Making a living on eBay

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Need some extra cash to help make ends meet ... or maybe you're looking for a way to work from home and be your own boss? Lots of people make the mistake of just "deciding" to go into business on eBay and jumping right in, only to find that there is either a lot of competition for what they have to sell, or they just can't sell enough to make a living.

An eBay store is like any other business. The smartest thing you can do is start with a plan. Get yourself a "How to Create a Business Plan" workbook that has blank spaces for you to fill in. These help you think through the process of opening a business, and can alert you to laws you need to understand before you sell certain items. For example, does your city or state require a business license for what you want to sell? What are tax laws? A workbook will walk you through the decision-making processes step-by-step. You'll learn how to research your market, choose the best products FOR YOU to sell, and you'll create a complete plan, including milestones and profit-and-loss (P&L) projections to help you determine whether or not you are on track.

eBay offers a plethora of selling tools, how-to guides, video instructions, and examples of profitable business models. Remember the "dot com crash"? There was one reason it was inevitable: it may have been in vogue to invest in Internet startups, but the vast majority of fledgling e-businesses made the fatal error of believing they could just put their stuff out there THEIR way and strike it rich. Their methods flew in the face of conventional business structure and operations wisdom, and in the end, those companies paid the price. Without using a tried-and-true business model and outlining precisely where you want to go and what you want to do with your business, you are building your enterprise on gelatin.

First, whatever you do, DO NOT fall for the "membership" sites who promise you access to wholesale sources for a price. Don't waste your time. Manufacturers who sell wholesale aren't HIDING from you - they WANT your business. You just need to know where and how to find them. Here are a few tricks to get you to the source: 

(1) Find a product brand you like. Let's say you want to sell Levi jeans. When you do your Internet search, don't bother with "levi wholesale" keyword searches. Find the Levi-Strauss corporate site and contact them directly about becoming a retailer. Most companies will want (a) a state tax ID number, (b) a federal employer ID number, and (c) a minimum-price order, such as $500.00.  They do this to verify that you ARE a legitimate retailer.

Once you have established your credibility with the actual SOURCE of the brands you wish to sell, you will be given access to their wholesale lists/prices. For some products, you can dig even further and find the original resourcer (manufacturer/exporter) of the merchandise you choose to carry, and you can buy directly from them at below wholesale, or even have a series manufactured with your own label! It does take research and patience, but the information is out there. You just need to be willing to make some calls and speak with the companies directly.

(2) When you're starting out, unless you are well-capitalized, you'll need to place small orders to begin with. Larger corporations are reluctant to make small deals with new retailers because they deal in bulk, meaning shipping by the pallet via freight service. Two ways around this are (a) find someone or a few new sellers who are willing to go in on a pallet shipment with you and split the profits, or (b) check out and similar sites that specialize in large lots of similar items. This works especially well for those who wish to sell apparel, shoes, or electronics. Buy yourself a pallet, and start your auction listings while your product is en route. You'll be ready to pack and ship as soon as your auctions close, and you'll then be ready to make a larger purchase the next round.

(3) Are you a master garage-saler or thrift store aficionado? If you have a gift for sniffing out really great bargains, this is a GREAT way to turn a little cash investment into a LOT of cash return. This method requires a lot of your personal time, and frankly, a great deal of knowledge when it comes to collectibles and what items are "hot" on eBay. The more you know, the better you'll do. For example, I picked up an interesting-looking ceramic tea service I found at Goodwill for $6.00. As it turned out, it was an incredibly RARE set released by Starbucks for one season. With every piece in mint condition, I had no problem selling the set for $60.00! You will nearly always get the best prices at garage sales, so make it your job to be the early-bird at the sales that appear to have the best potential for collectibles. (Another example: I bought a really heavy set of lead crystal candlesticks for 50¢ each, only to discover that they were very expensive candlesticks that sold on eBay for $75 for the pair.)

(4) Sell things from your own home and offer to sell for neighbors and friends on consignment.

(5) The more you can list items in "lots" (several similar articles in one lot), the better you will do on eBay - especially in clothing. Don't just shop for or accept your own size clothing. Look for anything that still has original sales tags intact - they CAN be found in thrift shops and garage sales, and are worth far more than clothing without tags. Group several like items of a single size together to create a lot. For example, a "lot" of size 10 misses summer clothes may include light tops, shorts, and sundresses.

(6) PHOTOGRAPHING your items is everything. Show as much detail as you can. Style your clothes before you take pictures by placing them on a mannequin or at the very least, hang the garment attractively against a clean background. (Slip a sleeve casually into a jacket pocket, for example - it allows the prospective buyer to more easily picture themselves wearing the item.) DO NOT use live models or real people in your shots. What does this say? It says the garments have been worn. They are no longer new once a "model" has worn them, even if only for the product shots. NEVER lay an outfit on the floor and try to use your carpet as a background. This looks HORRIBLE and drastically decreases the "perceived value" of your item. Use a nice, solid-color backdrop without wrinkles and "pose" your items for maximum effect. You want them to look GREAT and show lots of detail to maximize your profits.

(7) Group inexpensive items into lots. Whether you're selling dishes, car parts, clothes, toys, or other "small ticket" items, group them together in lots to save on auction fees. This will also save your buyers on shipping fees, which is why lots are so popular! You can quickly rack up auction fees if you try to sell inexpensive items individually. You'll also almost always get a higher price for small items sold in lots.

(8) Don't overkill your store with cutsie gimmicks and "stupid Web tricks". If you're a good HTML programmer, design your own store with confidence by all means! If not, don't risk creating a poorly functioning and clumsy store by building your own from scratch. Use one of the many eBay templates available to sellers for free. Your store will look more professional, and inspire more confidence in prospective buyers. Stores that don't work make people nervous. Keep it clean and simple and easy to use. Leave the fancy tricks to the folks who have thousands to spend on back-end programmers.

(9) ADVERTISE!! Tell all your friends and neighbors about your store! Include the URL to your eBay shop in your signature on every email you send; every comment you post to online forums, and every letter you send. Pay for a prime position once in a while on eBay and sell an item cheap to get the traffic coming to your store. The better your bargains, the more people will start bookmarking you as a favorite seller. At that point, you can really take advantage of the marketing tools eBay provides to all sellers: newsletters, automatic emails, announcement letters, sales events, etc.

(10) Watch (and buy out) your competition! I've made some absolutely insane deals on eBay by simply being patient and watching the listings week after week. I picked up a lovely (and quite sturdy!) wrought iron canopy bed for a penny. I acquired $2,000-worth of fine fabric for $9. Make it a part of your standard operating practices to check out the competition - specifically on eBay - and watch their auctions. Here's a formula that virtually GUARANTEES a failed auction: (a) Poor or incomplete title/description. If you don't title your auction to draw attention, it won't!  (b) No picture, blurry pictures, and/or excuses for using stock images stolen from the manufacturer's Web site.  (c) Poor or missing product description. This happens commonly when sellers use "boilerplate" auction listings, meaning they post the exact same content for each listing, though each is for a unique item. (d) Basically, if there is nothing to draw you to the listing, capture your interest once you get there, or compel you to bid on the item, you're not going to get many bids. (I saw a $350 suit sell for 99¢ because it was photographed laying wrinkled on the floor with no proper description. I knew the brand and knew the value, but it wasn't clear to the average buyer. When you see this kind of bargain, BUY IT! Re-list it properly, and you've just made yourself a wad of dough just for paying attention.)

You don't need a million dollars to get your foot in the door, but at the same time, you do need to be realistic about what it's going to take for you to get to where you want to be as an eBay seller. Create, use, and STICK TO your business plan. Keep your projections realistic, and keep in mind that your personal time invested in your business is not free, either. Above all, take full advantage of all the tools and educational materials eBay makes available to you as a new seller. They are well worth the time, and wouldn't be posted if they weren't useful.

Whether you start large or small, you CAN make a living on eBay ... and you can do it on your own terms. Remember that you are a conventional business, and to succeed, you must follow conventional business models. Stand yourself on firm ground from the very beginning, and you will build your e-business confidently and successfully.

If this has helped you, please take a moment to let me know by voting. If you have any questions or just want to discuss opening your own eBay business, I'm happy to communicate with you - just email me!  HERE'S TO YOUR COMPLETE SUCCESS!!

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