Start Your Engines! On eBay, the highway to success is shorter than you think. Try these tips to supercharge your business.

By Gwen Moran

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

When he first started out, Ryan Foley (eBay User ID: diskount-express) of Auburn, New York, was borrowing his friend's 2-megapixel camera to snap pictures of the products he sold on eBay. He'd take a shot of one of the shirts he was selling and post it in his listing. After a while, he could afford to purchase a higher quality digital camera of his own. That's when he started to notice something.

"It really cut down on customer questions," recalls Foley, 20. "I wasn't getting as many questions about the color or size, because it was self-explanatory. People could see from the photos themselves whether the shirt was light pink or dark pink." Foley realized that if adding higher quality photographs to his listings could cut down on the time he spent answering myriad buyer questions, there must be other secrets to more successful selling on eBay.

There are, and Katie Sween of eBay's Seller Development team is determined to make them common knowledge. Sween has been instrumental in relaunching eBay's Seller OnRamp program, where promising new sellers and those who want to grow their existing businesses can get coaching by phone about everything from their item listings to various eBay tools to boost sales.

"It's a short-term account management program where we will take high-potential sellers through a 90-day program, setting milestones that sellers accomplish to go on to the next portion of their course," she explains. Culled from the Seller OnRamp program as well as veteran eBay sellers, the following 10 ideas can make a big difference in how well you sell on eBay.

1. Be different. Successful selling starts before you even list an item. You're more likely to have success if you choose a product that isn't already abundantly available on eBay, says Foley, who spent a great deal of time researching the types of sportswear that were selling well on eBay. The Seller OnRamp program focuses on product demand in the first phone session. "We teach sellers how to do a Completed Item search so they can see how their items would convert on eBay to gauge their success at selling those items," says Sween.

In addition, eBay has a Seller Central section on its website. This area offers a wealth of information about best practices in selling, and it features the "Hot Categories Report." This monthly report categorizes various products as Hot, Very Hot and Super Hot, depending on how well they're selling.

2. Provide exceptional service. Buyers are becoming increasingly aware of return policies and demanding excellent customer service from eBay sellers. That includes being responsive and standing by your merchandise.

"To be a successful seller, you really need to offer a money-back guarantee," says Brad Schepp, co-author with his wife, Debra, of eBay PowerSeller Million-Dollar Ideas. "You need to build a certain amount of money into your business to make things right with customers."

The Schepps cite a seller who deals in used skis. Because it can be difficult to gauge how customers will react to the wear and tear on the skis--and because skis can be difficult to ship back and forth--the seller had a special box designed that can withstand up to three shipments, so sending the skis back is as easy as possible for the customer.

Foley adds that answering e-mails promptly and communicating quickly with buyers and prospective customers builds credibility, which will ultimately build your business and contribute to that all-important feedback score.

"This is even more important now that buyers can rate sellers on specific aspects of the transaction, like communication," says Sween. "We find that most times when buyers e-mail sellers with questions, they are actually just testing the seller's responsiveness and determining whether to transact with this seller."

3. Write great headlines

The headline, or listing title, is a place where sellers often miss opportunities, says eBay expert Skip McGrath, author of Titanium eBay: A Tactical Guide to Becoming a Millionaire Power-Seller.

"One of the big mistakes people make is not using the right keywords," McGrath says. He also says that 75 percent of eBay buyers use the search engine to find items, and choosing the wrong words or being too vague puts a seller at a disadvantage. For example, if you are selling an appliance or electronic device, put as many relevant details as possible in the headline, including the brand and model number. "If someone is looking for a specific Nikon camera, they'll search for a Nikon D80 SLR," McGrath says. "If you just put 'Nikon camera' in your headline, [it] could get lost among thousands of listings."

4. Show your stuff. Foley found early on that a good picture can pay off.

McGrath says that approximately four pictures is best for an average listing. "If you have a one-photo listing, people often won't bid on it because they wonder, 'Why didn't this person show me more?' If you have more than four, then your listing can take too long to download," he explains. Of course, this depends on the product you're selling--if you have a CD for sale, you obviously don't need to include four pictures.

Shoot your products on a clear background without other items that can be distracting or cause confusion, he advises. Include everything that comes with the item, including accessories, instructions and original packaging. Make sure photos are clear and well-lit. In addition, McGrath says, it's vital to take clear shots that show any damage or defect the item has.

"It's hard to describe a scratch so someone can picture [it] exactly, but if you put a picture that shows it, the person can see it and say, 'Oh, that's not too bad,'" McGrath explains. "It avoids problems in the long run."

5. Develop your descriptions. McGrath fires off several rules for developing effective descriptions. Write short sentences and short paragraphs with lots of white space between them to make the descriptions easy to read. "It's tough to read something that is 300 words and all one block of text," he says.

Sween adds that the description should be complete but easy to read and recommends using bullet points and clear spacing. But that doesn't mean your description needs to be short. Instead, she advises writing about the product until you run out of things to say about it. "If you're a seller on eBay and you're getting a lot of questions about your listings, then your descriptions are probably too short," she says.

At the end of your description, reiterate your shipping and return policies, and most important, ask for the order. Says McGrath, "I put an action sentence at the end of every description that says, 'Don't lose out. Place your best bid now.'"

6. Keep in touch. Rhonda Ikner of Semmes, Alabama, places an emphasis on communicating with customers who order from her. Each package of the vintage vinyl baby dolls that she sells under the eBay User ID dixiedollie comes with a small business card reminding customers of her trade name and encouraging them to leave positive feedback. Ikner, 42, gets the cards free from online printer VistaPrint, which offers up to 250 business cards for only the cost of shipping. She also includes a thank-you note, a coupon redeemable on a future purchase and packs of gum or pencils imprinted with her eBay User ID. Says Ikner, "All that helps them remember me and think of me when they're shopping next time."

7. Be your brand

Ikner's emphasis on branding is smart, says Debra Schepp. "You need to think about branding yourself as a business," she says. "The goal is for the customer to not just remember that they bought something, but that they bought it from you."

In addition to sending neatly packaged goods with some sort of documentation that lists your eBay User ID, Debra recommends sellers consider opening an eBay Store, an online storefront that allows eBay sellers to display their listings in one location, so buyers can find you more easily and search through your items with ease.

Brad Schepp recommends keeping in touch with your customer base by using e-mail to notify previous customers of new offerings. Ikner takes that one step further--every e-mail she sends includes a signature line that says, "Guess what I have?" and links to her active eBay listings. She also builds relationships with other eBay sellers by offering them free shipping when they purchase items from her.

8. Review your reports. eBay provides sellers with various reports that let you examine which items are doing well. eBay's Sales Reports Plus feature is free and allows you to review your most recent sales activity by category, ending day or time and format (e.g., Fixed Price). You can also see buyer counts and detailed accounting of eBay fees.

"They don't show hits, but they do show sales, average selling price, fees and other data," says McGrath, who recommends opting in to the eBay hit counter when setting up a listing to see how much traffic the auction receives. "I always look at my popular listings when they end and see if the hits correlated with the final value."

This kind of data tracking can help you spot trends and structure your listings to repeat what works. "It's the only way you can get a real statistical and analytical view of how your business is performing," Sween says. "If you're not looking at these metrics, it's hard to understand your success, your profitability, which items appeal to your customers and how to shape your inventory moving forward."

9. Use multiple channels. As sellers progress through the Seller OnRamp program, they are introduced to new ways to sell products through various channels. Sween groups these into two categories: on the eBay marketplace and off the eBay marketplace. On-marketplace options include auction-style listings, Fixed-Price listings and eBay Store Inventory, which allows buyers to purchase from multiple sellers with a single checkout. Sween says off-marketplace options include tools such as ProStores, which gives sellers a turnkey option to establish an independent web presence, and, which helps buyers easily locate products both on eBay and off. These tools can further expand a seller's reach. "When the seller goes through the OnRamp program, after 90 days they are on their way to being eBay PowerSellers," says Sween. "The goal is for them to graduate to the next seller development program or to our Top Seller account management program, continuing their relationship with our Seller Development team."

10. Tap eBay for help. Experts and sellers agree that eBay itself is one of the most valuable sources of information about eBay selling, and one often overlooked by sellers. Ikner uses the eBay forums to share information with fellow sellers and get market intelligence.

The Schepps recommend bookmarking the "Seller Central" page and frequently reviewing the Merchandising Calendar and eBay Marketplace Research. The latter is available at various levels by subscriptions ranging from $2.99 for two days to $24.99 per month, and provides an overall view of sales on eBay, including the hottest categories and which selling formats are working best across sectors.

Sween also emphasizes opting in to eBay marketing messages. "We send out advanced selling materials that way, like the quarterly PowerUp newsletter, and monthly tips and advice," she says. "This is important information for sellers and we can't send it to them if they're not opted in." You can opt in on your eBay profile page by selecting "My Account," then "Preferences." Choose "News-letters, Promotions and Event Notifications" and enable your subscription to receive this information.

Overall, the Schepps emphasize that good business practices are the keys to success. "Treat it like your business," says Brad. "So many people recount stories of falling into eBay selling. They may have a lot of sales, but unless you're running it like a business, you can't take it to its potential."

Gwen Moran is co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans.

Ramp Up Sales

Cristiane Oliveira, 30, put all her furniture in storage and was using her Sunnyvale, California, living room to sell minerals and geodes on eBay in 2003. She had reached PowerSeller status under the eBay User ID petrifinds, but knew the market for her earth treasures was limited.

So a year later, she decided to try her hand at selling swimwear under the eBay User ID butterfly_twins. It was a business that sustained itself nicely, but she felt it wasn't reaching its potential. When she had the opportunity to participate in eBay's Seller OnRamp program in October 2006, she signed on.

"They really emphasized diversifying my products and increasing my listings to achieve higher sales goals," she recalls. At the same time, Oliveira was experimenting with other product lines, such as luggage and baby products, making it easier to take her average of 10 listings a day up to between 35 and 50 listings a day.

The program's emphasis on information analysis and automation has also helped Oliveira. She estimates she saves an hour a day with the automating suggestions her eBay consultant taught her to use in Selling Manager Pro, a tool eBay offers sellers for $15.99 per month or for free to Featured and Anchor eBay Store subscribers. Activities such as preprogramming listings in advance of the day they appear and using autoresponders for payments received and items shipped take routine chores off her plate, and she devotes the extra time to finding new product sources. She also learned that her Store gets the most traffic on Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays, so she increases her listings on those days to capitalize on the additional traffic.

In the six months since she signed on with the Seller OnRamp program, Oliveira has shot from a Bronze PowerSeller to a Platinum PowerSeller, although she declines to share specific revenue levels. "Right now, we're aiming to increase volume on eBay to triple sales in three months," says Oliveira. "I now see there's that potential with our product lines."
Wavy Line
Gwen Moran

Writer and Author, Specializing in Business and Finance

GWEN MORAN is a freelance writer and co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010).

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