Imagine eBay as a giant shopping mall. Your buyers are only one step--or one click--away from moving to the next store for lower prices, better customer service, a wider selection or perhaps better ambience. A number of things can make your competitors more appealing to potential buyers, especially on eBay, where it's simple for buyers to sort through the millions of listings for a given product. Establishing a successful business on eBay starts with mastering the listing process--the umbrella term for the practice of researching, writing descriptions, taking photographs, setting prices, answering questions, shipping items and generally selling products. It may take a few attempts before you discover exactly how to sculpt your listings to fit your products and customers, but there are a number of steps you can take right away to succeed in the eBay marketplace.
1. Do your research. As senior manager of eBay Education Programs, Sharon Guldner has been educating eBay members for almost five years. But it took her only a few weeks to discover the common mistakes that hamper eBay startups from the beginning. A major one is lack of research. "Research is important because it helps you determine if there is a demand for your product," says Guldner. "And by researching starting prices, you'll see whether you can make the money you want. You can also take note of the best practices of other sellers."
Browse active and completed listings, and look at how other eBay sellers in your category are selling. What keywords make up their titles? Which listings brought the highest bids? How do sellers in your category describe a product's features?
Do a keyword search for the item you plan to sell, and examine active listings. Then check completed listings to see what similar items have sold for in the past two weeks. "You need to know what the market wants," says Guldner.
If you plan to sell in volume or want to begin sourcing products for your business on eBay, Guldner recommends using eBay Marketplace Research. Available in three subscription levels, Marketplace Research enables you to gather critical information on selling trends in the eBay market-place for up to 90 days.
2. Set your price and determine your listing format. Part of the fun of eBay is that you and the buyer determine the price; the same item could yield $50 in one listing and $120 in the next. But eBay's flexible pricing can be both beneficial and detrimental. Again, research is key--looking at previous sales for similar items should determine your pricing and listing strategy. Testing a variety of techniques is the best way to determine what works well for your items.
Guldner sees many eBay sellers start bids at one cent as a technique to attract buyers and drive the selling price above market value. But she warns against using a penny starting bid if the product is niche or demand for it is low. For this technique to work well, you need products that are in demand and hard to find elsewhere.
To jump-start business, you can begin with a no-reserve auction-style listing, meaning you don't set a minimum dollar amount for the sale. "Getting that first bid is critical to a successful listing," says Lisa Rosato-Donahue, senior manager of eBay Seller Marketing. And since buyers are more likely to bid if there are already other bids on the item, having no reserve price encourages people to jump right in and often pushes bids higher than the intended reserve price anyway. "It's about generating excitement for your item," Rosato-Donahue says.Another common listing format is Buy It Now, which can be used with or without bidding. Buy It Now lets buyers choose between purchasing a product at a fixed price--as they would in a store--and bidding. Offering a Buy It Now price allows buyers to purchase an item immediately if they don't want to bid or wait for a listing to end. But the option should be used wisely. "I've seen people start their biddings at $9.99 and then put a Buy It Now price at $10," says Guldner. "That's not going to inspire people to bid that item up." Guldner recommends offering Buy It Now prices on commodity items such as DVDs, which have a known value, and sticking with auction-style listings for in-demand and collectible items. Research will help you determine if your Buy It Now price is appropriate for the product.
3. Determine shipping fees
Price gouging is never appreciated in the eBay world, especially when those prices include hidden or exorbitant shipping fees. Like setting a reasonable starting bid, determining reasonable shipping costs requires a certain amount of research.
Don't pad shipping costs, warns Rosato-Donahue, as this could hurt you in the long run, since buyers leave anonymous ratings for shipping and handling charges as part of the normal feedback process.
Shipping costs should be clearly articulated on the description page so buyers aren't surprised when it's time to pay for the item. Guldner recommends using eBay's free Shipping Calculator, which determines shipping costs based on the weight of the item and the buyer's ZIP code. If you find that offering discounted or free shipping attracts more bidders and requires a minimal investment, don't be afraid to offer these incentives. But avoid increasing the starting price to compensate for discounts. Chances are, the lower starting price will get more looks than discounted shipping costs will.
4. Define your terms of sale. Do you take returns? What happens if the buyer isn't satisfied? Do you ship with a request for delivery confirmation? Do you pay for shipping insurance? What kinds of payments do you accept? These questions will flood your eBay inbox if they're not answered clearly in the listings, says Guldner.
The more specific you can be about your payment policies, the more you'll build buyer confidence. Accept online payments--and be clear and detailed in your listings about which payments you take. Noting that 3 out of 4 buyers prefer PayPal, Rosato-Donahue says, "Buyers are more likely to bid on your items if your payment methods are clearly stated and easy to use."
To get a better idea of the terms of sale you might want to include in your listings, visit the eBay University Learning Center and explore the "How to Sell" lessons.
5. Capture the image. Not all eBay entrepreneurs were born photographers. Luckily, you don't have to be an amazing photographer to make your items look good on eBay; you just have to know the basics.
Center the object on a plain, well-lit background, and take shots that focus on the entire object as well as the details. You can include up to 12 photographs in your listing--more expensive and intricate items may require all 12, but other items may need only a few. Either way, photos that focus on sensory details such as the look and feel of an object will entice buyers who might normally prefer to see the product in person.
"If it's a collector's item, you'll want to photograph any signatures, stamps or authenticity marks," says Guldner, who often sees sellers skip the gallery and thumbnail options, which can improve an item's salability by 10 percent, on average. "If it's a common item, make sure you take a picture of the actual item in your possession. Don't pull the picture off a website."
eBay offers a slew of free and low-cost photo options, including Picture Pack, Picture Show, Preview Pictures and Supersize Pictures. As part of the listing process, you are taken through a photo upload process and given the opportunity to purchase some of the advanced photo options for your listings.
For general consumer items, such as books, DVDs, CDs and games, eBay offers an image gallery where you can search for stock images using SKUs or ISBNs. For more on this, see the article titled, "Start Your Engines."
6. Write your title
You have 55 characters in your title to attract potential buyers, so use them wisely. Keywords are any words buyers might use when searching for a specific product on eBay, including brands, models, sizes and other important attributes. Be sure to include these in your title. A buyer searching for camping gear might use keywords like backpacks, tents, portable stoves and hiking equipment. Since securing a high ranking in buyer searches is vital to your company's success, use all relevant keywords for your item. If you're selling a tent, for example, you'll want to include as much information about the tent as possible, such as "NEW Eddie Bauer Telluride Cabin Tent 18' x 9' Sleeps 6." Says Rosato-Donahue, "[The title] gets the most exposure and is the best way to help potential buyers find your items."
7. Create your product description. Creating an effective product description is its own art, but some sellers get a little too Picasso. "Be very precise with the description," says Guldner. "Also use formatting, bullet points and bold to call out important features."
A good description is clearly organized and answers buyers' questions before they ask them. Some key points to include are a general overview of the product and its condition, special features, and information about shipping, warranties and payments.
And while you may be all about "luv" and "rspct" in your text messages, on eBay, standard grammar rules do apply. In the same vein, do potential buyers a favor and eliminate floating cursors, animation and anything else that makes your listing look like a pop-up ad. Include detailed descriptions--the size, color, material--and mention if the product is new or in the box. For electronics, Rosato-Donahue recommends listing brand names and memory specs.
8. Provide good customer service. Though land, water and a computer screen may separate you and a potential buyer, it's still important to provide good customer service. Even listings with clear product descriptions are prone to the occasional question--or four. Answering questions gives you the opportunity to interact with potential buyers. Check your eBay inbox regularly, and answer questions as soon as you receive them. "You want to look professional," says Guldner. "Buyers don't want surprises."
Answering questions quickly and accurately also helps build positive feedback--a public posting of buyers' comments about your buying and selling practices. And since your feedback score can determine a buyer's willingness to do business with you, you want to keep your score as strong as possible.
9. Avoid negativity. Don't ward off good buyers with negative terms and demands. Phrases such as "I will not tolerate." and "You must not bid if . . . " are huge turnoffs for potential buyers, says Guldner, and they make your business sound unprofessional. State your terms of sale clearly and in a positive light. If you're worried about dishonest or unreliable buyers, eBay offers tools to manage them in My eBay. Click on "Preferences," then select "Buyer Requirements." You may use this tool to block undesirable bidders, but use it with caution. "eBay was founded on the principle that people are basically good," says Rosato-Donahue, "and statistically, that concept has been proven over the years."10. Market yourself. Don't overlook the power of your persona in marketing your eBay business. Establish yourself as an expert within your category in your "About Me" and "My World" pages, advises Rosato-Donahue. On eBay's Reviews & Guides, you can write product reviews and guides to help people understand the benefits of your products, further developing your persona as an expert. You can write a blog on eBay Blogs featuring your bestselling products. Blogs not only allow you to effectively market yourself to your customers, but also to participate in the eBay community. "eBay is really all about the community," Rosato-Donahue says, "and the more your buyers and the people in the community trust you and see you as an expert in your area, the more credibility you'll have."
More in Store
Belinda and Jacob North knew research would be a key ingredient in launching their business on eBay in 2005. Belinda, 33, was searching everywhere for a birthday dress for her young daughter but couldn't find anything to suit her in her Bellevue, Nebraska, area. After much searching online, she found one--and saw a great opportunity for a business on eBay selling special-occasion apparel for young girls. Former restaurateurs, Belinda and Jacob had the vision of combining great customer service, as one would expect in a restaurant, with an online retailer, and Sophia's Style (eBay User ID: sophias*style) was born.
"We developed our business strategy around what the customers want and what we do to [put] them at ease," says Jacob, 34. Fast shipping and great communication were essential to making customers comfortable buying from their eBay Store early on. A professional look with a great logo and page design also helped cement their brand.
Another way the Norths succeeded was by maximizing their product titles to hook customers. "Having somebody find you is huge," says Jacob. Now running their eBay Store in addition to their website, sophiasstyle.com, Belinda and Jacob expect 2007 sales to reach $1.4 million.A well-built eBay Store is a great marketing tool. "It really helps you build a brand identity," says Lisa Rosato-Donahue, senior manager of eBay Seller Marketing. And don't forget the power of a good old-fashioned sale in your eBay Store. Rosato-Donahue suggests using eBay's Markdown Manager and cross-selling complementary items. If you're selling a poster, for example, you can use your eBay Store to cross-sell a frame to go with it. --Nicole L. Torres
Diamond in the Rough
Patrick Coughlin knew the quality of his photos was indispensable when he started his jewelry store, American Diamond Importers (eBay User ID: american_diamond_importers). Coughlin, 45, invested more than $4,000 in high-quality photo equipment--including a digital camera and a top-notch light box. Says Coughlin, "If you're going to take pictures of jewelry, you have to have a very good digital camera and light box system," specifically to avoid the flash effect that can make jewelry look cloudy or unclear in a low-quality photo. "Pictures are more important than anything [else] on an eBay listing."
Coughlin also found that clear communication with potential buyers broadened his market attraction. "List everything you can imagine in your template--all the general questions that [buyers] could ask," he says. "But even if you have it in your listing, people will ask questions. Be very prompt answering those questions. Be courteous and send them a note right back."
To avoid answering the same questions over and over, Sharon Guldner, senior manager of eBay Education Programs, recommends responding to questions from potential buyers within My Messages in My eBay. There, you have the option to add the questions and responses to your listings for other interested buyers to see.Coughlin is attentive to his customers because he knows that with each sale, he's building his database of customer contacts whom he can update with monthly e-mails about his newest products and latest sales. He's aiming for the repeat customer who returns to buy his jewelry through eBay as well as his website, americandiamondimporters.com. Coughlin says that with each listing, "not only do you have the potential to sell that one particular item--you have the potential of gaining a customer for a long time." He adds that it takes time to build up a good customer list, so be diligent. Coughlin's loyal customers have helped him push his St. Clair, Michigan, company to projected sales of $350,000 for 2007. --Nicole l. Torres and Sara Wilson