Most people start thinking about holiday shopping right around the time their Halloween candy starts to go stale. But for eBay's online retailers, that date is way too late. For a successful selling season, preparation should start at least four months in advance.

Whether they're selling gardening tools or giant TV screens, online entrepreneurs need to hit the ground running with the right inventory--and plenty of it--to grab their share of the plum pudding. Luckily, eBay provides a lot of resources, marketing support and tools to help sellers attract the attention and ongoing loyalty of holiday shoppers.

The holidays comprise a huge percentage of annual sales for the 247,000 U.S.-based eBay Store owners. According to Plunkett Research, internet sales rose dramatically in 2005, up an estimated 25 percent to $89 billion. Internet shopping was the second favorite method of holiday gift buying in 2005, coming in over department stores and electronics stores, and just under discount retailers, according to ZDNet Research.

"Do you know anyone in retail who doesn't attain a good deal of their revenue during the holiday season?" asks Jay Ratz, owner of J&D's Internet Railroad (eBay User ID: internetrailroad) in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The 53 year old seller of model and die-cast collectible trains and railroad systems has operated a Featured eBay Store for two years and anticipates 2006 sales of $325,000.

With so many shoppers expected to head to eBay to browse for gift ideas and take advantage of the site's shopping convenience, you've got to start now to make sure you're ready for them. Whether you casually run individual listings or have a larger presence with an eBay Store, there are plenty of ways to ensure this holiday season is successful.

 

Stocking Up
Though there's no magic formula for discovering the perfect holiday product, your best bet is to understand the basics of selling on eBay and then add your own unique product knowledge, interests and abilities. "If it's something you're really passionate or knowledgeable about, that's a great place to start," says Darlene Clementz, senior marketing manager for eBay Stores.

Debbie Mitchell, owner of I Luv Fragrance Online Scent Store (eBay User ID: iluvfragrance) in Grand Prairie, Texas, honed her business for three years as a brick-and-mortar shop owner before opening an eBay Store. Initially, scented candles made up a big part of her $5,000 per-month business; today, perfume and bath and body products are taking off. "The home fragrance market is saturated," Mitchell, 46, explains. She expects perfume oil and hair fragrances to be big sellers this holiday season, as they were last year.

Mitchell also keeps a close eye on the designer fragrances introduced in the major stores and notes which ones do best. Then she offers her own renditions of them, calling them a "style" of the famous name. These items do very well for her during the holidays.

"When I had a retail store, I was killing myself because I had to have the whole store stocked," Mitchell says. "Now I make products as I get orders, and everything is pure and fresh." This strategy is especially helpful during the busy holiday season--not only can she prevent overstocks, but she can also ship top-quality products that leave a lasting positive impression on gift-giving customers.

Of course, when an eBay shopper stumbles on one of your products for sale, chances are they'd like an easy way to see more of what you have--and an eBay Store is a great way to do just that. According to eBay's research, 75 percent of eBay Store sellers say that opening a Store increased their business. According to Clementz, "Sellers who are not opening a Store are putting themselves at a disadvantage."

That's because Store owners receive access to the Store Inventory listing format, which has lower Insertion Fees, promotional tools to drive repeat purchases, and custom-ization features to create your own unique storefront design. Jimmy Jin, owner of Enchantment 4 All (eBay User ID: enchantment4all) in Richmond, British Columbia, says that moving from a Basic to a Featured eBay Store during the last holiday season increased business by as much as 20 percent. He also invested in subtitles for some of his bestselling products, which include fine scarves, wraps, beaded purses and accessories. "It's a great way to make your product stand out from the competition," says Jin, 35, who hopes to increase his sales from $120,000 in 2005 to about $150,000 in 2006.

For entrepreneur Jack Rosen, the holidays are all about careful strategies of setting the right price points and providing customer service. The 46-year-old owner of CJR Fine Arts (eBay User ID: cjrent) in Wellington, Florida, makes sure he has plenty of the discounted fine art pieces he sells for holiday buyers. Between his eBay Store and his own website, Rosen sells about $1.2 million worth of the $100 to $200 pieces each year. During the holidays, though, he makes it a point to sell only what he has in stock instead of relying on drop-shipping from third-party vendors. Says Rosen, "I know that I can sell and deliver."

ProStores web store owners have the added capability of reaching holiday shoppers with a stand-alone web-site that integrates seamlessly with their existing eBay Store and listings. As a Pro-Stores owner, you can even transfer an existing domain name to the ProStores platform so that last year's customers will be able to find your Store easily.

To help drive holiday shoppers to your site, consider using ProStores' Traffic Generation service. A marketing consultant will analyze your website and create custom text ads that will be placed on targeted online search engines on a pay-per-click basis. A basic traffic generation setup (with a $100 setup fee and a $100 monthly subscription fee) guarantees at least 10,000 impressions or that 50 new customers will enter your ProStores web store, or the next month of service is free.

 

eBay's Holiday Helpers

One of the hottest new ways to sell on eBay arrived in April with the launch of eBay Express. With its clean, easy-to-navigate design, eBay Express allows buyers to purchase gifts faster and easier. "This site was built for the convenience shopper who is looking to buy right away," explains Carolyn Pollock, eBay's senior manager of merchandising and creative marketing. "We think this will be a great place [for shoppers] to go for gift giving."

The new eBay Express mirrors more traditional online retailers; eBay hopes it will attract new groups of consumers who are accustomed to shopping online for the holidays but may not have had eBay as their top-of-mind place to buy new merchandise.

Opting in to eBay Express is simple--in fact, qualifying sellers will automatically have their listings shown within eBay Express. "Promoting the Fixed-Price items on the eBay Express site will enable us to extend the holiday shopping season on eBay," Pollock explains. "So while the typical season goes from mid-November to mid-December, [Express] will extend it a lot closer to Christmas Day."

Another benefit to holiday sellers: eBay plans all sorts of special marketing support during the holiday season. eBay's Merchandising Calendar (http://pages.ebay.com/sellercentral/calendar.html), for instance, shows which products and cat-egories will be promoted on eBay's home page each week through December. And attention all toy sellers: eBay's Toy Finder allows shoppers to search for toy gift ideas by age and product type, and also by what's hot.

To widen the circle of potential buyers, eBay is planning to continue its successful "It" campaign on TV and online for both eBay and eBay Express. And uncertain gift-givers will appreciate the Holiday Gift Guide, which will launch in November and give buyers plenty of gift ideas.

The PowerUp newsletter provides sellers with monthly e-mail notifications of free listing days, feature discounts, top sellers and hot lists. Also, make sure you check the Workshop Calendar (http://pages.ebay.com/community/workshopcalendar/current.html) for valuable information on everything from improving your search engine rankings to shipping across the border. Many of the topics are marketing-related, especially as the holidays draw near.

Of course, eBay's vast and detailed data on what's selling and for how much is what most sellers look at when deciding what they are going to offer. An important tool in your arsenal for studying buying habits is eBay's "Hot List," which is available on Seller Central at http://pages.ebay.com/sellercentral/whatshot.html. The report offers an easy way for sellers to instantly see which products within each category have been recent hot sellers.

Another way to get a quick snapshot of eBay's marketplace dynamics is through eBay Pulse, which provides a daily rundown of the most popular searches, products and stores, as well as the most-watched items in every category. You may note, for example, that sales of combination DVD/VHS players are slowing down, while sales of DVD-only players are picking up. This information can help you adjust your inventory in time for holiday shoppers.

'Tis the Season for Sales
The holidays are both good news and bad news for entrepreneurs: More people are shopping online at this time of year, but more sites are clamoring for their business. Making your product stand out and making it as easy to buy as possible are the keys to holiday success.

"The [eBay] marketplace is so competitive," says Phil Dunn, co-author of 7 Essential Steps to eBay Marketing and an online marketing consultant. "Chances are someone else is selling exactly what you are. You need to keep an edge."

That edge can be as simple as investing in the next level of eBay options, as Jin did by upgrading his Store and adding subtitles. Or it could be capitalizing on the numerous shopping comparison sites that become the strategic holiday shopper's way of finding desired items at the best prices.

There are many comparison sites available to shoppers, and they vary according to their search param-eters and the number of stores included in searches. Shoppers trust these sites to help them find not only the best prices, but also the retailers with the best customer service, which is why it's important for your products and site to be included. And although fewer shoppers use comparison sites than general search engines during the holidays--8 percent vs. 64 percent, according to Jupitermedia Corp.--buyers who use comparison sites are highly motivated and much more likely to make a purchase.

If you want to tap into comparison sites, the easiest place to start is Shopping.com, which is not only one of the largest sites of its kind, but is also an eBay company. That means your listings are easily transferable--all you need to do is set up a merchant account that deducts a preset amount for each click-through to your eBay site. But there are many other sites to consider, such as Froogle.com, NexTag.com and PriceGrabber.com. Some will list your products for free; others charge a sliding scale rate based on how high your listing appears in search results.

Before you can effectively reach customers, though, it's important to know who they are. Are they mostly repeat buyers or newcomers? Thirty-something new fathers or empty nesters? Bargain hunters or affluent prestige seekers? Getting a picture of who your customers are will help you target them more effectively.

According to Meg Sloan, eBay's director of consumer research, the most relevant data for understanding buyers of eBay merchandise comes from eBay itself. "We make a pretty sizable investment in our research," says Sloan. "We have the virtue of proximity, and everyone in the research department does a lot of buying and selling themselves." Sloan advises sellers to pay attention to the seller newsletter and e-mails, where eBay's research findings are parlayed into tips and advice.

In addition to eBay Marketplace Research and your own eBay Sales Reports, there are third-party software products that can help eBay Store owners analyze sales history. Market Blast (www.marketblast.com), for example, is a listing and sales management package that enables you to analyze trends and customer habits. Others, like HammerTap DeepAnalysis (www.hammertap.com), MPire Researcher (www.mpire.com and Terapeak (www.terapeak.com), are data mining tools that analyze item pricing, listings duration and top upgrades within eBay's seller marketplace. These solutions offer a host of features that could help boost holiday sales: what features, durations and titles will help close the sale; how much money a product will make on eBay before you place a wholesale order; and how to read category trends so you'll know which ones will be hot this year. You can link up with these Certified Providers in the Solutions Directory on eBay (http://solutions.ebay.com).

The Finishing Touches

As the holidays approach, take a close look at your own eBay space--could it benefit from a bit of sprucing up? There are plenty of things you can do to grab buyers' attention and make them want to stay in your eBay Store. Think cheerful and fun for the holidays: Incorporate holiday graphics and write your text to position your product as the perfect gift. The holidays are a very important time to cross-merchandise--show complementary merchandise through the various steps of a customer's shopping "trip."

Also, make your site or storefront an inviting place where a shopper would want to linger. For ideas and inspiration, check out eBay's Best in Stores contest, in which eBay Stores are judged on their designs, the shopping experiences they offer and their marketing strategies. "There were so many amazing Stores that were submitted to [this year's] contest," says Clementz. Check out the winners for 2006 at www.ebay.com/bestinstores2006.

The holidays present a unique opportunity for eBay Store owners to acquire a whole new group of loyal customers. By making their sites attractive and easy to navigate, and by providing clear, close-up photos of merchandise, good prices and fair return policies, the best eBay Store owners keep their businesses growing robustly each year.

Having clear, easy-to-find shipping rates and dates as well as a holiday return policy is critical. Many sellers find that offering free or flat-rate shipping makes holiday sales run more smoothly and earns goodwill from customers. Another strategy to increase holiday buying is to offer multiple-purchase shipping discounts.

Most sellers offer cash or credit refunds for anywhere from seven to 14 days after purchase, but around the holidays, shoppers should be reminded that gift items must be returned by them, not the gift recipient.

Do everything in your power to encourage early shopping and expedite your packing, labeling and shipping tasks. It's smart to offer special services around the holidays, like gift wrapping and shipping directly to gift recipients. Take advantage of mailing programs like Endicia (www.endicia.com), which completely automates postage and label making.

"It helps to focus on a product that is easy to ship and that you can purchase at a good price," Ratz says. "Whatever you decide to sell, though, do it in a more professional manner than your competition. The trick is to get the customer to buy your products again and again." And with the busy holiday shopping season just around the corner, what better time is there to start than right now?

It's All In The Timing
HERE'S YOUR MONTH-BY-MONTH COUNTDOWN TO GET READY FOR THE HOLIDAYS.

August: Scour the summer trade shows to find product sources. Negotiate agreements on pricing and terms such as early buy/sell, which means you secure a low product cost and pay upon shipment rather than upon order. Study last year's sales for trends and purchasing patterns, and be sure to check both eBay's "Hot List" report (http://pages.ebay.com/sellercentral/whatshot.html) and the "Holiday Hot List" (http://pages.ebay.com/holidayhotlist2006).

September: Get your eBay Store in order by checking your equipment and stocking up on supplies like paper, boxes, shipping materials, label pouches and ink cartridges. Decide which items to promote or discount, and determine what other incentives to offer and when (such as free shipping with a minimum order, two-for-one sales and so on). Create a holiday listing schedule so that your listing durations decrease as the holiday comes closer, with the last listings closing eight to 10 days before Christmas.

October: Line up any helpers or additional employees you'll need. Keep close tabs on your incoming e-mails, and reply promptly to questions, requests and orders. Keep that feedback score high! Research your carrier options--DHL, FedEx, UPS and the U.S. Postal Service--to determine who has the best prices and business support. Consider a blend of carriers depending on package size and destination.

November: Take advantage of USPS pickup services to keep your shipments moving. Simply notify the post office before 2 a.m. the day your pickup is scheduled, and your carrier will pick up all Express and Priority packages for delivery.

December: If you have an e-mail opt-in list already, schedule some enticing last-minute deals for late holiday shoppers. If you don't have a list yet, make sure you are actively cross-promoting items and upselling your customers. In each package, include thank-you fliers with post-holiday specials. And be sure to keep track of the USPS' cutoff dates for merchandise to arrive by Christmas Day--check www.usps.com or visit your neighborhood post office for a list of dates.

Best Sellers
What will be the hottest products this holiday season? According to Carolyn Pollock, eBay's senior manager of merchandising and creative marketing, "PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii will be hot this year. Also, HDTV plasma and LCD screens, especially the 40 to 50 inch sizes." Pollock also mentions Blu-ray, the new DVD player technology; MP3 and camera cell phones; Motorola's SLVR and Sony Ericsson's Walkman phones; and Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean licensed toys. Other categories expected to do well include luxury brands, iPods, handbags, shoes and jewelry. Here are some ways to uncover other "hot spots" before the crowd.

Get thee to a mall. Study not only what's out there, but also shoppers' behavior. What are they looking at and talking about as they walk through a store? Chat with other retailers, who may be able to give you ideas for items other than what they carry.

Listen to your kids. The younger set has finely honed radar to detect the next hot item. Many of their fads tend to fade quickly, but some products might have longer-term possibilities for your business.

Read, read, read. Reading retail trade journals, business publications and consumer product catalogs will widen your horizon of product knowledge and could give you some great ideas for merchandise.

What Went Wrong?
This holiday season, be prepared for brisk sales--and also for those inevitable bumps in the road. It seems that for the most part, those bumps have to do with planning and organization. The following are some common mistakes eBay sellers make, and suggestions for getting back on track.

Wasting Time: Phil Dunn, co-author of 7 Essential Steps to eBay Marketing, says the biggest mistakes eBay Store owners make have to do with spending too much time on busywork like listings and shipping. Instead of writing individual e-mails for shipping confirmations, use Selling Manager Pro and Turbo Lister to automate many of your tasks.

Poor storefront presentation: You could have the highest quality product around, but if your eBay Store is unappealing, it can hurt business. Take time to create a nice, clean appearance for your Store, and make an effort to write your sales and description copy concisely and imaginatively.

Inventory mismanagement: Sourcing and ordering your products is especially crucial during the holidays. Sellers who wait until early fall aren't going to find the best products at the best prices. If you waited too long this year, make the best of your miscalculation and spend time doing research and building manufacturer contacts for next year.

Stocking products that don't sell: If you tried selling a product in a Fixed- Price listing but came up empty-handed, consider listing it in an auction-style format to recoup part of your loss. Also, test small batches of expensive merchandise to see how it sells before committing to a large order.

Dealing with overly demanding customers: Most sellers encounter relatively few problems with impossible customers. If you do suspect that someone is "playing" you, check with fellow sellers in the Seller Central Discussion Board for immediate suggestions on how best to deal with the situation. If you receive a negative feedback response and feel it is unfair, you can post a reply to help clarify the situation.