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Perfect Timing

Successful eBay entrepreneurs reveal how part-time selling can make a full-time impact.

Janice Ford-Freeman loves shopping garage sales for bargain-priced vintage clothing. She loves taking her finds and selling them on eBay even more. Ford-Freeman's business on eBay, which she conducts under eBay User ID crestwoodian, is a part-time endeavor that blends enjoyment and income. "It gave me a fabulous outlet to market the bargains I found," says Ford-Freeman, who works by day at The University of Alabama, Birmingham. "It's been wonderful."

Ford-Freeman has plenty of company from other part-time sellers, says Nathan Etter, senior manager at eBay. According to a June 2006 ACNielsen study, 1.3 million sellers worldwide make all or part of their living on eBay. "A big percentage of those are part-time sellers," says Etter.

People sell part time on eBay for a number of reasons. "First of all," says Etter, "it can be extremely profitable." Part-timers usually don't hire employees or rent warehouses, so they enjoy lower overhead than many businesses. Ford-Freeman, for instance, does as much as $3,000 in a single month working out of her home.

Flexibility also attracts part-timers. "They can [sell] on their own time, after their kids are asleep or whenever they want to," Etter says. "And, equally important, they can do as much or as little [selling] as they want. The business really scales to fit their lives."

Ford-Freeman normally works about 20 hours a week but sometimes cuts back on business to a sales level as low as $150 a month. "[My success] really depends on how much work I put into [my business on eBay], as well as the market," she explains.

Many part-time sellers are motivated by a desire to find an enjoyable hobby with a moneymaking sideline. "I really like the extra money," says Ford-Freeman. "And I get to indulge this interest of mine. [Instead of] buying all these cool, funky old clothes and having them pile up in my house, now when they pile up, I get them advertised and shipped."

Part-Time Challenges
Despite the rewards, part-time selling presents some special challenges. According to Etter, sourcing is the biggest trouble spot. "The number-one challenge for our part-time sellers is getting a consistent [source] of properly priced inventory," Etter says.

Vendors maintain a steady supply of goods for part-timers, but selling only part time on eBay makes it tough to know what is in demand and, more important, what is about to be in demand. "As a part-time seller, you have less time to spend looking for trends and getting ahead with new products that are hot in the marketplace and may be in short supply," Etter says. "If you're not full time, you're not constantly on that quest, and you may not have as big a network of suppliers." To minimize supplier problems, Etter says, be consistent. You may not work at sourcing full time, but don't stop looking for suppliers for so long that you lose touch.

Part-timers can get the biggest bang for their buck by following and forecasting the demand for their items. One of the most popular resources for this is What's Hot, a part of Seller Central that lists ways to identify bestselling categories and stay informed about upcoming promotions and buying trends. "Markets may change, particularly if you're selling very trendy [items]," Etter explains. "If you've acquired a lot of inventory and the market doesn't sustain it, you may end up [underwater]."

Part-timers also have to deal with uneven income from their endeavors. If they're traveling or too busy with jobs and the demands of daily life to attend to their business on eBay, sales may stop altogether. And working an irregular, abbreviated schedule can make it challenging to give great customer service.

eBay provides customer service tools that can help part-timers manage their schedules and meet their customers' expectations: Sellers can create Frequently Asked Questions lists with standard replies for curious buyers, and eBay Store owners can notify prospective buyers about their upcoming vacations.

One key to success as a part-timer is carefully choosing the items you sell and the markets you sell to. "There are items on eBay that are easier to sell than others," Etter says. In general, he says, products that have a high ratio of value to density (or weight) are easier to sell. In other words, lighter, smaller, more costly products tend to sell better than heavier, bulkier, less expensive products. "We find part-timers in almost every category," Etter says. "But the ones who are most successful focus on the value-to-density ratio."

Scarcity is another important factor when it comes to selecting the right product or category for a part-time eBay enterprise. There is always a market for limited edition, exclusive and retired items as well as any item that seems scarce in supply, says Etter. "If you can get consistent, properly priced access to that inventory, those are great products to start with on eBay," he says.

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