When Paul Fischer and Gregory Skibbee started eBay jewelry seller Windsor Auctions (eBay User ID: windsorauctions-usa) in 2005, they weren't sure whether they should try selling internationally. But when Fischer, a 39-year-old Lutz, Florida, entrepreneur, and his 48-year-old co-founder looked more closely at what they would gain by going global, the choice was easy. "The one thing that pushed us over the edge was that by agreeing to ship internationally, the listings would appear throughout all of eBay," Fischer says. "We did it for the audience."

Since then, Windsor Auctions has grown to a 20-person company with 2006 sales of $1.4 million. Fischer gives substantial credit for the company's success to his early decision to ignore the naysayers and seek global business. "Half of our business comes from outside the U.S.," he says. Windsor also sources much of its product overseas through manufacturers in Thailand and China.

If you sell through eBay only to the domestic market, you're missing out on a world of prospects, literally. "We reach buyers in well over 190 countries," says Casey Rovinelli, eBay senior manager of international marketing. "We have a local site presence in more than 33 markets around the globe, and about half of our users live outside the U.S. Our international business now accounts for almost 50 percent of eBay's net revenue."

Making an item available to eBay's worldwide audience provides numerous advantages. For starters, you can expect your sell-through rate to increase. You'll get more bids. And you'll get higher prices. "We did a study that showed items that sell worldwide and offer PayPal receive on average 16 percent higher prices," Rovinelli says. "So it's a big opportunity."

For Fischer, going global has worked out seamlessly. Shipping and customs have been easy to handle, and no international packages have gone missing. "We now ship around the world, and we've never had a problem," he says.

While skeptics may still regard international business as a potential problem area, Rovinelli says those in the know consider it an opportunity. "It has been embraced by eBay sellers, especially our top sellers," he says. "They have figured out that international is just another chance for them to sell."

Getting Started With Listings
The first step to selling internationally is to make your listing available to international buyers. When you are listing an item, check "Will ship worldwide" in the "Ship-to locations" section of the "Sell Your Item" form. That's all it takes to make your item available to international buyers. Your listing will then appear on country-specific eBay sites in addition to eBay.com in the U.S.

To see the country-specific sites your item will appear on, look at the bottom of the eBay home page. You'll see more than two dozen sites for countries around the world, from Argentina to the United Kingdom. If you want to do business with some countries but not others, you can choose specific regions when preparing your listing. Just check the appropriate boxes to show which regions you will ship to. Among the top markets for U.S.-based international sellers are Canada, the UK, Australia and Germany. If you want to narrow your list, check for the trade status of individual countries. Normal trade relations status, formerly known as most-favored nation status, indicates the U.S. government has approved the country for commercial dealings. You can learn more about the U.S. government's rules and regulations for dealing with individual countries at www.export.gov.

People in the more than 150 countries where eBay buyers live speak many different languages, but for the most part, English is the default language for eBay transactions. U.S. eBay sellers active in international markets rarely translate their listings into other languages. It can, however, set you apart to include a phrase or two in a foreign language on listings appearing on a specific country website, says Rovinelli.

Even if you restrict yourself to English, it's a good idea to include specific words that will show international sellers you welcome their business. "Actively address international bidders in your listings," Rovinelli says. "Highlight which countries you have experience shipping to. Make it personal by mentioning that you enjoy selling internationally."

Best Practices for Shipping

Because shipping is a special concern when you're moving goods thousands of miles across national borders, be very clear about shipping policies and expectations. In your listings, tell buyers the number of days or weeks your experience has told you it will take for a package to arrive in a given country. Tell them you'll pack it extra-securely to withstand the rigors of a long journey. One of the best things you can do for your potential buyers is to include an international shipping calculator in your listings. Find out more about shipping calculators at eBay's Shipping Center. If you want to know more about international shipping rates, see http://ircalc.usps.gov.

There are a variety of shipment options for international transactions, including the U.S. Postal Service, UPS and other third-party carriers. Many international shippers find that USPS flat-rate Global Priority mail is well-suited for their purposes. "The Postal Service has been extremely reliable for us," says Fischer. He always purchases the optional delivery confirmation service with his Global Priority shipments. "If you do delivery confirmation on every package, somewhere along the line somebody has to sign," he says. "We can track it right through." Another tip: Fischer splits high-value shipments into several packages, each valued at no more than $100, to take advantage of the $100 in insurance included with each Global Priority shipment.

Experienced eBay sellers rely on eBay's Shipping Center to learn about international shipping, calculate costs and generate the documents needed to ship packages. "If the buyer pays through PayPal, I can print the shipping label, with customs forms, on my printer instead of waiting in line at the post office or UPS," says Jack Waddick, an eBay Education Specialist in Arlington Heights, Illinois. "Then they will even come and pick up the packages for you, which is a pretty good deal."

eBay enthusiast Marsha Pater, 49, and her husband, Bill, 58, sell $10,000 worth of industrial tools worldwide each month through auction-style listings and their eBay Store, Pater Industrial Tool Supply (eBay User ID: fisbill) in Plainfield, Illinois. Because of the weight of the tools, Pater can't use Global Priority, so she has to go to the post office to manually fill out documents for purchase deliveries. She gives customers the option of insuring their packages but otherwise uses the standard service.

Tracing missing international shipments can be cumbersome because USPS won't begin tracing a shipment until 30 days after it was shipped, Pater says. However, it's more of a theoretical issue than a day-to-day problem. "I have been doing business on eBay since 1998, and only twice have I had to run a trace," she says.

Vancouver, British Columbia, seller Francis Ochoco, 28, relies on Canada Post's international air parcel service to deliver his shipments. He charges a flat rate for shipments to locations outside North America and says the key to successful international shipping practices is to keep it clear, simple and inexpensive for buyers.

"Unfortunately, the cheapest [Canada Post] option available doesn't provide a tracking number," explains Ochoco. "That's the main challenge." If a customer reports that a package never arrived, Ochoco, whose company, Iselle Enterprises (eBay User ID: urbanhuman), sells clothing through eBay, has no option other than refunding the customer's money. However, Ochoco, who was named Canada's eBay Entrepreneur of the Year in 2005, says it has only happened a couple of times since he began selling on eBay in 2004.

International Payments
PayPal is the backbone of international payments on eBay, just as it is with domestic transactions. The ease, speed and automatic currency conversion that PayPal offers seem made to order for international sellers. But the most important feature of PayPal is that customers want to use it, says Fischer. "We tell people we prefer PayPal because people like it," he says. "If it's going to cost [us] a little more money, that's not a problem." Windsor has its own merchant account, but international buyers prefer PayPal because their debit and credit cards don't always work properly with the company's merchant account system, he says.

PayPal ensures straightforward accounting, adds Fischer, who acts as CFO for his company. "And there's constant cash flow from PayPal," he says. "We have money coming in 24/7, and it doesn't take more than 24 to 36 hours to reach our account. With our bank, it [can take] four days."

While PayPal automatically converts 15 different currencies into U.S. dollars, the company is adding new countries and currencies to its capabilities. You can learn all about accepting payments internationally by going to www.paypal.com and clicking on "PayPal Worldwide."

Your customers, by the way, will automatically see the prices for your products in both U.S. dollars and the default currency for their country site. So if you indicate you will ship to the United Kingdom, the UK buyer will see prices in dollars and pounds sterling.

World-Class Customer Service
Clear and copious communication is the foundation of excellent customer service when selling internationally. Fischer says he encourages customers to call Windsor's toll-free number with any questions or concerns; he then contacts them via e-mail or phone to try to remedy whatever situations arise.

Fischer also takes a tolerant view of any failings on his customers' part. "We have people who place a $20,000 winning bid on a listing and then never pay the bill," he says. "But we forgive all nonpaying bidders. We're all human beings. Somebody could [be in the] hospital; somebody could have lost their job."

Ochoco agrees: "My policy is, the customer's always right. If you have that policy, you're going to make more money because you'll have repeat customers."

Ochoco does virtually all his customer communication by e-mail. He responds to customer e-mails within 24 hours and initiates communication whenever anything occurs that customers should know about. "When I ship items, I send them a shipment notification," he says. "Basically, I keep them up-to-date in regard to everything I'm doing on the transaction."

And it may come as a surprise, but language problems rarely crop up in international customer service. Ochoco keeps messages to customers brief and simple and says they return the favor. "Everything's been smooth when [I'm] communicating by e-mail," he says.

Fischer reports that he also rarely encounters language issues, even with his telephone-based style of customer service: "We sell to people in Malaysia, Japan, everywhere, and we've never had a problem with [communicating in] English."

International Products That Sell

Some of the best products for international selling are products available only in North America, Ochoco says. "Or, if [certain] types of clothes are available [outside North America], they are a lot more expensive," he adds. Many successful international sellers are connected with expatriate Americans who can't find products in their new homes that they loved while living in the States, says Rovinelli.

To check what's happening in specific markets, start at the home page of eBay.com. Click on one of the country links at the bottom of the page, and then click on the "Advanced Search" link at the top of the page that comes up. From there, you can do a Completed Listings search on any item. You can also use other eBay tools such as the "What's Hot" report to see which products and categories are doing well. "Your User ID can be used on all eBay sites," Rovinelli says. "A seller could go to the UK [site] and do some Completed Listings searches or browse the site to see what's selling at what cost."

As a general rule, products with a high value-to-weight ratio are best suited for international selling. You can find specific sources for products by checking an online database of suppliers such as Worldwide Brands. Robin Cowie, president of the Maitland, Florida, service provider, says eBay sellers can access a database of tens of thousands of suppliers for a one-time payment of $299. According to Cowie, more than 100,000 sellers currently use the database.

Worldwide Brands researches the suppliers to ensure they are reputable firms, Cowie says. The website provides the suppliers' e-mail addresses, phone numbers, order requirements and other details such as minimum orders. Says Cowie, "[These suppliers] are normally online-savvy, so they have all kinds of ways to work with e-commerce stores."

Ochoco uses supplier services to research sources for his products. He usually sources his designer clothing from North American and Asian suppliers who buy and resell cancelled orders from the off-price market. "You have to [find] where the products are cheaper," he says.

Fischer has taken it a step further, traveling to Hong Kong to talk directly with mainland Chinese jewelry-makers using Hong Kong intermediaries. He has even purchased a Chinese pearl farm to bring costs down as much as possible. Arranging the contacts was straightforward, Fischer reports, and less than two weeks after visiting Hong Kong, they'd already manufactured 3,000 pieces of jewelry. "I can pick up the phone any day of the week and talk to our people in Hong Kong, and it's just a regular conversation," he says. "They are managing every piece of the operation."

Pater regularly finds new international sources of supply from customers and others attracted by her eBay presence. "It helps me pick up new product lines," she says. "Just this week I had a company from Singapore contact me because they saw that I sell internationally. I can now buy product from them and sell it."

Global Future
eBay is steadily becoming more international, as evidenced by the growing number of country sites and expanding PayPal currency conversion. Similar trends are happening elsewhere. Worldwide Brands is adding new services covering liquidation merchandise and importing in considerable detail. And eBay sellers are steadily waking up to the fact that selling to the global market is a way to distinguish themselves from their less adventurous competitors, as well as a way to open up a vast new market of buyers.

Fischer, who sold jewelry through cruise ship auctions before starting his business on eBay, says the decision to sell internationally from the start was critical to Windsor's success. "[With our] first [eBay] auction, we did about $78,000," he says. "That took us by surprise." The cruise ships were charging him a commission of 60 percent of each auction's sales, several times eBay's take. Though Windsor had generated $5 million in retail jewelry sales aboard the cruise ships, Fischer left the sea and never looked back, even when a cruise line recently contacted him requesting another oceanic auction.

Of course, the cruise line wanted to know why Fischer turned down the job. "They laughed when we said 'eBay,'" he says. "But [in 2007], we'll do $4.5 million on eBay. [Next] year, we'll do $7 million. We've got a worldwide audience, constant cash flow, and we don't have to get on a ship and travel around the world to do it."

Get Globally Savvy
eBay offers a variety of online tools that tell you everything you need to know to create an excellent international listing. "The day we opened our eBay Store, the rep called and said, 'You did everything perfectly--how did you do it?'" recalls eBay seller Paul Fischer (eBay User ID: windsorauctions-usa). "I said, 'We just read your online help.'"

Start by going online to read eBay's international selling toolkit, which takes you through the four steps to becoming a global eBay seller. It covers preparation, listing, payments, shipping and more from an international seller's perspective. This global trading hub also offers information on sourcing globally, identifying most-watched items and hot categories by country, and more. To take advantage of this valuable resource, visit www.ebay.com and click on the "Sell Globally" link at the bottom left of the page.

Other helpful resources from eBay:

  • The International Trading Answer Center lets you tap the expertise of eBay members selling worldwide--or if you're an expert, you can provide answers to others' questions. Go to http://pages.ebay.com/community/answercenter and click on "International Trading."
  • The International Trading Chat Board gives you the chance to network with eBay members involved in selling internationally. Go to http://pages.ebay.com/community/chat and click on "eBay International Board" under "General Chat Rooms."
  • The International Trading Discussion Board hooks you up with eBay members and staff to kick around ideas and issues related to worldwide commerce on eBay. Go to http://pages.ebay.com/community/boards and click on "International Trading" under "Community Help Boards."
  • eBay's International Shipping Center offers a wealth of tools and resources to help you with shipping, including the international shipping calculator, which will let you and your customers easily figure out shipping costs. See http://pages.ebay.com/services/buyandsell/shippinginternational.html.

Speak Easy
Conventional phone calls can be an expensive way to communicate with international customers. Skype gives you an easy way to talk to anyone, anywhere for free. Skype, an eBay company, requires you to download and install a small program on your computer. Then you can include a Skype button on your listings. Buyers click the "Chat or Call" button to contact you instantly.

"Skype is really unique," says Casey Rovinelli, eBay senior manager of international marketing. "Especially outside the U.S., it has incredible penetration rates. And now there's something called TranSkype, which can automatically translate your instant message conversation in real time. The cost of communicating around the world is so much cheaper now because of products like Skype." Learn more at http://pages.ebay.com/skype.

Do's and Don'ts of International Selling
What to do:

  • Check "Will ship worldwide" when creating a listing.
  • Write clear item descriptions.
  • Study feedback to see if an international customer is one you really want.
  • Accept PayPal.
  • Make shipping policies and options cost-effective and simple.
  • Request delivery confirmation of shipments if possible.
  • Communicate with buyers frequently and clearly.

What Not to Do:

  • Jump into selling internationally without selling domestically first.
  • Use colloquial sayings or sarcasm in listings or communications.
  • Neglect time zones--your morning may be a customer's midnight.
  • Offer internationally prohibited items (for details, see ww.ups.com/ga/CountryRegs?loc=en_US).
  • Add taxes or shipping to item values on customs forms--customers will have to pay extra if you do this.
  • Misidentify items as gifts on customs forms to save on duties.
  • Give up. "Be persistent," says eBay seller Francis Ochoco (eBay User ID: urbanhuman). "That's the key to being successful."
Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and isauthor of Not Just a Living.