed will be much better.

For more details about how search engines work and how to use them for the benefit of your site, see the tutorial at www.samizdat.com/tutorial.html  For advice about common problems that may prevent you from being well indexed and that derive from misguided notions of "branding" and from Web page design tools that generate unnecessarily complex pages see "How to use content to attract traffic to your Web site, even when branding rules saddle you with a search-engine unfriendly design".  You also might want to check the other search-related articles at www.samizdat.com/search.html

Translation

If you want to want your English-language pages to be found by and understood by people whose first language is French, Spanish, Italian, German, or Portuguese, check Chapter 7 for details on how to use AltaVista's free automatic translation service. You might also want to check how I do this at my own site (see the header for this chapter.)

Directory Listings

While AltaVista indexes every word on every page, directories like Yahoo and the Open Directory are categorized lists, which help take you to the home page of sites that might be of interest to you. These directories are usually hand-assembled based on information provided by the Web sites that are listed. Many of these directories are subject-specific. Depending on the kind of information at your site, you might want to do some research to determine which of these specialized directories might be important for you. For details, see the article, "Search engines and directories: when to use which" at www.samizdat.com/dir.html

For the Open Directory, expect a 2-4 week delay from when you submit your information to when people can find you through one of these directories. For Yahoo, which is the most popular and most important, it sometimes takes longer than three months for a submission to be entered.

If your site is for a school (K-12), then register with Web 66, the Internet's oldest and most comprehensive list of school web sites.

There are a number of sites which are set up to help you submit information to many different general directories at one time. For example, Submit-It (http://www.submit-it.com) lets you -- for a price -- fill out forms to submit information about your pages to over 400 search engines and directories. They also have a variety of paid Web-promotion services. Other paid announcement services, such as PostMaster at http://www.netcreations.com/postmaster/index.html will send an email press release to a large list of Web sites and print and broadcast media outlets. Web promotion companies change their services and prices frequently, in response to changing demand and also to changes in the Internet business environment. They also often provide useful advice an information at their Web sites for free. Before investing, take a few minutes to check out their Web sites and learn whatever you find there. Here are some other important companies of this kind:

Whatever way you decide to go, make sure that you can tailor your messages for the audience -- you don't want your submission to look the same as hundreds of others and hence go unnoticed. You also want to be able to keep records of who you send your messages to and to track success.

Remember that while it's hard work to do it all individually by hand, you're liable to learn a lot more about the Internet doing it yourself rather than depending on someone else to do it for you.

Many sites are setting up telephone-book style directories that have "yellow pages" sections for businesses and include phone number, address, email, and URL, when that information is available. Some accept and post this information for free. Others post basic information for free and charge for more extensive information. Most of these start with info extracted from regular phone books, but will accept business listings from companies that aren't included in the printed "yellow pages" books. Keep an eye on these sites. The rules of the game keep changing, and new opportunities keep opening up. Here's a starters list of such sites:

Newsgroups

Whatever the subject matter of your Website, there's probably at least one and maybe dozens of newsgroups that would be appropriate for a brief announcement.

The group for general announcements of new Web sites is: comp.infosystems.www.announce

Always read samples from a newsgroup before posting there, to make sure your message is appropriate and so you can tailor your message to the audience. You can probably get a list of newgroups from your newsreader software or your Internet provider. Your best resource for finding and reading newsgroups items is Google (which bought the service previously run by Deja.com). Go to www.google.com and click on "Groups".

There you can search through all current newsgroup items, for instance for topics related to the content at your Web site, so you can see which newsgroups include similar material. (Google boasts that they have a complete 20 year archive of newsgroup postings -- including over 700 million messages.) You can also read the items themselves, familiarizing yourself with the style and culture. And even if you don't have access to newsgroups through your Internet service provider, you can post to newsgroups through Google.

Another source on the Web, which also has useful how-to and netiquette explanations is at the University of Indiana -- http://scwww.ucs.indiana.edu/NetRsc/usenet.html

If you site is non-commercial and related to education, you might want to try some of the following: k12.ed.soc-studies (social studies), k12.chat.teacher (teachers), k12.library (school librarians), alt.education.alternative , or alt.education.distance.

Email Distribution Lists


There are numerous public email lists which are similar in content to newsgroups. Typically, you sign up using automatic subscription software (sending messages in fixed format to the appropriate address). Just like with newsgroups, people do not want to be bothered with irrelevant messages and unsolicited advertising.

One site which maintains lists of such email lists and instructions on how to use them is http://tile.net/listserv They can tell you the right format in which to send your email messages to subscribe and unsubscribe to these groups. Some require you to be a subscriber before you can post, and others are open to any appropriate postings. Be sure not to post a commercial message to a clearly non-commercial list or you will get inundated with hate mail. And beware of subscribing to too many lists yourself -- a single list might generate dozens of messages a day, which is great if you're very interested in the subject matter, but otherwise soon becomes a nuisance. And if you do send messages to these lists, keep them as short as possible, as a courtesy to others. If you want to convey a long message, point them to a site where they can fetch it, or invite individauls to send you email requesting that document.

For a searchable directory of email discussions/distribution lists, try Topica (www.topica.com). They bought the company that previously provided a terrific searchable list known as Liszt, and unfortunately have scaled back that service. They now seem to primarily promote the lists that they themselves host. If you know of any similar, but more comprehensive service, please let us know. seltzer@samizdat.com

Some non-commercial lists related to education include:

On-line Forums

Many of the same topics discussed in newsgroups and in mail lists are also covered in public forums (AKA bulletin boards or notes files). The software typically allows you to post a comment as a new topic or as a reply to a previous one, so over time a "thread" of discussion grows.   You'll want to participate in the most active and promising discussions directly related to the content at your site, subtly and politely letting the people there know who you are and what they would find at your site. Once you are established, you may want to start a forum of your own and perhaps scheduled chat sessions to interact with your audience and let them interact with one another.

Places to Discuss Internet Marketing Issues

New resources keep coming on line every day. To keep pace, and to benefit from the experience of others who are trying to promote their Web site and market over the Internet, you should read and participate in on-line discussions about Internet marketing, sales, and advertising.

The best of the many email and Web discussion lists dealing with Internet Marketing died in June of 1996. Glenn Fleischmann had done an excellent job of moderating and maintaining this free service, which reached an audience of about 10,000 people. The archives of Internet-Marketing Discussion are still maintained at http://www.i-m.com/

The readers and contributors who feel its absence should consider the following alternatives:

Business on the WWW www.samizdat.com/chat-intro.html

Chat session scheduled for Thursdays, noon to1 PM (Eastern time in the US, = GMT -5 when Standard Time and GMT -4 when Daylight Savings Time), hosted by Richard Seltzer. The edited transcripts -- with a wealth of information -- are available at http://www.samizdat.com/chat.html

Online Advertising Discussion List http://www.o-a.com

This email discussion focuses on professional discussion of online advertising strategies, results, studies, tools, and media coverage. The list also welcomes discussion on the related topics of online promotion and public relations. The list encourages sharing of practical expertise and experiences between those who buy, sell, research and develop tools for online advertising; as well as those providing online public relations and publicity services. The list also serves as a resource to members of the press who are writing about the subject of online advertising and promotion.

Asian Internet Marketing (AIM) http://www.aim.apic.net/

This is the home site for a listserv for people in Asia who are trying to figure out how to best use the Internet for marketing. (To join the list, "subscribe aim" on first line of an email to majordomo@apic.net).

Guerrilla Marketing Online http://www.gmarketing.com/tactics/forum.html

Forum for sharing marketing ideas.

Web Consultants mailing list (1200 subscribers) http://just4u.com/webconsultants/

The site have the archive of the mailing list discussion but a directory of consultants and other Internet marketing resources. The discussion is available by email either complete or as a digest. To subscribe to the digest send a message to webcons-digest-request@just4u.com in the body of the message type: subscribe webcons-digest To subscribe to the complete discussion list send a message to web-consultants-request@just4u.com In the body of the message type: subscribe web-consultants

Intranut -- nuts about Intranets (on-line magazine) http://www.intranut.com/

Articles plus a (forum) discussion area.

Internet Marketing Communications Mailing List (IMARCOM)

Discussion moderated by Robert Raisch, The Internet Company, and others within The Internet Company and IWORLD/Mecklermedia. To subscribe, send to IMARCOM @INTERNET.COM Subject: SUBSCRIBE IMARCOM Message: Your Name, Your Company's Name

International business discussion group for small businesses (ISBC BDG)

Send e-mail to majordomo@wildstar.net Include the appropriate one of the following in the body: subscribe isbc-bdg <your e-mail address> or info isbc-bdg Or send e-mail to nick@isbc.com

The Internet-Sales Discussion List Moderated by John Audette -- over 7000 subscribers.

This is a very active list with some excellent discussions about all aspects of Internet business. John typically sends out one or two issues a day. The archives are posted at http://www.mmgco.com/isales.html. To subscribe, send email to i-sales@gs2.revnet.com and include the word "subscribe" in the body of your message. To submit your comments for possible inclusion, send email to newpost@mmgco.com

Marketing Lists on the Internet http://www.bayne.com/wolfBayne/htmarcom/mktglist.html.

List of marketing-related discussion groups.

Internet Developers Association http://www.association.org

Intended for Internet content providers, this association maintains a discussion listserv for its members.

Internet Entrepreneurs Support Association http://www.iess.com/iess

To join a discussion group for entrepreneurs and businesses doing business on the Internet, send e-mail to majordomo@ix.entrepreneurs.net Include the appropriate one of the following in the body: subscribe iesslist <your e-mail address> or info@iess.entrepreneurs.net

ISBC Business Discussion Group newsletters http://www.isbc.com

As one of the main aims is to foster international business relations editions in french, spanish, german, dutch, russian and chinese are already in place or are being set up.

Abracadabra! (Charles Puls & Company mailist) http://www.abracadabra.com

To join in marketing discussion send email to mailist@abracadabracom with the word SUBSCRIBE in the body.

Market-L List

This is the list that Internet-Marketing originally spun off from. To subscribe, send email to listproc@mailer.fsu.edu in the body of the message, write subscribe Market-L <your name>

CAN-IMARKET http://www.idirect.com/jasmine/canimarket.

This mailing list is a group dedicated to Canadian Internet Marketing. The list is open both to consumers and sellers of goods and services on the Canadian Market. Non-Canadians are welcome to participate. To subscribe, simply send a note to can-imarket-request@idirect.com with the word subscribe in the body of the message.

ORACLE-AGORA

This list is dedicated to New-Age Marketing. It is open both to consumers and sellers of goods and services in this market. To subscribe, simply send a note with the word "subscribe" (without the quotes) to: oracle-agora-request@idirect.com

On-line Magazines and Newsletters

It seems that new publications of this kind appear every week. Search Yahoo (http://www.yahoo.com) and Lycos (http://www.lycos.com) for the latest.

Here's a list of some of them, with the email addresses of editors. Be sure to read the publications before sending them email:

On-line editions of Traditional Publications

Many traditional print publications now have Internet editions. Search Alta Vista http://www.altavista.digital.com/ and Yahoo http://www.yahoo.com/ for the print publications and editors you are familiar with and want to reach.

Also check the online media list which I've started at http://www.samizdat.com/media.html

Mutual Pointers

Find sites that appeal to an audience that is similar to the audience you want to reach and try to negotiate mutual pointers (for free). Search Alta Vista and Yahoo to find such sites. Similarly, contact any natural allies who are already on-line and negotiate.

Netiquette

Whatever you do on the Internet, strive to understand and respect the culture. This new business environment has enormous potential -- don't pollute it. One of the many useful reference documents on this subject is maintained by the World Wide Web Consortium http://www.w3.org/pub/WWW/Provider/Style/Etiquette They also maintain a detailed "Style Guide for Online Hypertext" http://www.w3.org/hypertext/WWW/Provider/Style/Overview.html


Ebay for Sellers: An Overview

I’ve written lots of articles with practical tips for sellers at Ebay.  But Ebay is a moving target. They keep adding services, adding features, and changing fees.  I have a hard time trying to keep base for my little business, publishing book collections on CD and DVD.

I’d like to share some of my experiences and insights.  But please keep in mind that the tips I deal with here relate to a business that manufactures its own products or has a limitless supply.  The approach would be different for selling collectibles and items that you have only one or a few of or that you have to buy from another vendor.

First, Ebay added Ebay Express.  From my perspective, that is a service devoted to products that you can put in the mail within 24 hours.  If you include a fast turnaround time in your listing, your items should turn up in Express in addition to the standard listing, at no extra cost to you.  (Check Ebay for details).  I was delighted through searches to discover that nearly all my items show up in that new format. Here’s what I find when doing an Ebay Express search for items for sale by me  http://search.express.ebay.com/merchant/richardseltzer

Next, I discovered that I had been wasting many hours per week unnecessarily.  Yes, I have an Ebay store, which for about $49 per month lets me have all my items “permanently” listed, with listing fees of a few cents each per month. But store items don’t normally get included in Ebay search results (WHY???). That means to be found, and for people to find my store auctions through the cross-promotion that comes free with the store, I need to also run open auctions for some, if not all of my items. Open auctions last a maximum of 7 days. So when an auction ended because the time ran out or because of a sale, I went through the tedious processing of relisting it by hand (about five minutes per item when response time is good).  But by signing up for Sales Manager Pro (for a small monthly fee), I am now able to set automated relisting rules for each of my items. I choose to relist all of them whether they sell or not.  At first I chose to relist the slower selling ones at various delay times — a day later or three or five or seven days later.  Then I realized (duh!) that Ebay added an extra fee for “scheduled” relistings.  So I set all my items with immediate relisting and distinguished among fast selling and slow selling items, by having my best sellers as 1 day auctions and the others as 3 day, 5 day, or 7 day, at no extra cost.

The 7 day saves me a lot on listing fees, but, at first I thought that limited how many copies of a given item I could sell, because at best I’d only sell one every 7 days.  Then it dawned on me (duh! again) that Ebay lets you end an auction at any time, with the highest bidder at that point being the winner.  It’s rare that people bid up the price of my items.  So in many cases, when I see that there are bids in the “selling” section of “My Ebay”, I cut those auctions short, record the sales, and relist immediately.

Great.  But with one Ebay glitch — when you end an auction that has automatic listing, the automatic listing fails.  You have to relist the item manually and then go back through Sales Manager Pro to once again assign automation rules.

By the way, Selling Manager Pro also lets me set up to automatically provide positive feedback to the people who buy from me (that too is a major time saver; it’s also good for customer relations, since in the past, I often forgot that important step).

At various times, I stumbled on other new Ebay features — second chance offers (if there were several bids on the same item, when the auction ends, you can send messages to the “losers” offering them the same item at the last price they bid; that brings additional sales without any additional listing cost), and “accept offers” which means you can put a relatively high price on items for sale in your store and consider offers to buy at a lower price.

Then a few months ago, Ebay made an offer to Ebay store owners for free phone consultation.  I signed up right away. And soon had a very helpful conversation with a knowledgeable support person.  That way I learned that now my cross-promotion listings could include 12 items, that I could choose to have my items appear at international Ebay sites, that I should improve the names of my store categories (more informative names with “keywords” that potential customers might be looking for), that I could opt to change the basic format of all my listings so links to my store categories would appear near the top,

On the negative side, Ebay recently did away with its keyword advertising program, which had been the best way to drive traffic to an Ebay store. And they raised the fees they charge for listing and relisting at your Ebay store. That’s bizarre.  You’d think they’d go out of their way to help their store owners make more sales.  But they are doing the opposite — making it harder and harder for Ebay shoppers to find store items; making it less and less profitable to run such a store at all.  The free phone consultation was great; but these new changes are terrible.


New EBay Insights

I presumed that having a longer time for your auction to run, would bring more bids and hence higher prices. So I set all my auctions for 7 days (the longest you can run without paying a premium). And sometimes I paid a few extra cents to have them run for 10 days (the maximum).  That may well be the right way to go if you are selling collectibles or articles that you have a limited supply of.  But in my case, these days I'm selling book collections on CD and DVD that I make myself. And in that case, my old strategy was dead wrong.

I find that nearly all the bidding happens in the last few hours; and many people get bored with auctions that last too long, and hence don't participate. And when I set up an auction for one day instead of seven days, that means I have the opportunity to sell as many as seven copies of a CD in the time I would have otherwise sold just one.

In the past, I had all my CDs listed at full price (as buy-it-now auctions) at my eBay store; and I would selectively duplicate a dozen or so as regular (non-store) auctions, at the same buy-it-now price, for better visibility in eBay searches.

Now I make selected CDs available in one-day open-price auctions. My costs are higher, and my profit is less; but I make far more sales, reaching new customers, who, once they've been introduced to the concept of book collections on CD, come back repeatedly for more.

Selling at eBay is far different from selling at an online store.

At eBay, I get charged one fee after another -- a fee to post a listing, a fee for every little extra in the listing, a final value fee, and a PayPal payment fee (90% of the time, customers elect to pay by PayPal). I typically end up paying over a dollar on fees when I sell an item for just $6.

You need to set a very low starting price for bidding in order to attract bidders. But you also have to be prepared for the case when the starting price winds up the final price, and for days when half or more of your one-day auctions might have no bidders at all (but still cost you listing fees).

Many sellers set their shipping/handling fee to cover their fixed costs -- the fees, the postage, the shipping envelope, etc. Some even include the cost of the materials that go into making the product. Hence you'll see items with a starting price of two or three dollars and a shipping/handling cost of $10 or more, even as high as $50.

In my case, after lots of experimentation (eBay is a great place to experiment with prices and sales terms as well as products), I arrived at a starting price of $4, for the typical CD, and a shipping price of $3.50 (first class, inside the US). That compares to a sales price of $19 and no shipping fee (inside the US) for a comparable CD at my Yahoo Store.   Sometimes demand drives the total cost at eBay (price plus shipping) higher than the Yahoo cost. Sometimes the items sell for the starting price. And sometimes an item that one day went for $15, the next day won't get any bids. I need to stay alert to avoid losing money, watching what days seem best for selling these products and which products sell best; and varying which items are available at open auction, and how many items overall.

At first, I only offered my "best sellers" at open auction. But when you have an eBay store (I'm at the $49.95/month level -- not a big deal), every listing includes cross-promotional ads for another 3-4 items of yours. So for my 35 cent listing fee, I'm not just advertising the item described in the listing -- I'm also advertising my other products. So it often pays to list lots of items.

I go out of my way to ship within a couple of hours of when I receive payment. Aside from striving to make the best possible product, that is the best way delight customers.

At first, I rigidly insisted on not offering shipping discounts when a customer bought more than one item. Now I charge $3.50 for the first item (in the US), and $1 additional for each additional CD bought at the same time. That reduces my profit margin, but the additional sales make it worthwhile.

Dealing with hundreds of eBay customers every month makes record-keeping even more important that it was before. For instance, you can waste a lot of time trying to deal with customers who send checks with no indication of what they are paying for (and that happens all too frequently). But if you set up your record keeping with too much detail (or with a database), you could spend so much time on paperwork that you end up losing money.


Selling  at EBay: Updated Tips for Serious Sellers

(based on a speech/tutorial delivered in Boston in June 2004)

You can use EBay as a sales channel, an additional way to reach a global marketplace with tens of millions of buyers. At the same time, you can use eBay to quickly conduct market research, to experiment, and to learn. Think of eBay as a vast laboratory where you can research the competition and quickly test the effort of your products, your pricing, and your marketing ideas either at low cost or while making a profit. Elicit customer reactions and suggestions to your pitch and your products. Get experience interacting with customers online, learning their expectations, and figuring out how to delight them.

To succeed as a serious long-term, EBay seller, you need:

Yes, there is money to be made, but just as you can set up to do business very quickly, tailoring your pitch and pricing to go head-to-head against the competition, others can join the fray just as quickly, researching what you are doing and going one better. The risks are great.

You can sell

In this article, I'm going to focus on customers.

To make your life easier, you should focus on things that are easy to package and ship, with predictable/repeatable weight and size. And you should stick to products that you use and appreciate yourself, that you understand well and care about. And instead of selling one of this kind of thing and one of that, you should focus on just one or just a few similar kinds of products, so you can build a reputation in that sub-community at eBay and encourage repeat business.

EBay offers several different ways to sell.

You can set up standard auctions where you indicate the "starting price," and the final price is determined by competitive bidding. That approach works well for collectibles, one of a kind items, and old or limited supply items -- whenever the enthusiasm of potential bidders might drive the price to illogical levels. In this case, you decide how long the auction will last (e.g., 5, 7, or 10 days), and there is no way for anyone to buy your items before that time has expired. You pay EBay a fee (which varies by the starting price that you set) to list each item. And if it sells, you pay a final value fee which is a percent of of what you get from the customer. And you have to pay whenever you relist an item.

You can also sell in "Buy It Now" mode, where you establish a fixed price, and the "auction" ends as soon as someone agrees to pay that price. The fees are he same as with standard auctions, but you could sell multiple copies of the same item in the time it would have taken you to run a single "standard" auction. This approach works well when you have a large renewable supply of the same goods, or you make the goods yourself. It's also good when you don't want the delays of standard auctions or the uncertainties of a variable auction price.

With both those ways of selling, you potentially make your pitch to all the tens of millions of people who use eBay regularly and who might chance upon your listings by conducting searches or by browsing through the categories of goods at eBay.

With the third way of selling -- eBay store -- you don't have access to that massive EBay traffic; rather you have to generate your own traffic.

They offer three different kinds of EBay stores.

For $9.95/month (currently), you get to set up a simple online store to which you can try to drive traffic by email, advertising, links, etc.

For $49.95/month (currently), you also get automated "cross-selling." In other words, potential customers who are looking at one of your items see prompts/links to other related products of yours, making it far more likely that a customer will buy more than one item. (I find this a good deal. I run such a store at eBay in addition to the online store I have at Yahoo for $49/month. Each store reaches a different audience.

eBay also offers "Anchor" stores for $499.95/month (currently). With an anchor store, banner ads for your store appear perhaps millions of times on pages that eBay visitors see. That sounds great, but I found it useless -- the extra money generated no additional sales.

The posting fees for items you add to your eBay store are very low (a penny or two), and you can set these auctions up with multiple copies of the same item at no extra cost and set the time  frame at "good until canceled" so you don't incur relisting fees and   don't have to go to all the time-consuming hassle of relisting items that have sold. Final value fees are comparable to those for regular and Buy It Now auctions; but, of course, you only have to pay those fees when your goods have sold.

An EBay store makes sense when supply is not an issue, and you have many copies of a variety of different related items and are in business for the long run. The store setup lets you organize and categorize your items as you please, rather than strictly adhering to eBay's cumbersome category system. Hence a store minimizes the cost and effort of keeping lots of items available for sale online.  If you are in touch with your own online customer base and can point them to your EBay store -- great.  But your store items won't be included in EBay searches and will appear low on the lists of items that customers see when they browse by categories.

I find it pays to list all my items in my EeBay ;store and to also list my bestselling items as Buy It Now auctions, so people searching at EBay can find those best-selling items, and my cross-selling links can lead them to my EBay store.

I also pay for text ads at EBay that are tied to "keywords".

When people buy from you or sell to you at EBay, be sure to give them "feedback." In theory, feedback is either positive or negative. In practice, with few exceptions, feedback is positive, and the value to the recipient comes not from the creative friendly words entered, but rather from the quantity of positive feedback. That number indicates who is a newbie and who a pro -- it's a primary indicator of credibility (for both sellers and buyers). People appreciate receiving feedback; so give it promptly and regularly -- that's a friendly stroke that helps build good relations with customers, at no cost to you.

While you should not believe the specifics of feedback comments, the feedback system is an important element of the eBay business model. Fear of negative feedback serves as an important motivator encouraging buyers and sellers to treat one another fairly, and helping to keep the community together.

Because buyers will look skeptically at the offerings of newbie sellers, you should not begin to sell seriously until you have at least a ten positive feedbacks. You can get those feedbacks by buying things you want and need at eBay and asking the seller to give you feedback. Your experience as a buyer will also help you when you switch roles and sell.

As a seller, keep in mind that the beset way to build trust is by trusting. (e.g., I don't wait for payment before shipping. I ship as soon as the sale is completed; and by doing so, I get burnt very rarely, and I very frequently turn ordinary customers into delighted customers, likely to come back for repeat sales.

Other simple ways to delight online customers include:

What's the value of positive feedback? When I started selling at EBay, I experimented selling collectibles in standard auctions. Selling old bottle caps, when I had little feedback, only about a quarter of my auctions got any bidders, and almost always when the items did sell, my starting price was the ending price -- nobody bid the price up. Then after I had two dozen positive feedbacks, three quarters of my auctions got bidders, and the end price was sometimes higher.

Likewise, when selling old comic books, with little feedback, the average sale price was about $2 to $3. But once my feedback got up over two dozen, the average sale price went up to over $10.

In addition to standard feedback procedures, communications with customers are very important. Friendly, prompt, and informative email messages build relationships and relationships lead to return customers. For example, messages thanking customers for buying and telling them you'll put their items in the mail the very next day might include short and friendly questions and comments that could prompt them to let you know why they are buying what they are buying and why they value such things and what other similar things they are interested in. Based on such information, you might decide to change what you sell or how you sell it. Every communication is an opportunity -- so avoid sending automated or canned messages. If you know your products and love them, you probably have something interesting to say about them, and probably would enjoy sharing related information and opinions with customers.

It's easy to get caught up in the excitement of selling and to focus on the money coming in, losing track of your costs.  Keep careful records -- not just for tax purposes, but also to make sure that your pricing and your practices are leading to a significant profit.

Take into account:

You should set up your operation so other costs are covered by the customer. These include: You should set up so the shipping cost is predictable and so it is automatically included in your EBay listings and in the customer costs that are included in EBay's check-out totals.

Also, don't underestimate the time required to seriously sell at EBay

Take advantage of all the time-saving tools that EBay provides. My EBay neatly organizes and automatically updates information about all your auctions. In addition, you can post a bio page at EBay (for free) which answers many likely customer questions, so you don't have to answer individually, over and over again, and EBay automatically adds to that bio page a continuously updated and linked list of all your auctions and also all the feedback you have received.  EBay will also host on the Web the photos for your auctions (the first photo for each listing is free). For writing your listings, they give you a choice of html (where you write the markup code the way you ant it) and automated where you just type in the words and they automatically add the appropriate code). They make it easy to relist items and to sell similar items, providing you with forms that have the previous information already filled in -- so you don't have to retype it and can just focus on the few things you want to change.

If someone wants to pay immediately online, EBay makes it easy for them to do so with PayPal. If they don't decide right away how they want to pay, EBay makes it easy for you to send an electronic invoice, as a reminder.

My eBay keeps track of everything for you and even reminds you to relist and to leave feedback, and makes the leaving of feedback easy.

If you have questions, you can ask for online help -- chat-style -- from the EBay home page, and within a few minutes you should be in touch with a knowledgeable live person.

If you regularly sell about $1000 or more per month through EBay, you'll automatically become a "PowerSeller." The most tangible benefit of that status is a detailed monthly report of your sales, sent to you by email.

You should, of course, promote your individual auctions and your EBay store by all means at your disposal: your own Web site, your won email list, your own newsletter site, text and links in your standard email signature, etc.

You  can help stimulate additional business by offering discounts on shipping costs for those who buy multiple items (EBay makes that easy). You can also offer special discounts to repeat customers, telling people about that offer by email when you are getting ready to ship their merchandise.

And, if you have an EBay store, in addition to buying keyword advertising at eBay, you should consider buying keword-based text advertising at Google Adwords as well. (Check http://adwords.google.com for details on how to do that.)



EBay Update: What's Changed

Three years ago, when I began actively selling at EBay, the process was complicated. So I wrote articles with practical advice based on my experience. I was soon contacted by an online auction management company, AuctionRover, to write a column for them. Back then, third party services with auction management tools were essential for serious sellers. Such services made it easy to put photos in your listings, and to have your auctions start just when you wanted them to rather than the moment you finished writing the description, and saved lots of time by making it easy for you to keep track of the many logistical and record-keeping steps involved.

Since then, in the wake of  the dot-com crash, most of the auction management companies floundered, but EBay has continued to thrive. How do they do it? By listening to customers, working hard, and paying attention to all the details that matter to customers -- making it far easier and less time-consuming to sell through their service -- moving to the point where they now do just about everything that the third party services used to do, and more, and do it very well.

So what have they done?

Customer Service 

In the past, if you had a question about eBay (and with millions of people participating in what for many is a bizarre new experience, they must have received an enormous number of questions), there was no way to phone anyone to ask. If you couldn't find the answer in the online help files, you had to send email. Then, if you got an answer at all, it would be a long, long wait. Today, they use an online application known as "LivePerson", and usually within a couple minutes you can chat live with an eBay support person. It's very effective. I suspect that lots of people who before would have gone away confused, and never returned, are now converted to loyal eBay sellers and buyers.

Online Payment

The typical model in the past was 1) auction ends, 2) seller sends email to winner stating the total cost (including shipping charges), 3) buyer sends check to seller, 4) on receipt of check, seller sends merchandise to buyer. That process would typically take 1-2 weeks. And the auction itself typically took a week. So, if nothing went wrong, it might easily be three weeks from the time an auction started to the time the merchandise was sent.

Now eBay owns PayPal, an easy-to-use online payment service and is integrating it into the overall functionality of the eBay site. PayPal has numerous options, but basically it enables people with credit cards to pay you without you having to have a merchant credit card account. Sellers who opt to accept PayPal can quickly put a PayPal logo on their auction description with a link that makes it very easy to pay right away once you have "won" an auction. Now many goods bought at auction are paid for immediately online this way, and the goods can be shipped that same day or the next (if the seller is efficient), making the whole experience much more satisfying and profitable. (NB -- There is no charge for buyers using PayPal. Sellers pay a small fee to collect the funds, comparable to what you'd pay a merchant credit card service).

Scheduling Auctions

Early this week I got email from eBay seller who had read an old article of mine talking about the capabilities of AuctionRover, especially the ability to schedule when your auctions would start. I replied with regret that such services no longer exist. Then that very afternoon when checking my ongoing auctions at eBay and relisting an item, I saw that eBay had just initiated that very service (with no fanfare at all -- it was simply, quietly added to the list of choices when you post an item). Now you can pick the date and the time (to the quarter hour). Previously, an auction automatically started the moment you posted it, and it ended at that time of day, 5, 7, or 10 days later. So if you wanted your auction to end at 9 PM on Saturday night (a good time for collectibles), you'd want to start it at 9 PM the week before -- which might be very difficult for you. This new capability is a huge improvement.

Handling Logistics and Record Keeping

Now on your "My eBay" page, you can see a full summary of all your buying and selling activity at eBay, with links to the individual listings. When someone "wins" one of your auctions, from your "My eBay" page, you can with a click send an "Invoice" to the buyer; and three days later you can with a click send a payment reminder. And on the other end, the "checkout" process for the buyer has been streamlined as well. There is no need for composing or copying/pasting personal emails back and forth, but there is the opportunity to add a few personal comments or detailed instructions to the standard message (which includes all the relevant facts, like item name and number and the closing price). They also make it very easy to "relist" an item or to list a new item that is similar to one that you posted in the past -- carrying over all the past choices and text and letting you quickly make whatever changes are necessary.

In addition, to add photos, all you have to do is browse your hard drive to find the file, then click to upload it. (In what now feels like the distant past, you needed to post your picture at a personal Web site or at a third party service and link to it.) It's even much easier to post feedback on sellers and buyers.

For those who have never sold at auctions, these details may seem insignificant. To serious sellers, they are the difference between having a profitable, pleasurable experience, and wasting hour after hour in tedious tasks, in a mode where even if you make money, it isn't worth the effort. Overall, brilliant attention to detail by eBay's site designers has simplified many essential steps that used to be annoying and time consuming, and that you might otherwise forget.

Marketing Tools

You can use HTML markup in your listings, and even include links to personal Web pages of yours, where you might post additional detail and additional photos. eBay also makes it very easy to build a bio/profile page at the eBay site, where you can explain who you are and what you are trying to do, and where (automatically, without you doing anything) links appear to all your current auctions, and all your feedback appears. As a buyer that makes it easy to see other auctions that the same seller has going on at the same time. You can also, with a simple click from your My eBay page, add Andale counters to all your auction pages, and then click to see the resulting stats -- how many people have visited which of your auctions.

Buy It Now

In addition to bidding-style sales, eBay now allows you to set a fixed price and sell items as soon as someone is willing to match that price. This approach is excellent for companies that sell merchandise through online stores -- eBay becomes an additional online sales channel, with a large audience of potential customers. If you have multiple identical items to sell (manufactured goods, as opposed to collectibles), you can post them in bundles, so as soon as one sells, another is offered, or you can list and relist, selling them one at a time.

The fee for posting a single item depends on the price you set (for a price of around $20, the current insertion fee is 55 cents). The current fee for posting a quantity of the same item to sell one after the other is the price times the number of items up to a maximum of $3.30. Once an item sells, you also get assessed a final value fee, which varies according to price. For items in the under $25 range, you wind up paying 5.25%, which feels like sales tax. And if they pay by PayPal, you pay another fee, which for a $20 sale currently amounts to about 90 cents. So the fees add up, but if you set the right price, you can do quite well, with very little hassle.

If you sell one at a time, your auction runs out in seven days, unless you opt (as I did) for ten days, for ten cents more. So, unlike with a store, you need to keep coming back to eBay to relist when they sell/run out, and or when the auction time ends without a sale. On the one hand, that's a nuisance. On the other hand, it's an opportunity. I use eBay to experiment with price. I typically have nine items for sale as "Buy It Now" at any one time -- all books on CD ROM. I posted them there originally with $5 discount "for a limited time". Each time an item sells, I raise the price $1 when I relist. Each time one fails to sell in the ten-day window, I reduce the price $1. I've been doing that for several weeks now, and have discovered (at least for the products that I sell) that the market seems insenitive to price; it appears I could charge as much as the regular retail price without reducing the number of sales.

If the merchandise you want to sell is books or CDs, as an alternative, at no cost for listing and with an incredibly fast listing process, you can sell through half.com (a company owned by eBay). At half.com, to list an item, you just enter its ISBN or UPC number and indicate if it's new or used; and if used, what its condition is. If the item was manufactured in the last 10-20 years, the chances are excellent that they already have all the info about the item, including a photo of it, in their database. And here items stay on sale until sold or until you remove them. This is a very low-maintenance sales channel; but, unfortunately, it is also low volume, with nowhere near the traffic you get at the main eBay site.

If you tried selling at eBay a few years ago and gave up in frustration, or your enthusiasm waned as you realized that the time you were putting in taking care of logistics and recordkeeping and listing and communicating with customers simply wasn't worth it, you should give it another try. And if you already sell merchandise online in other ways (such as through your own online store), you should seriously consider using eBay as an added channel or as a marketplace where you can test prices and special offers or as a way to sell closeouts and excess inventory. They have done very good work. Find creative ways to take advantage of their brilliance.



Online Auction Addicts

Auctions have been around probably longer than the pyramids. Now put them online and all of a sudden everyone who can type their own name is buying and selling everything from bottle caps to houses, emptying and filling attics around the world. A way of doing business that cavemen may have experimented with is transforming the global economy, changing forever how goods of all kinds are bought and sold, and becoming a common, legalized, household addiction. Are you kidding? What's going on?

First, don't be confused by the name. Online auctions have very little in common with traditional face-to-face auctions. And that one term "online auctions" is used to label two very different phenomena.

Second, not all addictions are bad. Buying can become a bad addiction, if you have limited funds. But selling can be a good addiction: I'd like to get my whole family hooked on it, and you as well. This is good news that's fun to spread.

At an online auction, you compete with other individuals for the right to purchase goods, and you set the price by bidding against one another. But there is no auctioneer, and you don't have to show up at a particular physical place at a particular time, and you don't have to wait patiently while other items are sold until the one you want is put on the block. Literally millions of items are on sale auction-style over the Internet every minute of every day.

The rules for how to bid are set by the hundreds of different Web sites that run auctions, and the time frame and deadline for the sale of each of these items is set by the individual sellers. Some auctions last weeks, others just 30 minutes. And the "online" aspect, rather than distancing people and making a social phenomenon machine-like, actually makes it more personal, and more immediate.

In the final minutes, people who have never met and who live thousands of miles away from one another can get caught up in a bidding frenzy; and the highest bidder, in a rush of pride and adrenalin, may be ready to shout "I won!" regardless of whether the final bid was a bargain.

At retail auction sites, like OnSale and FirstAuction,  the site itself is the seller, and the merchandise is typically new or refurbished -- often the same brand-name goods that you could buy at a store a few minutes from your home. Here you are tempted by the opportunity to buy at ridiculously low prices. But once you get started bidding, you may lose sight of the price, as you strive to "win" -- like stuffing one quarter after another into a slot machine, hoping that this next bid will be the one that takes you over the top. At these sites, the moment that you win, your credit card is debited the amount that you bid, and the goods get shipped to you right away.

At flea-market-style, people-to-people auction sites, like EBay www.ebay.com, Amazon.com www.amazon.com, the site sells nothing. It just sets the rules and provides the online facility for members to sell to one another. Here, you can be both a buyer and a seller. Here, instead of using automated transaction software, to complete a purchase, you contact the other party by email and snail mail and work out the details of shipment and payment between yourselves, and may get to know one another in the process. This is where you can get hooked on selling: make money selling junk you were ready to throw out, and perhaps become wealthy while having a hell of a good time.

Why Sell at EBay?

Millions of people gather at EBay, and millions of items are for sale. In a typical day, people add more than a quarter million new auctions at this site. In number of users and in diversity of content, it is comparable to the entire Internet back in 1993, just before the Web took off. With over 1600 categories, it resembles newsgroups -- linking people with common interests, in an open, anarchic, self-regulating way. You might easily be overwhelmed, get lost, not know how to begin to sell here.

If you haven't sold anything at EBay yet, now is a good time. Check your attic or basement; do some house-cleaning; and instead of throwing stuff out, put it on sale. The odds are that what you don't want, someone else does. You could make some money, and learn a lot about how Ecommerce works, while recycling stuff that's just taking up space in your attic.

You might be reluctant to sell at eBay, even though there is an enormous audience of potential buyers there, because you are afraid that your item will get lost among the millions of others posted there. You might think that you would do better at a focused auction site, devoted just to the kind of thing that you have to sell -- such as baseball cards or comic books. In my experience, that is not the case.

For instance, selling comic books at eBay, I got many bids from people who had no specific interest in comic books at all. They were searching for "dogs" or "Disney" or something else that they avidly collect, and my comics happened to have the right words in the title. If I were selling at a comics-only auction site, I'd never get bids from those kinds of buyers. And those buyers, because they are unfamiliar with prices in this particular category, are likely to bid out of all proportion to what you'd get from regular collectors with experience in this sub-community of eBay and with ready access to reference books about prices for this kind of collectible. Remember, you don't need millions of people to see your item. All it takes is two enthusiastic bidders to raise the price beyond rational levels.

First Steps for Sellers at EBay

First, search at eBay for similar items now on sale and see how they are described and what kinds of prices people are paying for them. Keep in mind that while auctions usually last seven days, most of the bidding takes place in the last hour or so. So the minimum acceptable bid and the bids early in an auction are no indication of what these things sell for. Bookmark the pages describing items that are closest to what you want to sell. Then go back just after that particular auction has ended to see what the final price was.

Then read all the many pages of info that eBay provides explaining the process and what it costs. There is a non-refundable fee for placing an item for sale, which depends on the minimum price you'd be willing to accept. For items with a starting bid under $10, this fee is just 25 cents. And you start with $10 of credit with eBay, so you don't have to send them any money to get started.

When an item sells, you and the buyer contact one another by email and arrange for shipment. In your posting you should make it clear that the buyer will pay for shipping, and indicate the amount. The buyer sends you a check or credit card number (if you have a merchant credit card account). You send the merchandise. At that point eBay charges to your account a small percentage of the final sale price.

After delivery of the goods, the buyer and seller may input feedback about one another, which then serves as a reference for future buyers who might want to get other things from you. It's a very good idea to describe your merchandise with great honesty and detail, mentioning any and all defects, and to ship immediately. High ratings can be very important for future sales. The environment here is very much like the old pre-Web Internet -- self-regulating, with lots of sharing, and lots of candid comments. If you are accurate in your descriptions and prompt in your deliveries, the system will work in your favor.

For starters, pick one kind of goods to focus on -- something that you know very well. I began with children's books. Within that category start with items that you know won't sell for very high prices. Save items that might conceivably generate competitive bidding until you have built up feedback and perfected your pitch -- you could end up making considerably more that way.

Sell one test item, with a low minimum bid to get used to how the system works. Deliver it instantly when sold. Encourage the buyer to post positive feedback for you.

Once the feedback is online, add listings for many more of the same kind of thing, using your previous posting as the starting point. (For low-priced items, it's important not to waste too much time entering your info.). People bidding on one of these items will probably want similar things as well and will want to consolidate shipments, to save shipping costs, which otherwise might be higher than the cost of the item itself. Mention in each of your descriptions that you have other similar items for sale and would be willing to consolidate shipments. That incentive helps generate interest and pushes the bids higher. When you have 10 positive feedbacks, you get a gold star; after 100 a blue star; 500 purple; 1000 red. These symbols attest to your credibility and reliability, and are very important to bidders.

When you first post items for sale, a sunglasses ("shades") icon appears next to your name. That symbol indicates that you are either a newcomer or you have changed your online name recently, perhaps because of a bad reputation. "Shades" are a warning sign, indicating "Buyer beware. We, in this community, don't know who this guy is." After one month, you lose your "shades". By then, too, you should have some good feedback -- at least a gold star. That's a good time to start experimenting with other categories of goods.

Watch for seasonal variations. For many kinds of collectibles, demand drops sharply from June to August, as buyers vacation. Only post your prime items when you are confident that bidders are active.

Learn While You Earn

Remember, Ebay just links buyers and sellers, who then contact one another by email and snail mail to take care of details and make payment and deliver the goods. And any member can leave feedback -- positive, neutral or negative -- about any other member.

The email helps you build relationships with your customers -- learning what they really want and why. And the feedback becomes the basis of your community reputation and has an enormous effect on the number of bids you get for the items you sell and how high the prices go. When I started experimenting at Ebay, selling old comic books, I was getting an average of $2-3 each. After a month, I'd built up a few dozen positive feedbacks and was getting $10, $20, even $30 for comparable comics.

There's an important lesson here for anyone interested in doing business on the Internet. Successful ecommerce is not about automated transactions. It is about relationships. If I had used automated transaction software to sell those same comics, it would have saved me time and hassle, but I would never have built relationships and reputation and I'd have just kept getting $2-3 each. "Relationship" isn't just an intangible concept -- it can directly effect the demand and price for your products and services. Set up your online business accordingly. Make it people-intensive rather than automated.

Also, consider using Ebay to test market your products and your messages and to establish your pricing. You can tap into a global marketplace with millions of people for an insertion fee of 25 cents.


Retail Auctions: Bargains

If you dare to flirt with temptation, go to FirstAuction or Shopping.com to get a feel for how retail auctions work. There you'll see a variety of goods for sale in auctions set to end in as short a time from as 30 minutes (called "flash auctions"), and with starting bids of as low as $1. You may have seen some of these same items for sale in stores with sticker prices of hundreds of dollars; so what harm could there be in posting a $1 bid? None at all, if you can stop there. First, consider how good are you at stopping after the first potato chip, the first drink, the first cigarette?

Flea-Market, People-to-People Auctions: Sell and Buy

eBay has defined this space -- with over two million items for sale and millions of potential buyers as members who come back again and again. Other people-to-people auction sites, like Yahoo have tried to create a niche for themselves by not charging fees. (At eBay and Amazon.com, you sellers pay a posting fee -- 25 cents for items with starting bids under $10 -- and a percentage of the final sales price -- 5% (like sales tax) on items that sell for $25 or less.) But eBay has achieved critical mass: there are so many buyers there with such diverse interests that whatever you want to sell you are likely to find bidders there, and get good prices -- so good that fees are irrelevant. Also, Yahoo doesn't have a feedback mechanism, which is the heart and soul of eBay. Feedback -- where buyers and sellers can post unerasable evaluations and comments about one another -- makes eBay self-policing, encourages everyone to act in good faith, and rewards trustworthiness, because sellers with good reputations get more and higher bids.



More Practical Advice for Sellers at Auctions

Keep in mind that EBay itself offers a wealth of information for sellers as well as buyers. This guide is not meant to duplicate or replace any of that, but rather to serve as a quick reference for people who are new to EBay and want to sell there and want to get the most for their effort. This is practical advice from one seller to another, tips to help you get started and help you get the most out of your efforts. Aside from being a member, I am not affiliated with EBay; what I have to say represents my own personal views.

Imagine you had a box with 2000 old bottle caps, and you knew that demand was such that you could sell them for anywhere from 50 cents to $4 a piece at Ebay. Could you do so profitably? In other words, can you streamline your procedures such that you could pay someone $10/hour to do the grunt work and still make a reasonable profit? To succeed, you will need to pay close attention to many little details.

Posing the question another way, what is the lower limit, for you personally, at which you can handle auction sales profitably? An average price of $10, $5, $3, even $1? It all depends on how quickly and efficiently you can handle all the steps from posting the item (complete with picture) to shipping it and even depositing the check in your bank account. Don't get stuck working like crazy, selling lots of stuff, and losing money, or losing so much time that it's the same as losing money.

First consider how you organize and group your items at eBay. If you sell them one at a time, the average final price on your auctions will be so low that the 25 cent posting fee will eat up much of it. Also, the time it takes you to post an item and deal with all the details of the transaction are the same whether you sell a single bottle cap or a batch of a hundred. So what is the optimum size of a batch -- to attract bidders, have a reasonable end price, get enough money average per cap, and be able to handle all the logistics in a reasonable time with a minimu of hassle?

Keep in mind that the photo will be an important factor in selling. So the batch size, in part, is limited by how many items you can show in reasonable size in a single digital photo taken with your particular camera. With my old Webcam, I could only show a maximum of about six bottle caps. With my new digital camera, I can, if I wish, handle three dozen.

Correspondence With Customers

The people-intensive sales setup at eBay gives you an opportunity to learn from your customers. When contacting the winner of one of your auctions, ask friendly, chatty questions to find out what they really want and value -- what other items they are looking for, what size lots work best for them, etc. Also, probe to find out if they would rather buy a lot of a dozen or more all of the same kind (because they need them for a special purpose, or because they are buying them as "trading stock"), or if they would prefer mixed lots, or even large lots where each cap was unique.

In correspondence of that kind, some buyers will ask if you would like to sell to them directly in bulk. Sometimes that is quick and efficient. But if you have a limited inventory (you are just liquidating your collection rather than operating as a dealer), you should carefully weigh if you might be able to get much better prices posting at eBay.

Correspondence with customers is one of the most time-consuming, but also one of the most rewarding aspects of selling at eBay. You want to minimize the time you spend on this task, while at the same time getting the maximum value from it -- in terms of information about your particular customers and the auction marketplace for your particular category of goods, as well as reputation. I have a few standard messages as word files, one for each kind of item that I sell. Those messages include general chatty questions geared to learn more about that kind of customer. I cut and paste such a message into an email to the buyer, along with specifics about the particular sale (final bid price, shipping cost, etc.) Sometimes I do that as a new email message, sometimes by clicking on the buyer's email link on the auction page at eBay, and sometimes as a response to the automated end of auction message that eBay sends to both seller and buyer (in that case, I choose to reply to all, which means it goes to EBay as well as the buyer).

Record Keeping

How you set up to take care of all the paperwork involved with selling at eBay is critical to your ever selling profitably. You could easily waste a lot of time -- either by over-recording (making more work than necessary) or by under-recording (meaning you'll have to waste a lot of time sorting out what's going on when people send you checks with scanty information or no cover note at all).

The method I use today works fine for me for handling about a hundred auctions a month. More than that, and I would seriously look into special software for auction management.

Today, I print out the page with all the information about an auction that just ended. I then use that sheet to record any and all additional information regarding that sale -- such as the shipping address, shipping cost, type of payment, and date of payment. I put these sheets in manila folders. One set of folders is for items sent, but not yet paid for. Another set is for completed, paid transactions.

For example, when a comic book auction ends, I print the auction page, with the email address of the winner. (NB -- if the winner's username is not the same as his/her email address, click on that name, enter your own identification information when requested and check the box for the system to "remember" you. Then when you see the email address of this person, click back to the auction page, click on Reload in your browser and that address will now appear on the auction page.)

Then I write an email to the winner, beginning "Congratulations", and providing details of price and shipping cost. Then I add by cut-and-paste my standard comic book message, which has details on how they can pay and how they can reach me. The auction page goes into a manila folder for Comics Pending.

When the buyer replies, providing a street address, I save that message in the eBay folder in my email account, and I write that info on the printed copy of the auction page, and package and mail the goods. Then the auction page goes into the Comics Sent folder, and I make an entry in a spiral notebook, when I include the type of item, a brief description of the particular item, the sale price, the shipping cost, the name of the buyer, and the date.

When payment arrives, I use both the notebook and the auction sheets to decipher exactly what the payment is for (many people are very sketchy about that), write "paid" next to that entry in the spiral notebook, and move the auction sheet to the Comics Paid folder.

When you are dealing with many checks, each for a small sum, the time in dealing with them can become a major cost factor. When I was at the height of my comic and bottle cap selling, I was getting about a dozen checks in a day, for an average of less than $10 each, with many of them (bottle cap auctions) as small as $2.55. I deposited these using postage-free bank-by-mail envelopes provided by my bank, and entered in my check register not just the total of that day's deposit, but also the amounts of each check together with the last name of each buyer. That provides me with a quick extra backup to my other ways of keeping track of transactions.

Obviously, there are many other ways you could handle these tasks. The important point is that you need to be efficient and consistent, and be prepared to backtrack, given all the manifold ways that buyers may respond. For instance, some people won't respond to your email, but rather will send you a check with a note and their street address. Some just send the check, and the only indication of their address is on the check. You'll have to match the scanty information provided by snailmail with the sheets in the Pending forlder to determine what you need to send them. Be prepared for the infinite and unpredictable variety of human response; but at the same time, keep your record keeping as simple and time-efficient as possible. And don't turn to automated techniques until you have had enough experience to determine if you really need them and if they will actually cover the variety you are likely to encounter.

How efficiently you can handle the record keeping will determine how many separate auctions you can maintain at a time. I found, with my homegrown techniques, that I could handle a maximum about 100 simultaneous auctions -- each running for seven days, and with some ending each day of the week. At around that point, the sheer volume and the tedium of all the tasks involved started to become a serious burden. I was able to handle that many only because I had many customers who bought than one auction item from me in the same week, often doing so in order to save on shipping charges. So 100 auctions might translate to less than 30 individual customers, and of those 30 maybe a dozen had done business with me before, and I might even have credit card info on file about several of them. All this repetition cuts down on the recording keeping, as well as the time involved in packing and shipping.

Also, remember your record keeping isn't just for your convenience and efficiency, it is also important for taxes. Keep track of all your expenses and all the money that comes in, and be consistent about how you record information. The IRS is well aware that people are making serious money through online auctions, and every sale of yours is permanently recorded at eBay, as part of their mechanism for collecting fees. So even though you aren't a dealer and are just selling old junk, it would be wise to report all your auction earnings on your income tax return (using Form C).

Reposting Auctions

Posting an auction at eBay can be tedious and time-consuming -- there are so many choices to make, and you want to be so careful about what you say in the description that you could wind up spending fifteen minutes or even half an hour. If your items are likely to sell for under $10, you can't afford spending that much time. If at all possible, sell a series of items that have much in common, so you can reuse your choices and descriptions as much as possible when posting new similar items.

I occasionally print out a page with all my auctions (either using the My eBay feature or doing a search for myself as seller). That list includes the auction numbers which I can use to see an old auction long after it has ended. When I want to post a new item that is similar to one in an old auction of mine, I do a search for that old auction number, then click on "relist", make the few necessay edits (including the URL for the new photo), and submit the result as a new auction.

When I am in a mode of selling a variety of items that don't have much in common, I still do a "relist" from an old auction -- because many of the basic choices will be the same for me (like accepting credit card payment) regardless of what I'm selling, and, aside from the time factor, I don't want to inadvertently make a mistake that could prove embarrassing or costly. I also maintain a few Word documents with standard information I'd want to include in any auction, and copy the pieces that I need into the description, keeping original writing for any given item to an absolute minimum.



Barter and Swapping Sites

This article os the script of a radio program "The Computer Report," which is broadcast live on WCAP in Lowell, Mass., and is syndicated on WBNW in Boston and WPLM in Plymouth, MA.

If you want to clear out your attic or find rare items or shop for used merchandise at bargain prices, you can try online auctions, like eBay; or you might want to check another set of Web sites designed to help Internet users barter or swap merchandise with one another.

For instance, MrSwap.com specializes in music, movies, and video games -- mass market merchandise. That limitation greatly simplifies their business. Buyers know what they are getting, and know what it's worth. For popular items, there are likely to be many listings of each at any given time, meaning that you are likely to find the item you want at the condition and price you want, quickly.

As a seller, you don't have to waste time describing your items or taking and posting photos. MrSwap already has photos on file, together with links to ratings, reviews, and additional info for all common music, movies, and games. You just indicate the condition and the price, and your listing for that item will appear on the same page with everyone else's.

You can become a member for free, and they claim they have over half a million items up for sale.

They use an intermediary payment system -- SwapPoints -- to facilitate swaps. In other words, instead of direct payment of cash between the parties, and instead of having to barter directly, where you have something another person wants and that person has something that you want (which could be difficult to work out), everybody deals with MrSwap. When you sell something, you get SwapPoints; and when you buy something, you spend SwapPoints. If you do more buying than selling, you can pay for SwapPoints from MrSwap at $1 a point.

For the first 20 items you list at the site, you get 20 SwapPoints that you can use immediately to get whatever you want.

When you find an item you want, you request it by clicking the "Swap" button. MrSwap sends an email to the member who listed the item. If the seller confirms, MrSwap sends you an email confirming the deal. SwapPoints get transferred when the buyer confirms receipt.

Shipping is another unique aspect of dealing at MrSwap. They only handle limited kinds of merchandise, of known size and weight. When a swap is confirmed, they send a stamped pre-addressed envelope to the seller. The seller just puts the goods in the envelope and drops it in a mail box.

You pay for shipping and handling at the time you make your offer (by debit or credit card or by funds you previously deposited at MrSwap by check or money order). The transaction goes through when the deal is confirmed.

On the one hand, that mechanism simplifies matters. You don't have to concern yourself about getting envelopes that are the right size, and you don't have to go to the post office to get the package weighed and buy postage. But you end up paying MrSwap a small premium (the "handling" charge) on every item you buy. And their sending out the envelope means it takes longer for you to get what you want.

Like at eBay, there's a rating system. But here buyers just rate sellers, not vice versa, because MrSwap acts as the intermediary. The rating seems intended primarily to help keep people honest when they describe the condition of their goods. At eBay, there are many more variables and much of the action takes place directly in email between buyer and seller; so sellers can rate buyers, as well as vice versa.

Another major barter site, WebSwap.com, deals in all kinds of merchandise. The only limitations relate to legality and good taste.

Membership is free and there's no transaction fee (for now). You can list what you want to buy, sell or swap, with your own detailed descriptions and photos (very much like eBay). You can say you only want cash deals, or can indicate their your willingness to swap.

There is no time limit built in and no bidding, and hence none of the urgency and excitement of an auction. This is more like a fleamarket.

The matching is done primarily by WebSwap's software, though you can browse or search on your own, and when you view a description, you also see a list of everything else that person is interested in buying, selling, or swapping.

If there's a match at the time you post, WebSwap lets you know right away. Otherwise WebSwap emails you later, whenever a match is found. When you get notified about a match, you can click on the item to see the description, can request more info and can see the owner's rating history. Then you can click to make an offer or delete the match.

As at eBay, ratings help keep people honest. Ratings are given to the person sending something by the person receiving it. In cases, of a swap both parties can rate one another.

Unlike eBay, all the communication goes by way of the Web site, instead of direct email between buyer and seller. With the listing, you just see the username and the city.

When someone makes an offer, WebSwap notifies the seller by email, and that person accepts or rejects or makes a counteroffer. Only when a deal is agreed to does WebSwap let both parties know the real names and shipping addresses. If money is involved, you pay WebSwap, and WebSwap pays the seller. After a two-week waiting period (to make sure that everyone is satisfied with the deal), WebSwap cuts a check and sends it to the seller. That puts WebSwap in a position of control, adding an element of safety; but it also eliminates all the human contact that leads to much of the fun of online auctions, and it also means there's a long lag from consummation of the sale to receipt of payment.

To explore other similar sites and what they have to offer and how they operate, go to AltaVista and do a search for

barter* swap*

If you are interested in a particular kind of merchandise and would like a site that specializes in that, add those words to your query. Don't worry about the fact that you'll get millions of matches -- the matches at the top of the list are the ones that are most likely to be useful to you.

Keep in mind that shipping can be a headache when you deal with non-standard merchandise with weights that are hard to estimate and sizes that are hard to fit in a convenient package. It may be quite easy to help people get together and arrange swaps over the Internet. But packing and shipping large items -- like lawnmowers -- can be so complicated, time-consuming, and costly that it just isn't worth the effort.

I believe that problem opens up an opportunity for local businesses -- combining old style flea markets and Internet-based matching. Why not set up a site that lets people list their items and make initial contact; then if it looks like they may have a deal, they can get together at a particular parking lot at a regularly set time. There the buyers and swappers can inspect the merchandise, finalize deals, and drive home with what they bought. And while there, buying or swapping based on contacts made over the Internet, these same folks may see other things they like and make deals for them too. In this case, the commerce takes place very much as before, but the Internet helps ensure that buyers, sellers, and swappers don't waste their time.

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