Perfect Timing

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

By Mark Henricks

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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.

It's What You Know

Your time and energy may be limited, but opportunities to learn more about eBay are in constant supply. As a part-time seller, you'll benefit by learning as much as you can about selling on eBay. After all, if you're going to manage your risk and maximize the return on your efforts, you need to know just as much as full-timers do.

Part-timers can help themselves a great deal by picking an area they already know a lot about. "You have to have an interest in it, and you have to have a feel for it," Ford-Freeman says. "And you have to be willing to educate yourself in the forums."

One such forum is the Part-Time eBay Sellers Discussion Board, a place for part-time sellers to share experiences and information. On the forums, sellers with lots of experience offer countless nuggets of advice to help newcomers. "I learned everything I know about selling on eBay from the forums," says Ford-Freeman.

The Part-Timer eBay Sellers Discussion Board isn't the only place part-timers can go for help. eBay has many tools that part-timers can use to reduce the amount of time they spend on listing and managing sales (see "Power Up: It's Tool Time" at right). And the huge amount of information and advice available from resources like Seller Central is also useful for many part-time and full-time sellers. The tools and resources available at Seller Central range from strategies for getting started to best practices of top sellers and e-mail newsletters with the latest tips on promotions and selling features.

Never Gonna Give It Up
Veteran part-timers like Ford-Freeman have great confidence that they're on top of their markets and have the skills to move their inventory. In the future, these part-timers intend to keep working at their businesses on eBay, not only because they enjoy the profits, but also because they gain a sense of fulfillment from their work.

Ford-Freeman, who is approaching retirement from her day job, plans to work a little harder at her business in order to pay for post-retirement activities. "I plan to indulge in all those things I can't [indulge in] right now, like researching, writing and traveling," she says. "I think supplementing [my income] with eBay is going to be the solution."

And Etter is confident that part-time sellers will continue to be an important part of eBay. "The future," he says, "will be full of opportunities for part-timers."

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

Power Up: It's Tool Time

Some eBay part-timers like to do things hands-on, in what could be called the old-fashioned way. Other sellers look for easier, faster ways to get their work done. Janice Ford-Freeman, for instance, always lists using InkFrog, a third-party, eBay Certified Provider that automates the listing process.

One of the most useful tools for part-time eBay sellers is Turbo Lister. "You can list items on the site using our regular form, but Turbo Lister has additional capabilities," says Nathan Etter, senior manager at eBay. "When you're selling similar items in volume, it makes the listing process much easier."

Selling Manager is another eBay tool well-suited for part-timers who want to boost sales volume without a corresponding increase in time. "Selling Manager helps volume sellers manage their inventory, keep track of activity on the site and keep track of sales over time," explains Etter.

eBay Stores is another option worth considering for part-timers because it gives sellers a permanent shelf for merchandising items. "[eBay Store owners] have a number of tools that allow them to produce newsletters, offer discounts or perform other marketing [tasks] that drive buyers to their sites and potentially create repeat buyers," adds Etter. "An eBay Store is a very inexpensive way for a part-time seller to create an online presence, and it doesn't take nearly as much time and money as [launching] your own website."

In addition to the tools offered by eBay, many Certified Providers offer tools that give part-timers a wide range of sophisticated capabilities. Etter says consulting services such as As Was give eBay sellers valuable assistance on topics such as serving customers and listing artwork. Aspyro, another Certified Provider of consulting services, helps sellers analyze and develop overall strategies to maximize sales and profits.

Listing items for sale is one of the most time-intensive yet critical parts of the business, and tools that speed up the process are popular with part-timers. Auctiva, One-Minute Lister, Vendio and other third-party listing tools can help sellers with image hosting, templates and inventory management. "The solutions aren't free," says Etter, "but part-timers find they are worth the investment in terms of saving time and [boosting] profits."

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