If the Internet has a quaint pastime, selling things on eBay is probably it. Before a thriving e-commerce sprouted a handful of platforms on which anyone can sell anything to anyone, there was a slightly thrilling novelty to participating in the online auction. "Yes," we told our friends, "I sold it on the Internet."
Some of the mystery and magic may have been lost over the last 15 years, but the easy selling platform remains. Up to 100 individual listings per month are free on eBay, but many people go beyond that -- the site's 90-million-person community now buys enough (about $1,900 worth of goods every second) to support many full-time businesses.
If you're thinking about setting up a storefront on eBay, here are eight pieces of advice to keep in mind.
1. Ask yourself if eBay is right for your business
Though Marc Cohen's business sells merchandise on Amazon, Buy.com, and through each of his two store's websites, his two eBay storefronts bring in about 80-90 percent of his business. eBay works well for him for several reasons. For one, sites like Amazon and Buy.com have catalogs of merchandise that make it easy to create listings. If you're selling something other than what is in the catalog, however, it can be more difficult to create a listing. Because Cohen sells a wide variety of used video games and other discount merchandise, at times it's easier for him to list them on eBay. If you sell unique items like collectibles, eBay might also be the best way to go.
Another aspect that makes eBay an ideal choice for Cohen is that he deals exclusively in merchandise that is somehow distressed -- used, returned, part of a closeout sale, or excess inventory. "eBay is an online flea market," he says. "It is extremely price competitive. Most products (except rare or out-of-stock products from primary retailers) will not fetch prices even close to the retail prices."
Like all third party online retailers, unless you can offer something that is harder to find or lower priced than the majority of other sellers, it's unlikely that you'll have much success.
2. Start slowly
"[Most eBay sellers] don't think of their businesses as business, and they don't come from business backgrounds, and they tend to make mistakes in their business practices based on this lack of experience," says Jim Griffith, eBay's senior manager of seller advocacy and the author of The Official eBay Bible.
Before you jump into eBay full throttle, Griffith suggests starting out with a few listings while you perfect your processes. Taking on more listings than you are prepared to smoothly package, ship and provide adequate customer service for could lead to detrimental buyer reviews.
3. Customer service is king
Aside from offering quality products at competitive prices, customer service is probably the most important factor for successful selling on eBay. Sellers who win glowing reviews from their buyers will turn up higher in product search results than a competitor with low ratings, and achieve a better public feedback profile.
Frequent sellers who maintain good customer service ratings also become part of the top-rated seller program. Benefits of belonging to this program include an endorsement badge that is displayed alongside listings, UPS discounts, and a 20 percent discount on eBay's final value fees.
4. Create effective product listings
Griffith works with new sellers every day. He says one of the most common innocent mistakes he sees them making is in their descriptions, terms and photos.
One thing that sellers should avoid is adding text that could be viewed as negative by buyers. "Harsh or restricting terms of service -- requests to do not do this, do not do that, you must do that -- that kind of language doesn’t work in any marketplace, and on eBay it’s actually an effective way of getting rid of customers," Griffith says.
Terms should be simple. Consider using a bullet-point list to convey your shipping and handling, payment and return policies. Product descriptions can be more robust. Griffith suggests watching how others selling in the same category handle their product descriptions. Clothing sellers, for instance, used to use simple sizes like XL in their descriptions. Now they are migrating toward exact measurements.
It might seem obvious, but another great way to increase your sales is to provide quality photos. eBay sellers can upload up to 12 photos with each product and should use as much of this space as possible.
5. Brand your storefront
One of the great things about selling on eBay is the opportunity to create a branded store page that highlights specific products and can set you apart as a seller. Unlike most other selling platforms, eBay allows all sellers to create up to 15 customizable pages.
Cohen, whose Thumbmonkey Video eBay store beat out about 12,000 other stores to win a marketing award from eBay in 2008, says that some things that are being upfront about the return policy and providing contact information.
eBay provides a free tool for customizing your pages. Marketing and merchandising apps can also help you make you customize the look and functions of your storefront. In addition to themes, the section contains apps for doing market research, sharing your listings over social media, or even tracking your buyers' locations.
6. Remember, the customer is always right -- even when they are not
Griffith gets a fair share of heroic customer service stories during his daily conversations with eBay sellers. Recently, a seller of packaging materials told him about a customer who complained about an order of pink packing peanuts.The customer said he had received white, not pink, packing material. After assuring the customer had another order of pink packing peanuts on the way, the seller asked if the buyer could send a photograph of the mistake in order to show the supplier its mistake. The customer sent a photo -- of indisputably pink packing peanuts.
“That to me as an example of what a great seller on eBay will do, not to protect themselves, but just to make sure that somebody is happy, even if they’re completely wrong,” Griffith says.
7. Consider free shipping
"When it comes to shipping, the standard is moving across the industry toward free shipping," Griffith says. "Buyers don’t want shipping to be part of their decision making. The best way to take it out of the decision making process is to offer free shipping. Even if that means moving some or all of the cost of shipping into the price of the item, it’s still an easier experience for the buyer."
Unlike many other selling platforms, the seller is in control of setting shipping prices. Whether you decide to go with free shipping or not, you should ship your merchandise as quickly as possible. Cohen says that even if there's a problem with the order, buyers are usually much more amicable when they've received their products quickly.
8. Do a bit of method acting
In order to understand what eBay buyers want, become one.
"You’ll garner a lot of valuable information about your business once you understand what the eBay buying experience is like," Griffith says.