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Everyone and their brother has written a book about how to sell on online auctions…tips and advice from the experienced and professional. I have been selling on eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo auctions for almost 20 years, and honestly, I have not read any of these books. However, I am sure that they have a number of great tips and helps. I, on the other hand, simply did the one thing that can give you all the hands-on training you could ask for…I did LOTS of shopping on these sites. After spending hundreds of dollars, I realized that I had things sitting around the house that people might want. And they did! Then, I started scouring yard and estate sales for treasures to sell. That lead to selling items for businesses to clear out parts and inventory that were not moving. Which lead to teaching auction selling classes at the local community college. Now, I am just back to shopping. I still do some selling, but it is infrequent, as I simply do not have the time to invest anymore.

Online auctions still amaze me. If I list a group of items, the sell through rate is consistently 90%…no matter the category of item. Obviously, some types of items sell better than others, but it is still amazing to think that someone somewhere wants that 70’s wool coat, and is willing to pay $75 for it! I considered finding a niche of items that I personally have trouble finding online, because if I cannot find it, chances are there are others that also cannot find it…if they do not have a Wal-Mart down the street. (I live in a rural area, so if I cannot find it online, I cannot get it.)

Back to my previous statement though, if you are considering using online auctions to get rid of excess inventory or parts, the best teaching tool is to buy items off these sites. Besides building up your feedback, which is extremely important for high-ticket items, you will also see how other sellers operate. By finding out what you like and do not like, you know how to better treat your customers. Even though it is an online auction, many sellers do not treat the buyers like customers…they seem to think the rules of business do not apply. Based on my own buying experiences, here are some of the things I do NOT do when I sell on auction sites:

  1. Ignore potential buyers pre-sale questions – How irritating!? I am interested in a product and ask a question, and either I never hear back, or it takes three days to receive a response. I live in a “high-tech” society, and I expect a response within 24 hours, or I will go elsewhere. Personally, I try to respond within 4 hours on my own auctions, though sometimes meetings and other business obligations prevent that. But, never longer than 24 hours. As a buyer, I only get a timely response 60% of the time.
  2. Poor ads – There are chapters written on how to submit an online auction ad that attracts buyers, but after viewing thousands of ads, and writing hundreds, the advice is pretty straight forward…”KISS” or Keep It Simple Stupid. I am not trying to be crass, but please do not bog down your ad with pages of words to scroll through, 10 photos at different angles (which are HUGE files and take forever to load), and tons of cutesy gifs waving at me. The number of photos required varies with the item being sold. For example, antique buyers want to see the item at every angle, but the file size can be reduced to make loading faster. Remember, in some areas like mine, we still have only very slow Internet speeds, and we get tired of waiting 20 minutes to catch a glimpse of the item. So, we move on. And we do not want to read three pages of terms. One scroll page is more than sufficient for a succinct description of the item, terms and photos. A paragraph break every so often and maybe the heading in another color are all that is required to allow me to easily read the text. And if you have been on the Internet at all, you know that WRITING IN ALL CAPS IS LIKE SHOUTING AND IS NOT RECOMMENDED. PLUS, IT MAKES THE TEXT DIFFICULT TO READ. I experience nice, clean, descriptive ads about 50% of the time…the others I just pass over.
  3. Use the Reserve Price feature – I do not have time as a buyer to guess the reserve price. Every time, I will pass over a reserve auction starting at 99¢ for an identical item starting at $20. If $20 is the least you are willing to take, then start there. Do not make the bidder submit 10 bids to try to figure out the reserve price. About 90% of the auctions I run across realize this and do not use reserve bidding…they must have been a frustrated bidder and vowed never to use it.
  4. Keep the shipping cost a secret – I have been overcharged for shipping numerous times, as many sellers feel that padding the shipping is their prerogative. So, they make their money on the shipping, not on the actual item. I personally do not feel that it is the honest way to make a profit, and have posted such on online seller boards…which started heated arguments from other sellers. So, it is a personal decision on how much of a handling fee to charge. Nevertheless, if the seller states his shipping costs in the ad, I have nothing to complain about as a buyer, as I was warned up front. What is frustrating as a buyer, especially with the convenient shipping calculator tool on the eBay site, is no mention of the cost for shipping. And I have found that if they do not state it, it is probably a whopper! So, I have to contact the seller, and hope they will respond before the end of the auction with the shipping cost. But, I learned the hard way, that not to ask is asking for trouble. It would save tons of time to simply state the shipping and avoid the emails back and forth. Thankfully, only 10% of the ads fail to mention shipping cost, and I generally pass right on by. As a note, eBay now strongly suggests offering free shipping, and they promote ads that offer this benefit.
  5. Do not leave feedback upon receiving payment – Many sellers participate in feedback hostage. Hey! I did what I was supposed to do. I sent prompt payment, now the fair and honest thing to do is have positive feedback left immediately. However, 75% of sellers do not leave feedback until they see what I have to say about the delivered item. And if I leave negative feedback for poor seller performance or product misrepresentation, guess what? I get negative feedback back. Now, I do not leave such feedback until I try to work things out with the seller, but the whole point of the feedback system is to inform other buyers of problems with a seller. And if you are worried about leaving representative feedback because the seller will retaliate, how reliable is the system? Leave the appropriate feedback after receiving payment, and if you follow basic customer service rules, the buyer will be more than happy to leave positive feedback in return.
  6. Poor packaging – How dense does one have to be to send a computer monitor in a single cardboard box with 5 pieces of wadded newspaper inside to pad it. Do not laugh. It happened to me. An hour spent on the USPS or UPS web site gives you all the information you need to know about proper packing. It does not mean that items will never get destroyed in shipping, as a 100-year-old scale I shipped did. However, because of the layers of peanuts, Styrofoam, and bubble-wrap, after USPS examined the packaging, they honored the repair claim. The buyer saw the care I put into making sure I wrapped the item carefully, and even left positive feedback in the end. It does not cost a lot to wrap properly, because if you do any online shopping, you will collect more packing material than you can find room to store! Thankfully, 80% of seller package properly.
  7. Fail to send the package in a timely manner…or not at all! – I have only had one package in which I paid for the item, and the seller ran away with my money. Not bad for all the shopping I have done. However, why does it take five days to get the package out? Typically, the response for online auction sellers is much faster than large online store sites. This is because there are not multiple departments for the order to go through before it gets out the door. Conversely, with an online auction, there are only 1-5 people behind the scenes. Some list 100’s of items per week, but even then, getting a package out within 48 hours is do-able. Most of the time, this is the reason I shop on the auction sites. I am in a time crunch, and it will take three days to process an order at a brick-and-mortar store’s site, plus 7-10 delivery time, and I do not have that long. So, I go to the auctions, and do a buy-it-now, and expect to receive the item in three days using USPS Priority Mail service. After a week, I start to get anxious. Of course, if the seller had told me in their “payment received” email when they were shipping the item and via which carrier, I would have a better idea. Even better if they mention this information in their terms of the auction ad itself, so I know whether it fits in my time schedule. Anyway, thankfully, about 70% of my purchases are shipped timely and arrive when expected. I love those sellers that send a tracking number so I can watch the package myself without bugging them. (FYI – I always purchase delivery confirmation when I send out packages…after one dishonest buyer, I found that they were invaluable. Since then, I have never had someone state they did not receive their item, and that was 15 years ago…not bad USPS!)
  8. Do not respond to buyer questions or concerns – Fortunately 95% of the purchases I make online are exactly as expected, either because the ad description and/or photos were sufficiently detailed, or I asked enough questions of the seller. However, for the other 5% where I am disappointed, these are the sellers that think that online auctions are above customer service guidelines. They got their money, got rid of a product, and are happy…but that is why I use a credit card and PayPal for my online purchases. If the seller ignores me or shrugs responsibility, their PayPal account gets frozen as I initiate a claim to return the item for a full refund. Not only does this jeopardize future sales, but also more than three complaints and you run the risk of having your auction ID and PayPal account shutdown. It does not prevent the unscrupulous from changing ID’s and opening another account, but I am not wasting my breath sharing these ideas with those types of sellers anyway.

Obviously, this is not an exhaustive lesson on how to sell on online auctions, but it lets you know some of the key ideas of what not to do. Thankfully, eBay has automated a number of tasks I used to have to do manually, such as sending congratulation emails, creating packing lists and purchasing postage. So, it is even easier to sell on online auctions than when I started over 15 years ago.

I encourage students in the online auction classes to spend lots of time on the sites to research items similar to what they plan to sell. Look closely at which ones sold at the highest prices. What is the title? What was the starting bid? What does the ad look like? What are they charging for shipping? Spend a little time in research and you will be sure to reap the rewards in a higher selling price. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to contact me.

Until next issue…Best wishes in your endeavors!

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