Selling on eBay
- Visual Presentation: No different than any other business, it is vital to understand that visual stimulation will be the first factor for potential buyers to consider when deciding whether or not to purchase an item from you. If you visit an online storefront that looks ugly and unprofessional, are you as likely to spend your money there as you are with a site that offers an attractive first impression? Probably not. Things are no different with online auctions. If your item description is full of spelling errors and all-caps text, lacking in paragraph breaks, and short on images, you put yourself at a disadvantage when competing against other sellers. Unless – and really, even if – your item is one of a kind, there will always be competition on eBay.If you don’t know some basic HTML, learn it. The fundamentals you’ll need for eBay auctions are simple to learn, and you can get a crash course from this free HTML tutorial. Get familiar with the tags used to control font size and color, bold text, separate paragraphs, and insert images.Never list an auction without pictures, as that’s sure to send many shoppers scrambling for their browser’s back button.
If at all possible, avoid limiting yourself to just the eBay-provided hosting for images. If you don’t have a place on the web to host images for free, find one. Most internet service providers (ISP) offer their customers a free hosting account for personal pages and photos.(eBay’s image hosting is vastly improved since this was first written.) You can show more than just the item itself, too. If you’re selling a STAR WARS collectible, an appropriately-sized STAR WARS logo in your listing can only enhance its appearance. If you’re handy with a photo editor, and you’re feeling confident in your HTML skills, light background images behind your text can make your listing stand out from the rest of the pack. You can lighten the image by using an eraser tool in your photo editor and lowering the opacity.
To see an example of how one of my own listings looked, click here for a Batgirl action figure auction layout. Feel free to use it as a template for your own auctions or dissect the code to figure out how tables, font, and images work. You can see the raw HTML code by right-clicking on the page (anywhere except one of the images) and clicking “View Source”.
- Your Asking Price: The first question everyone has about selling an item is, “How much can I get for this?” Research is a big part of being successful in any venue, eBay or otherwise, and the easiest way to find the answer is to see what other sellers got for the same item. At the top right of the eBay page, click the “Advanced Search” link, check the “Completed listings only” option, and start analyzing the final prices. For best results, begin your auction with an attractive opening bid. Don’t fear the reserve price option if you want to open a high-dollar item with a very low starting point, but use the reserve sparingly, and only when necessary.
I like to minimize fees by listing my auctions with an opening bid of 99 cents. Not only does that trim the listing fee down to 15 cents per item, but it also attracts potential bidders to your auctions right away. Even after bidding activity drives the price higher, the early visitors still have your auctions in their watch lists. Sure, you run the risk of getting less than you’d have hoped for something, but it’s worked quite well for me more times than not.With fifty free auction listings every month and the growing importance of offering free shipping, I now recommend building all costs (product, shipping, fees, etc.) into an opening bid or asking price. See more on free shipping below.If you want to offer the Buy It Now Option, there are a couple of ways to approach it. Depending on what I’m selling, the availability of identical items on eBay at the time, and the success others are having with listing it, I might offer a Buy It Now price. Let’s say a Gentle Giant bust has sold for as low as $35 and as high as $55 in the last month, with most selling for around $45. A good option would be an opening bid of $35 and a Buy It Now price of $55. Some people want to get things in a hurry, and will fork over the extra ten bucks to purchase your item now, rather than waiting for an auction to end. If you’re in a hurry to get paid for an item, you could also choose to set a Buy It Now price of $45, making it very attractive to potential buyers. They get the average price right away, combining convenience with a good deal.
If you set the opening bid at $55 for this one, you won’t get many bites, and will likely see your listing end without any bids. A lower starting price attracts the first bid more quickly, and initial bidding activity on an item makes it seem more interesting to searchers, generating more activity.
I always require immediate payment via PayPal when offering a Buy It Now option. This can help in avoiding any misunderstandings or deliberate sabotage.
- Category Selection: At first glance, this will seem like a no-brainer to some, but you might be surprised at the number of auctions that inexplicably get listed in inappropriate categories.
Lots of experienced eBay shoppers search by specific categories, so if you’re trying to sell a Batman figure, and list it in Toys & Hobbies> Action Figures> Spider-Man, you’re essentially hiding it from some of your best prospects. What might seem like a good category for the same item, Collectibles> Comics> Figurines, isn’t as specific (or accurate) as Toys & Hobbies> Action Figures> Batman> Contemporary (1980-Now).Now let’s say you have an item that logically fits within more than one category. As an example, imagine a rare action figure that was available only as an exclusive pack-in with a video game. Is there more demand for the video game or the figure? The latter is likely the correct answer, so listing that item in the action figures category will be your best bet to give your auction maximum exposure to the right crowd.If you’re having difficulty with category selection, do some research. At the top right of the eBay page, click the “Advanced Search” link, check the “Completed listings only” option, and see who got the highest final bids. If one seller got no bids or less money in one category, and four other sellers got top dollar in another, then you have a pretty good idea of where to list your item.
UPDATE: There’s a lot less thought required on this now that eBay has eliminated many categories once available to buyers and sellers. You can still help potential buyers narrow their searches using the Item Specifics options when creating your listings. Taking advantage of these helps shoppers find what you have for sale more easily. Brands, character names, release years, and more can help put your stuff in front of the buyers who want it.
- Choosing Keywords: Here’s an area where many sellers, even some of the more experienced ones, really don’t understand the potential of keywords related to your item. You have to remember that eBay has a “keyword spamming” policy, and violating it can get your auctions removed from the database, even if they already have bids. What you want to do is maximize your exposure while playing within the rules.Okay, so let’s have an example, and we need a specific one for the purposes of this exercise. We’ll go with the Clone Wars Yoda Maquette from Gentle Giant. Looking at the listings on eBay, I see this specific item with a title of: STAR WARS GENTLE GIANT CLONE WARS YODA MAQUETTE IN HAND. Here’s another: Star Wars Gentle Giant Clone Wars Yoda maquette OOP. What’s wrong with these titles? Well, “in hand” and “oop” aren’t going to drive any searches to your listing. There is
a 55-characteran 80-character limit for your auction title, so that’s wasted real estate. Something else wrong is that an item-specific keyword is completely missing: animated.Now here’s where we begin to apply logical thinking to our choice for the title. Due to the 55-character(Even though this was written with more restriction on the length of a title, you’ll get the idea.) 80-character limit, we can’t just remove the unnecessary “in hand” or “oop” and replace them with “animated,” as we would then have 56 characters. So what can we do to get our listing in front of more potential buyers? Well, how many companies produce Yoda maquettes? STAR WARS Clone Wars Animated Yoda Maquette allows us to work our missing keyword into the title, but it would exclude us from searches for “Gentle Giant Yoda,” which is specific enough that we want to show up there. Here’s an alternative: Gentle Giant Clone Wars Animated Yoda Maquette gets us back into the Gentle Giant searches, and most serious buyers aren’t going to include the words “star wars” in their search. A search for “star wars yoda” is extremely vague and not the kind of targeted traffic that’s more likely to result in a sale. Gentle Giant Clone Wars Animated Yoda Maquette leaves us with some extra characters, so you can play with that. Gentle Giant Clone Wars Animated Yoda Maquette StarWars (notice the lack of a space) is one option, but Gentle Giant Clone Wars Animated Yoda Maquette Statue is even better. Just be certain that any keywords you choose are genuinely relevant to your item.
An example of keyword spamming showed up in my search, too: star wars YODA MAQUETTE(gentle giant)clone wars(vader). The word vader has nothing to do with the auction, but the seller included it in an effort to attract unrelated search traffic. It doesn’t work, and it’s stupid to even try, as it actually annoys many experienced buyers (those most likely to make a purchase). Never put anything in your title like LOOK!, Must See!, Wow!, Awesome!, HTF, RARE!, or NEVER OPENED!. Not only does this waste your opportunity to include more keywords, but you’re never going to sell the item with your title. You do that with your auction description, which we’ll cover next.
- Auction Description: This is an essential aspect of selling on eBay. First, make sure your description is accurate. Don’t bother trying to get over on someone by employing a misleading description. Not only will that result in the inevitable negative feedback on your profile, but you are legally responsible for delivering the item as-described. Anything less can result in PayPal reversing a payment and returning the purchase price to your buyer.The description is also an opportuinty to use even more keywords, as many shoppers take advantage of the “Search title and description” option. For our Yoda maquette example above, you might want to mention Genndy Tartakovsky, the artist whose work inspired the design. Have another look at my Batgirl action figure auction layout to see how I incorporated more keywords into the description, such as DCAU, Bruce Timm, Batman, Justice League Unlimited, and Barbara Gordon.
- Gallery Images:
This is pretty simple. The extra thirty-five cents for a gallery image can make all the difference in the world. Remember the importance of a visual presentation? This is your chance to get a head start. Some buyers don’t even bother reading the title; they just skim the gallery photos. If you provide one, your link is more likely to be clicked by shoppers with short attention spans. This obviously wouldn’t apply if you were selling fifty-cent trading cards, as it wouldn’t be worth the expense.UPDATE: As of February 20, 2008, eBay offers free gallery images on all listings. Since it no longer costs anything, be sure you take advantage of this feature! Your auctions will be at a serious disadvantage otherwise.
- Auction Schedule: Here’s a factor many sellers never consider.
The default for eBay searches is to show items nearing the end of the auction duration. In other words, if you search for Transformers, the first listings you will see are those on the verge of closing.If you list your auctions at four in the morning, when are they going to end? At four in the morning. How many people are shopping at 4:00 a.m.? On the other side of that coin, if you list your auctions right after lunch, what are people doing when your auctions end? They’re working. Some people can access eBay from work, but many cannot, and even more cannot devote enough to time to getting in on an item at the end while being distracted by their job tasks. That means we need to list our auctions to end during peak hours when most people are not as busy with other things.7:00 p.m. is a good starting point, but when it’s 7 on the east coast, it’s 4 on the west coast. I like to list my auctions to end somewhere between 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. EST. Listing on the weekends could help with your potential buyers being at work, but other activities keep a lot of people away from the internet on Saturday. By Sunday, your buyers might not have anything left from their paycheck. Most people get paid on Thursday or Friday, so I like to end my auctions Thursday evening. Even if your buyer gets paid on Fridays, he can win your auction Thursday evening, and pay you the following morning.UPDATE: The default search results page no longer shows items by ending time. eBay now uses its own algorithm to determine “best matches.” Being a top-rated seller or offering free shipping can help move you to the top of the results, but ending time still factors into the list, especially as your listing gets closer to expiration. While not as relevant as it was when I first published this, searches are still something a seller should take into consideration. That many buyers prefer to wait until the last few seconds to bid on auctions remains just as relevant as ever, though, so how you schedule your listings is still important.
Mobile is another crucial change since I first wrote this page. With millions of people walking around with the internet in their pockets, Saturday is now my favorite day for ending auctions. Out running errands, at a spoting event, or whatever, people receive notifications on their phones when auctions are ending and place bids from anywhere. I now try to schedule everything to end late Saturday afternoons and early Saturday evenings.
- PayPal, & Why You Need It: Most eBay shoppers not only use PayPal; they actually prefer it.
It’s just a fact. Your shopper sees two identical items from two different sellers. She can pay your competitor from her computer without ever getting out of the chair, but she has to go get a money order or write a check to pay you. Any guesses as to which auction is getting her bid? What’s the point of saving a dollar in fees if it costs you ten in the final price of your item? Seriously, it’s 2009, and if you’re still requiring a paper payment, you’re way behind the times.UPDATE: As of October 22, 2008, checks and money orders are no longer allowed as payment methods on eBay.
- To Insure, Or Not To Insure: This is an area about which many eBay members, both buyers and sellers, seem to be confused, and for good reason. We’ve all seen these auctions, and some of you may have even listed your own this way. At the end of the description, there is a disclaimer saying, “If you do not pay for insurance, I am not responsible for items lost or damaged during transit.”
This is a subject of much debate among eBay sellers. In order for the disclaimer to have any legal merit in litigation, a court would have to decide that an eBay auction is a shipping contract, rather than a destination contract. A shipping contract would requre the seller only to deliver the item to a carrier, at which time loss or damage would be the buyer’s responsbility. A destination contract would put the responsibility for loss or damage on the seller until it is delivered to the buyer by the agreed upon carrier.While there is legal precedent for both sides of the argument, no ruling has dealt specifically with an eBay transaction. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be the seller to test it. I’m no lawyer, but I honestly don’t believe a shipping contract argument would hold up in court, and I’ll explain why. First, eBay specifically sets out this example of seller non-performance as a violation of the contract between seller and buyer: accepts Bob’s payment, but the guitar Bob sends him is significantly different than the guitar described in the item listing. If Bob didn’t insure the guitar with the shipping carrier, I wish him the best of luck proving it wasn’t damaged before they accepted it from him. A broken neck would likely qualify as “significantly different” if it was described as “like new”. Secondly, PayPal will not protect sellers from chargebacks unless provided with a tracking number for proof of delivery. That detail should be, in and of itself, enough to convince us that eBay sales are considered destination contracts, rather than shipping contracts. Being that I have no desire to test the shipping contract theory, I treat all of my sales as destination contracts.If I’m selling a $5 item, I don’t worry about it. If something happens to it on the way, I’ll eat the loss. If I am listing an expensive item, however, I simply remove the buyer’s choice from the equation. Why take chances with an as yet untested disclaimer? Require insurance on every sale if you’re not willing to refund the cost in the event of something going wrong after you ship it. It just makes sense, and after all, it’s really not a good business decision to start listing things for which you refuse to accept responsibility before you’ve even got the buyer sold on the item itself. Everyone is more likely to shop with a company that stands by its products and services, and it’s no different for eBay sellers.
UPDATE: As of September 22, 2009, eBay is removing optional and required insurance from listings. Their update also puts the shipping contracts vs. destination contracts debate to rest: “The insurance option creates the perception that buyers need to purchase shipping insurance as a protection on eBay, an experience they’re not accustomed to on other ecommerce sites. In fact, sellers have always been responsible for their items until they arrive safely in their customers’ hands. That’s why shipping insurance will no longer be included in the purchase flow as either an option or requirement for buyers.” That has always been my understanding of eBay’s terms and relevant legislation, but it’s nice to see eBay finally make it unequivocally clear. You can still require buyers to cover the cost if you choose to insure your items, though: “To help cover the additional expense, consider folding the cost of insurance into your handling fee or item price.”
Here’s a tip: Put it in the handling. Otherwise, you’ll pay more in eBay fees.Just make sure you state (possibly more than once) in your auction terms that insurance is part of the shipping cost. I make sure to point out Delivery Confirmation is included in the shipping charges, and if the item’s value is high enough to warrant insuring it, I’ll also specify that.
- Shipping & Handling Charges:
This is a sticky issue for some people, too. When buying on eBay, I generally skip listings that fail to specify shipping charges. If I’m going to have trouble finding the item from someone else, then I might bother to ask. If it’s a common product, however, I’m more likely to move on to the next link. For myself, I love the postage calculator eBay offers. If you know the weight of the item, potential buyers can just plug in their ZIP code to figure out rates for the options you make available. A great way to meet the needs of all shoppers is to offer multiple shipping methods. If someone needs an item quickly, Priority Mail will usually meet their needs. If they’re more interested in saving some cash, First Class or Parcel Post (depending on the weight) will be more to their liking. You can offer a choice of up to three services in your auction during the listing process. To offer the postage calculator, choose “Calculated” under the Shipping heading.UPDATE: As of July, 2008, “All sellers are required to specify shipping costs.” No getting around it now, bub!
UPDATE II: It’s gotten to the point that many online shoppers are more interested in seeing “Free shipping” than in getting the best deal possible. Amazon is largeley responsible for that, but eBay has encouraged the mindset among buyers, too (see below for more on this). Now that eBay includes any shipping and handling fees charged to buyers when calculating your Final Value Fee, my recommendation is to build shipping and handling into your asking price or opening bid and offer free shipping. I would (and do) make exceptions for larger, heavier items, as this can mean big savings for a potential buyer who is two states away vs. paying the same price as someone who lives across the country. As a general rule, though, listings with “free shipping” are performing better and better. You can actually see a better result with the “free shipping” offer on an item that will cost buyers more than listings that break down shipping costs.
- What About The Fees?: Electronic transaction fees are a part of every business. Every time you pay for something with your VISA or MasterCard, the merchant pays a fee. Whether or not you realize it, that fee is passed on to you in the price of your purchase. PayPal members with a Premier account (the most common for casual sellers) will incur a fee of 2.9% + $0.30.Overhead from rent and other expenses is also considered when retailers price their merchandise. Once again, selling on eBay is no different. You have rent to pay just like any other store; you just happen to be renting space on a web site with tons of traffic to offer your wares instead of a physical location in a shopping center. Your rent takes the form of insertion fees and final value fees.Like any other business, it only makes sense to pass these fees along to the buyer. eBay policy prohibits surcharges at the end of the sale to cover your fees, so you need to include them somewhere else. The best way is to build your anticipated fees into the opening bid of the item.
By using the postage calculator, you can add a handling fee. Before this option became available, I just added whatever I needed to the opening bid. Now I add $1.50 handling fee to every auction I intend to ship via USPS Priority Mail, which includes $0.65 for Delivery Confirmation and $0.85 for my fees. The $0.85 doesn’t actually cover all my fees, but it does save me from having to take it all out of the final sale price. I charge $2.75 for shipping and handling for a loose 3¾” figure, plus 75 cents for each additional figure. A bubble mailer costs me 50 cents, the listing fee is 15 cents, and First Class Parcel postage ranges from $1.39 to $1.56, leaving me with at least 59 cents for the final value fee. If the item doesn’t sell for much, that works in my favor (at least until you consider the time it takes to package the thing). If it sells for more, then whatever extra fees I’m charged won’t be a bother. Does it cost 75 cents more to mail another figure in the same package? No, but that helps cover the associated costs. Here’s an example: An item has an opening bid of $0.99, and gets six bids. $9.99 closing + $4.85 shipping + $1.50 handling (which includes Delivery Confirmation) = $16.34. My eBay fees came to $1.23, and my PayPal fees totaled $0.75. While the $0.85 I included in the “handling” charge didn’t even amount to half of my associated fees, at least it eased the cost a bit and didn’t leave me taking the entire amount out the selling price. If you wanted to double that, it wouldn’t be at all excessive, but remember that some buyers will throw a fit if they see anything over the exact amount they paid on the postage label. If you’re using the handling fee option to cover your fees, and you’d like to avoid that sort of reaction, remember that UPS will not display the cost on your shipping label. The post office will. If you know the weight of your packages, though, you can print postage from your PayPal account and leave off the dollar amount. UPDATE: Even though eBay used to actually recommend adding your seller fees into a handling charge, their policies now prohibit doing this. It’s a result of whining buyers who complain incessantly about paying a penny more than actual postage, a sense of entitlement that probably has a lot to do with the free shipping option on Amazon. The thing is, they’re still paying for that shipping, regardless of whether or not they realize it. The perception of getting a good deal is often more satisfying than actually getting one, and all that. Anyway, just to play it safe, don’t go overboard here. If you try to pad the shipping charge for several bucks, you’re going to irritate a lot of buyers. You’ll annoy a few of the most obnoxious of complainers if you exceed the actual postage at all, but that’s part of doing business. Personally, I don’t think eBay ever should have gotten involved with specifics on shipping charges, because if a buyer agrees to it before bidding, complaining about it after the fact is absurd. Of course, eBay has never asked me for any opinions on shipping charges, despite the fact that I purchase quite a bit on the site. With eBay’s addition of seller DSRs to the feedback system, sellers are at the mercy of persnickety buyers more than ever before.
UPDATE II: As mentioned in the second update above, it’s best to just build your costs into your asking price / opening bid and offer free shipping when possible.
- Save Time: If there’s one near you, find a post office with 24/7 unlocked doors and an Automated Postage Center machine. If you have a scale and can print postage from home, then don’t bother. If you plan on making trips to the post office, though, why wait in line? That’s the biggest waste of time when it comes to the USPS, especially if you have my luck, which always means ten people in front of you with no clue what they want. I usually go to the post office around 9:00 or 10:00 PM on weekdays, buy postage at the APC, and drop my packages in the box with no waiting time. The only time I go during business hours these days is if I have something to ship overseas, which is rare, as I typically restrict my auctions to U.S. bidders.
- Recycle!: Remember that you can save yourself (and your buyers) money by not paying for new shipping supplies. Rather than discarding any reusable boxes you receive from your own online purchases and trades, break them down, slip them into a closet or storage space, and go back when they’re needed for sales. You could even grab boxes and packing materials from your office that would otherwise get trashed. It’s good for your wallet, your buyers, and your planet!
- Don’t Be A Dick: In all sincerity, just keeping your auction terms polite, firm, and professional can go a long way. Don’t threaten potential customers with negative feedback in advance, while they’re still deciding whether or not they want to purchase products from you. Do you really think that’s going to stop the people who win auctions but never pay for the items? If you’re in Best Buy, looking at a television, and the sales associate raises his voice toward you, you won’t want to buy anything, will you? “You’re not a deadbeat loser, are you? Do you have a credit score of less than 700? Because if so, I don’t want your business, lowlife.” That is really how some people list the “terms” of their auctions, and it’s offensive. Stand out by not exhibiting anger management issues when you list items for sale on eBay.
- Stop Competing Against Yourself!: When you list an item in an auction format on eBay, you want bidders to compete against one another. The only way the price of your item will be driven up is if it receives multiple bids. If you list five or six auctions for identical items at once, however, why would five or six potential buyers all bid on the same listing when there are others available? If you do this, you’re basically flooding the market with your own product and competing against yourself. If you list them one at a time, there will be fewer options for those who are shopping for whatever it is you’re selling. Simple supply and demand dictates that if more are available when the price is set by the market, then the market will set a lower price. By limiting the supply you offer at any given time, you give yourself a much greater opportunity to cash in on the demand. Do yourself a favor, and stop running several auctions for the same thing all at once, especially if you’re trying to convince eBay buyers your item is “rare” or “hard to find”.
Originally published in 2007.