Holiday Cheer

Day After Christmas

In addition to being a day of mourning for sellers with overpriced goods they couldn't sell, the day after Christmas also marks the official beginning of the return season. Not all eBay sellers have to deal with this. Mitchell, for instance, reports no requests for returns last Christmas. "I was expecting [some]," she says. "I advertise that I always take returns for any reason as long as it comes back to me in the same condition. I probably get one return a month, but over Christmas I didn't have any."

Just in case, however, Prince suggests considering tighter return policies during the holidays. "A lot of people say during the rest of the year that they'll refund everything, no questions asked," he says. "But during the holidays, there are other stressors out there."

One risk is that a shopper could order something from an eBay seller and then, on one of his or her many trips to the mall searching for more gifts, run across that same item for less, prompting a request for a refund on the eBay purchase. Other shoppers may order more gifts than they really need, planning to evaluate the items after they arrive and take advantage of loose refund policies to send the least desirable gifts back.

Prince advises taking some steps to mitigate the risk of too many refund requests during the holidays. "Throw in a couple of extra boundaries," he says. "I'd say [you should] ship insured, all sales final, unless [the] package is received damaged or not as described." Otherwise, all your inventory may come flying back."

Service First
You can devote the extra time you might have spent handling returns to paying more attention to other elements of customer service. Now is the time to give a little extra service to customers. "Have a sound policy that you would use all year long--here are forms of payment I take; if you pay immediately, here's how I ship; here's how often I ship," Prince says. "During the holiday season, you want to adhere to it and maybe even extend yourself a bit to make sure [every] customer is satisfied."

During the holidays, you'll likely be selling to a lot of customers you haven't dealt with before. This is an opportunity to give them a good experience that will turn them into repeat buyers. One way to go the extra mile is to suggest faster shipping to customers who opt for cheaper delivery but may be playing it a little too close to the gift-opening date. Even better, Prince says, you can take it upon yourself to upgrade shipping to keep customers from making a mistake. "There were a couple of times when I pitched in for the regular delivery just to make sure it got there on time," he says. "They were ecstatic."

With all the activity and challenges, the holidays can be a time of pleasant surprises. Mitchell, for instance, was pleased to find that customers outside the United States were noticeably less stressed than domestic buyers. "A third of my business is international," she says, "and I thought it was going to be an issue with the holidays. But it was easier. My international buyers seemed more lenient."

Whether you fear the worst or optimistically anticipate the best from the holidays, it's vital that you know what to expect and think through how to react. "The biggest risk would be to not be prepared," says Prince. "If you're going to go into this, do it knowing what your policies are, what you're going to expect for payment and how you can manage the activity."

Done right, there's every reason to expect the holidays to be a season of joy for eBay entrepreneurs as well as the givers and recipients of the gifts they sell. "My plan is to triple my business by the end of the year," says Mitchell, who has 2007 projected sales of $50,000. "That was my goal, and I'm trying my best to stick with that."

Mark Henricks writes on business and technology for leading publications and is author of Not Just a Living.

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