eCommerce for the Masses, Part II, Selling on eBay

[tags]eBay, Selling, Tutorial[/tags]

When one of our friends asked us about selling things on eBay my wife quipped "If you’d rather see it go away than throw it away you won’t be disappointed" and I’ve been repeating that to people ever since.   While it’s true that you can make money selling things on eBay it’s equally true that you can’t really predict what will sell or how much you’re liable to make on any given item.   As has always been true with sales, there are intangible, unpredictable variables which can affect the outcome but here are a few things we’ve learned that we feel are important.

The Title:   This may well be the single most important part of any eBay listing.   This is what the search engine pays the most attention to and this is what is most visible to a potential buyer who’s scanning through a row of search results.   To create a good title, write down all the words that apply to the item, prioritize the words using your "best guess" as to their search-engine importance and construct your title using the most important words first.   To do this properly you have to know something about the item you’re listing so "get with google" and study up on anything you wish to sell but don’t know anything about.   I’ll give you an example based on a topic I’ve recently researched:

A few years ago the Marshall Electronics Corporation created a small revolution in the home and small business recording industry by introducing the MXL 2001 large diaphragm condenser microphone which sold for under $100.   The nearest thing to it at the time was about triple the price and of no better quality.   Marshall has since added a number of other microphones to the MXL product line but the 2001 remains a popular seller whether new or used.

The Behringer Corporation, based in Germany, has in recent years become well known for manufacturing professional quality mixers, amplifiers and other sound system components which sell for extremely competitive prices.

So, if I wanted to sell an MXL 2001 and a small Behringer mixer as a package deal I would not write my title as

Behringer UB802 Eurorack Mixer With Marshall Microphone

In light of the background I’ve provided, can you see what’s wrong with this listing?

Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with Behringer, I love their equipment in fact but if you intend to sell a revolutionary microphone and an economical mixer on eBay, list the microphone first and be specific in your listing.

Here’s how I would list this item:

MXL 2001 Microphone and Behringer UB802 Eurorack Mixer

Because of the continued popularity of this particular microphone, listing it accurately and mentioning it first would probably result in the auction having more watchers so there’ll be more participants in the "bidding frenzy", which normally starts a few minutes before the auction closes. With more watchers it’s highly probable that the winning bid will be higher than it would have been with the first listing.   My wife, who’s my co-writer, editor and proofreader asked why I explained this in such a convoluted manner; she had trouble understanding my point so I’ll try to say this again in a simpler way.   Before you write the title for an item, ask yourself a simple question; "If I were looking for one of these on eBay, what would I type into the search window?".   The words which answer this question are the words which should begin your title.

The Photo:   This is probably the second most important part of an eBay listing and it’s a close second at that.   If you’re not selling a brand-new item which is still in the unopened original box don’t try to find a photograph on the web with an image search and do not list an item on eBay for sale or auction without a photograph, no matter what it is.   Take a picture of the actual item you wish to sell and make sure it’s a good one.   If you don’t own a good digital camera, with macro capabilities for close up shots of small items, it’s an investment you should consider.   We purchased a Vivitar 5350s along with an inexpensive tripod and extra battery (rechargeable) for under $200 and it has perfectly suited our needs

The Description:   It goes without saying that the description of your auction item must be totally honest. Make it as detailed as possible and if there’s anything you aren’t sure of, be sure and put that in your description too.   What you absolutely mustn’t do is put negative information in your description.   Here are some example sentences:

"I don’t want bids from people like Kevin, everyone knows he’s a jerk."

"I’ll give you positive feedback as soon as you give me positive feedback."

"I don’t know if it works so I’m selling it AS IS.   If you buy it and it doesn’t work, don’t even think of returning it."

"I’m an honest businessman so don’t jerk me around, move on if you aren’t serious."

Each of these examples represents a great way to shoot yourself in the foot.   Yep, that’s right, sellers who put sentences like these in their descriptions are chasing away potential customers by undermining their own credibility.   I’ll break them down in order for you.

If you want to bad-mouth the buyer who got to you, do it somewhere else; putting personal invective in your description says to me "I’m really stupid and I like to whine so don’t buy anything from me, ok?"   Maybe that seems cold to you but that’s how I see it and you won’t have to deal with me because I won’t be bidding on any of your auctions.   Moreover, a lot of other potential buyers will have the very same reaction.

The only important thing you, as a seller, can say about a customer is whether or not he paid you.   Nobody cares if the buyer is a hippy-type-pinko-(um, well you know), or if he was rude to you, as long as he paid you.   If he paid you give him positive feedback right away.   If he paid you as soon as the auction closed then give him really good feedback with lots of exclamation points and plus signs; if he paid you four days after the auction closed give him positive feedback and a thank you.   If you don’t do that and are then tempted to send him a follow up letter reminding him to give you positive feedback, resist the temptation.   In business there is no greater sin than insulting a customer’s intelligence.

If it doesn’t work, say it doesn’t work; if it works, say it works; if you don’t know and you’re willing to trust your customer to test it then promise a refund if it doesn’t work.   If you can’t bring yourself to promise a refund, don’t sell it on eBay.

Every dishonest person I’ve ever known was ready to tell you often, and in a loud voice, that he was an honest person.   If you mentioned specific instances where his conduct might have been less than honest he had a fully prepared dialog explaining how it wasn’t his fault.   Maybe I’m paranoid but if you feel compelled to tell me how honest you are, I feel compelled to wonder if you’re telling the truth and hey, my money’s as good as anybody’s so don’t question my intent.   The simple fact is that eBay will only work if we’re willing to conditionally extend some trust to one another.   Don’t tell a potential buyer up-front that you don’t trust him and then expect him to trust you.

Reserve Pricing:   All I can say about a reserve price is don’t set a reserve price.   Reserve prices are hidden and therefore "sneaky", meaning they have negative connotations which means buyers don’t like them.   If you won’t take less than a hundred dollars for it, then set the minimum bid at a hundred dollars.   That puts the cards on the table for everyone to see.   If your expectations are unrealistic it won’t sell and you’ll pay a larger fee, because the listing fee is a percentage of the minimum bid and you pay the fee whether or not it sells, but that’s the price of knowledge.   Pay it and move on.

Shipping Charges:   If you don’t have a postal scale, buy one, you’re going to need it.   Which one you need depends on what you’re trying to sell because they come in ranges.   Zero to thirty-five pounds is, for example, a popular size which seemed suitable for us so that’s what we bought (for about $30) and it’s served us well.   If you want to know more about scales, read this.

A lot of buyers go to great lengths to avoid paying extra listing fees and one common trick is to jack up the shipping charge, using it as a means of setting a minimum return on an item.   The problem with this practice is simply that buyers aren’t stupid; they know about what shipping costs so they can see when a seller sets it ridiculously high and they reward him by moving on without electing to watch, much less bid on, the item.   I don’t have any idea what works for other sellers but I select a box or bubble envelope to ship the item in, place the item in the box/envelope, throw in what I estimate is enough packing material, weigh it, add an ounce, go to the postage calculator at the USPS.com website, plug in my zip code and the zip code for Nome, Alaska (99762, which I figure is a fairly good "worst case" destination), add a dollar and that’s the shipping charge I use with my auction.   Why the dollar?   Well, I list all my auctions with an opening bid of 99 cents and every now and then I write an ineffective title which only attracts one watcher who wisely waits until the last minute to win the item with a 99 cent bid. In that instance, unless I made a mistake in calculating the shipping charges I’ll make about two dollars on the auction which somehow feels better than 99 cents.   There’s just something sad and futile about making less than a dollar.

Gallery Photos:   When you specify a gallery photo, which costs a little more, eBay puts a thumbnail (i.e. reduced size) photo of your auction item in the search results listings.   One of my friends insists that you’ll make far more than enough to pay the extra fee by always opting for the gallery photo and I’ve decided that he’s probably right.   I feel like it’s silly to opt for the gallery image when you’re selling small, inexpensive items with well written descriptions.   In my case, that would be guitar picks which I feel like I did very well on without gallery images but I can’t prove it because I didn’t try listing any of them with gallery images and I’ve already sold all I had.   I’ve got no basis for comparison but I’m inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Make the customer happy:   If you sell something that you thought was working but the customer insists it isn’t working, don’t quibble with him.   Promise him a refund if he returns it and follow through.   Don’t just refund what he paid you, add in enough to cover the cost of return shipping.   Whatever it takes, leave him happy.   If you take a loss, so be it; that’s the cost of doing business.   Money can’t buy a 100% positive feedback rating, you have to earn it by doing the right thing, every time, no matter that it sometimes costs you a few dollars.

Tips and Tricks:

Don’t buy packing materials if you can help it.   Empty styrofoam egg cartons, when closed, make strong, lightweight packaging material.   Plastic shopping bags, which seem to be everywhere these days, can be wadded up and used for packing material.

Scrounge packing boxes where you can find them.   If they happen to have a lot of printing on the outside of the box you can cut them apart with a good sharp kitchen knife (bought on-the-cheap from a flea market or garage sale) and reglue (or tape) them inside out.   Supermarkets, as a general rule, have cardboard baling machines and they recycle cardboard.   Convenience store workers have to break them down and wag them to the dumpster so find out what day the stock truck comes in at your local convenience store and drop by while they’re "busting freight"; they’ll be totally delighted to let you carry off a pile of boxes.

Bubble envelopes are, for some reason, expensive in most retail stores.   If you know you’ll be selling a lot of small items, you can save some serious bucks by googling for bubble envelopes in bulk.   Because they weigh very little, the shipping charges are normally modest so the unit cost on a case of 500 bubble envelopes can be as much as 75% less than you’d pay in local stores.   If you live in a fairly sizable town where there’s more stores, and more competition, this might not be true but either way, it’s worth doing some research and if you decide you have way more than you need, what the heck, you can always sell them on eBay.

Don Crowder

P.S.   As I was posting this and doing some final editing I noticed something in the guidelines.   It says "# Write no more than three paragraphs per post"

Argh, I knew there was a catch to the invitation Chris sent me, I just knew it.   Ok, I’ll try to comply…

from now on.