Ten Ways to Be a Great eBay Seller
July 4, 2008, 4:36 am
Filed under: online selling, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

Vintage Tie

Introduction: Just to make sure we have no misunderstandings, please note that if you want to find out how to be a rich eBay seller, you will have to look elsewhere. I have sold thousands of books and t-shirts, experienced the pleasure of working independently at something I love, had a few great windfalls and more than a few letdowns, met some interesting people, paid a crapload of money in fees, and learned quite a bit about customer service and internet communication, but I have yet to be in any danger of getting rich.  Always an unstable income at best, eBaying has become harder than ever now that folks are cutting back on luxuries and competition between sellers is high.  I’ve been selling on eBay since 2001, and I could not recommend pursuing it as a primary income unless you are pretty sure you are sitting on a goldmine.  Having said that, eBaying can be not only a tidy second income, but also spiritually enriching and a way to make shelf space.

You might well ask, what gives me the authority to give advice on selling?  I’m experienced, but who says I’m good?  Well, until eBay recently made some some nonsensical changes in their feedback system, I had maintained a 99.9%  positive feedback rating for several years.  The new changes basically ignore everything but the past year and count neutral ratings as negatives, which automatically and somewhat unfairly brought me down to 99.7%.  The numbers are important only insomuch as they reflect a consistency of performance across 3000 sales, give or take a few.  I have had 3008 feedbacks left for me, but have left closer to 4000 myself, only a small handful of which were made as a buyer.  Paradoxically, I’ve found the best way to have a high feedback rating is not to think about feedback at all.  That is, I leave it for my buyers and I appreciate their taking the time to leave it for me, but I never, ever directly solicit feedback.  I figure any time I might spend on that is far better spent finding and listing hidden gems, packing them with great care, and communicating with my buyers.

Now, pay close attention here, because if you think I am saying feedback isn’t an important part of the eBay system and you shouldn’t bother with it, you don’t get it.  I do think there are flaws in the current system and the recent changes were unfair to longtime sellers, but I also think that over time a feedback rating provides a pretty accurate summation of an ebayer’s performance.  I leave feedback religiously, and have left it for others almost 1000 times than they have done for me, but I happen to believe a feedback rating that reflects solid business ethics and superlative customer service is the only kind that matters.  Since nagging buyers about feedback is not an activity that seems to fall under either of those categories, I simply won’t do it and neither should you.  At least I’m consistent, because I had the same problem in school with people who were obsessed with grade values at the expense of ideas. Don’t confuse the numbers with the things they are supposed to reflect; that’s my first bit of free advice.  And now, on to more.


  1. Sell What You Love: I know this has been said before, but it probably cannot be overstated.  There is a lot of competition on ebay, and the more you know about your product, the better you can describe it.  If you love what you sell as much as I love books, you will find it intrinsically rewarding to immerse yourself in that thing, which will cause you to do it more.  Scouting books and t-shirts, I don’t even feel like I am working, nor do I feel like I’m toiling when I’m online afterwards, researching what I’ve found.  I’ll admit, I do sometimes feel like I’m working when I look at a stack of ten items to be packed (I should be so lucky) or when I’m answering the same person’s question about the same shirt measurements for the fourth time and pretending not to be irked, but we’ll get to that later. Yet other reasons to sell only what you love are that you will have a more acute eye for evaluating stuff that genuinely turns you on and your listings will reflect that genuine enthusiasm.  Don’t make the common error of assuming you can do well with something just because someone else has, because it’s not just about the merch or the seller, but the dynamics of the relationship between the two.
  2. Be Scrupulously Honest: Without fail.  Before we discuss what that means, let us discuss what it does not mean. There is nothing remotely dishonest about making a profit.  In most cases, it can safely be assumed that when someone establishes a business, their intention is to make a profit on goods and/or services.  Being scrupulously honest also does not obligate you in every situation to announce that you are buying things for resale.  This is yet another place where it helps to sell what you love, because when you exclaim “I love these!” as you riffle through the box of pristine vintage magazines, you absolutely mean it.  Mind you, if someone flat-out asks you if you are buying to resell, the correct answer is “Yes, absolutely!  How much of a deal are you willing to give me if I buy a lot?”  When buying, your object is to get what you want at a good price without either misrepresenting yourself or outrageously exploiting the seller.  There are no absolute guidelines to determine without fail when this is happening, but a good rule of thumb is that it’s bad karma to knowingly take large amounts of money from people who obviously need it worse than you do.  If you feel bad about a deal, you probably shouldn’t do it.  And no, this does not include buying from charity thrift shops.  Charity thrift shops are my bread and butter and they have made many a dollar from me over the years, as I have from them.  Returning to what I do mean when I suggest that you be scrupulously honest, you should never, ever knowingly misrepresent yourself or your merchandise.  Honesty also demands that you admit what you don’t know instead of trying to fake it, because your credibility is at stake.  The sin of omission may also be a sin against honesty, so make sure not to “forget” to inform your buyers about any defects.  As a rule, I would much rather describe an item a notch too harshly and pleasantly surprise my buyer than have them be disappointed.  More on this later as well, but being scrupulously honest also means admitting your mistakes.  If an order somehow slipped by you and you are shipping it late, if you find a hole in a t-shirt or a stain in a book that you previously missed, you must let your buyer know.  Just in case you need me to tell you this, honesty also means not keeping money that doesn’t belong to you.  When a buyer accidentally pays me twice–happens more often than you would think–my goal is to return the second payment before the buyer even notices they’ve done it.  They might never have noticed, but my record of integrity is worth a lot more than any one sale.
  3. Be Fast: To procrastinate is only human, and there are certainly times when I’ve put off responding to a query or postponed shipping for a day because I wasn’t up to it or was too overwhelmed with other things.  There are worse things, and most buyers are as tolerant of my human failings as I try to be of theirs.  When I act less slowly than I could have, I have mainly hurt myself because I’ve missed a chance to impress my buyer.  People love it when you respond to a question or confirm a sale instantly, because it communicates that you are on the ball and want to serve them.  Take it as a given that if someone makes a $50.00 purchase while I’m online, I will confirm it on the spot.  I may or may not opt to do the same thing for a $5.00 or $10.00 purchase, but when I do, I take advantage of a chance to create goodwill that may come back my way in the form of repeat sales.  Fast shipping is even more important than fast communication, because, duh, the faster people get their stuff, the happier they tend to be with you.  That part isn’t rocket science, nor is the part about promptly responding to buyer complaints and concerns, which includes issuing refunds in a timely fashion.
  4. When You Make Mistakes, Grovel and Give People Free Things: Do not confuse me with or Barnes & Flipping Noble, because the big difference is that I am basically a one-person operation.  Two if you count the spouse, who does sometimes provide a hand with shipping.  I work out of a crowded office 3/4 taken up with a bed, and I sometimes have to protect my books from a naked, dripping eight-year-old who puts her feet on things.  I try to be careful, but sometimes things get by me, I get overwhelmed, and I eff up.  When that happens, people get free stuff.  I might give them a free book or t-shirt a free shipping upgrade, or free shipping altogether, depending upon the nature of my effup.  I do think sometimes I err in the direction of giving too many excuses, which is something I should try to curb.  But in general people don’t seem to mind my whining, as long as I grovel sufficiently and they get something out of the deal.
  5. Provide a Good Value: As with the part about being scrupulously honest, let us first clear up what this does not mean.  One thing it does not mean is that you will never unwittingly overprice an item. Some things are harder to price than others and the market sometimes changes faster than we can revise our listings.  The important thing is to promptly correct instances of overpricing when you become aware of them.   A good general rule is to assume the highest prices dealers are charging for a given item may be inflated.  Do as much research as possible on an item before you charge top dollar and be prepared to consider reducing your price if your item doesn’t sell right away.  I am in a constant, ongoing process of comparing my prices against those of other sellers and reducing them if I find I am being undersold, no matter if it means cutting them in half.  The only limitation to that is that I currently do not sell items for under $5.00, but that could change. Even if I don’t make what I wanted to for an item, I feel like the customer who gets a truly extraordinary value will be more to come back and see what else I have to offer.
  6. Pack With Great Care, Always: It goes without saying that high-ticket items should be packed immaculately, which is why my $100 books are shipped in boxes, with bubble wrap.  Most of my books sell for way less than $100 (unfortunately for me), but apart from a select few they are all wrapped this way: The book goes in a clear mylar bag, over which goes a substantial layer of neatly folded and taped newspaper.  This solid brick of book is then popped into a self-sealing bubble mailer, addressed, and sealed with tape.  I try very hard to make sure each item has whatever help it needs to reach its destination in one piece, which means heavy cardboard backing for trade paperbacks and the occasional magazine.  I do use newspaper for padding, a somewhat controversial choice.  The main arguments against this have been that you are packing nice things in garbage and the newsprint can get on your items, which is why I use the mylar bags.  I feel like the value of recycling offsets the garbage factor sufficiently for it to be a good thing, and I have not heard a single complaint about a damaged item in as long as I can remember.  If I’m packing a gift or an item of vintage clothing, I might use a bit of colored tissue paper, but that is of course more cosmetic than utilitarian.  Mostly I just try and make sure my items arrive in the same shape in which they left me, because there are few things lamer than sellers who don’t respect their items and buyers enough to wrap carefully.  Unfortunately I learned this from experience, as you will see when you get to #10.
  7. Be Accommodating: We all have our limits, one of mine of which is that I no longer accept checks.  Although it sometimes means waiting a bit longer to get paid, I do, however, take money orders and cashier’s checks.  I personally adore the convenience and instantaneousness of Paypal, but I want to accommodate the buyers who don’t feel the same way.  I ship most of my books in well-padded bubble mailers, but if someone requests a box, I give them one.  If a buyer has a question, needs a measurement, additional images, or an overseas shipping quote, I am here to accommodate.  Same if someone needs to pay a bit late, as long as they let me know what’s going on and when to expect payment.  If they are unhappy with the item for some reason, I will bend over backwards to accommodate their needs in such a way as to make them happy with the transaction.  Recently I sold someone the wrong version of an Elvis Costello CD because I didn’t know a newer one had been issued with extra tracks.  When he informed me, I apologized, issued a refund, and told him to keep the CD because I figured most people would want the new version anyway.  Why make him go to the trouble of sending it back when it’s barely worth the postage?  Lest I make myself sound too perfect, we all have our sticky wickets in the accommodation department.  Mine has to do with feedback, as I tend to leave mine in batches and may get to it about once or twice a month.  I always get around to it, but apparently not always as fast as some buyers would like.  I have been known to get snippy when badgered about feedback, but that is my stuff.  In most cases, it is easier to just leave the darn feedback than to risk antagonizing your bread and butter and potentially ruin a great chance to demonstrate just how very spectacularly accommodating you can be.
  8. Provide Detailed, Objective Descriptions: There is a big trick to this one, which is that you must be able to write coherently enough to be understood.  Notice there was nothing in there about sentences, because sometimes fragments and lists will be enough to at least minimally get the message across.  Question is, are you happy with that result or do you want to do better?  It all starts with your ABCs, because if you are too lazy or “special” to list your items with the correct spelling, you will attract only those buyers who are looking to profit from your ignorance.  It’s harsh, but it’s true.  If you describe your items well, you will have happier buyers and way fewer hassles, but what does this mean?  The particulars will vary depending on exactly what you’ve got, but to the extent that you really know and love what you are selling, you can explain why people should buy it and justify what makes it worth the price you are asking.  This is where your research comes in, because if you charge $5.00 for a book that is worth $500.00, you are doing both yourself and that book a disservice and you only have yourself to blame.  Selling is a constant learning process, because first you have to learn something about the general qualities to look for in the types of items you sell and then you have to know how to apply that information to specific cases.  For instance, I not only need to know that Book Club Editions are generally less desirable, but I must also be familiar with the various ways that a given book may be identified as a BCE, then (if I am selling the item), I need to be able to articulate that information to potential buyers.  Aside from knowing points of value and particulars of operation, being a great seller also requires that you provide detailed and objective information about the condition of your items.  If you just give a blanket assessment such as “very good” and then your buyer finds an unexpected stain or tear, you risk disappointing your buyer.  Ultimately it is in everyone’s interest for you to be as specific and concrete as you can, so if you say “The book has a tear” instead of “There is a 2″ tear at the rear upper edge of the dust jacket,” buyers will either pass you up for sellers who provide more detailed information or they will be forced to contact you for information you could just as easily have given them in the first place.  Either way, you have missed a chance to make a good impression.  Writing skills also come in handy when you need to communicate with buyers and inquiries of all kinds, whether you need to let someone know you shipped their package on Tuesday July 1 or that you effed up and lost the item they just paid for.  Almost anyone can be a seller and articulate the minimum of information that is necessary to conduct transactions, but to be a great seller, you must also be a great communicator.  To the extent that you can be succinct, direct, specific, detailed, polite, respectful, and grammatically plausible in your communications, you will do a much better job and have a much better chance of turning potential problems to your advantage.
  9. Use Images, Preferably Good Ones: As a buyer, I am not only more likely to buy an item if I there is an image, but I will also sometimes choose a higher-priced item with an image over one that costs less, simply because I feel more confident that I know what I am getting.  You don’t need to spend a fortune on a digital camera to get decent images: my $200 Samsung does just fine and you can probably get by with less.  What you do need is to think carefully about what your items demand, because you can probably get by just fine with a scanner if you are just selling books and magazines, but not if you want to sell 3-dimensional artworks or clothes.  In fact, clothes are one of the hardest things to photograph well.  If you shoot them flat, without a mannequin, it is almost impossible to accurately depict how they fall on the body.  If you use insufficient or incorrectly directed light, you will fail to capture the details or the qualities of the fabric. You will find it takes an awful lot of words to depict something you can get across much faster and more efficiently with the right image or set of images, but the key is to think carefully about what you need to show and how best to display it.  Play around with lighting and position, try your macro setting for the minute details, and be willing to experiment.  Do research, see what established sellers do, and you will notice many of them photograph items such as clothing outside for the natural light.  You are always better off bringing someone’s attention to your item’s flaws than trying to conceal them, because the last thing you want is a disappointed buyer.
  10. Learn From Your Mistakes: I have made some real doozies as a seller, some of the worst of which occurred in category #6.  Starting out, I sold books on both eBay and, some for as little as .75.  I burned through an awful lot of shipping supplies and sometimes got very lazy, which in one case resulted in a buyer receiving a book in a grocery bag contaminated with a sticky substance and another in a book that actually was warped because I squeezed it into a mylar bag too small for it.  It is hard to convey how embarrassed I felt about having damaged my own merchandise, but I learned so much from from those experiences that I haven’t had an item damaged in transit for years.  Nearly everything worth doing requires a lifelong learning process, and online selling is certainly no exception.  I’ve been doing it for seven years now, and perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is to admit when I don’t know something.  I can choose to view that as a failure or an opportunity, the first of which closes a door and the second of which opens one.  This suggestion bears an important relation to #3, because sellers who grovel when they make mistakes but don’t learn and apply that knowledge are inviting their own demise.

In the spirit of open doors, I’ve been happy to share with you a few things I’ve learned in my seven years on eBay.  Some of these principles may seem painfully obvious or oversimplistic, but if so then why do so many sellers fail to observe them?  Independent online selling demands pretty much all the same skills as any other type of customer service, but with added technical requirements and a lot of writing.  The  upside is that you can work in your underwear and manage your own time, but that becomes a downside if you are the kind of person who needs to be told what to do and when to do it.

Just in case I haven’t made it clear enough, I really enjoy what I do.  Sometimes it gets frustrating, as when eBay changed their listing interface and many of my items were left without descriptions.  I cannot begin to go back and correct that problem retrospectively right now, so all I can do is be patient when I have to provide information that used to be there.  In the end, I get to rescue treasures and deliver them to people who share my appreciation of their virtues enough to pay me for the privilege.  Being a conduit for inspiration and a recycler of cosmic junk gives me a sense of purpose that I don’t find elsewhere, and getting paid for it makes me feel like my packrat nature and accumulation of useless pop culture knowledge have finally been put to good use.  Lest you doubt that, just check out the side view of the scrolly tie you saw at the top of this post and take a moment to wonder at man’s eternal ingenuity with me, then have a browse through my eBay store.

Bullshit Tie

2 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Cool Blog! I will stop by more often!

Comment by MysteryBid

Independent online selling demands pretty much all the same skills as any other type of customer service, but with added technical requirements and a lot of writing.

Comment by Ron Rivera

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: