Tom’s Rules of Ebay

Over the years many folks have contacted us seeking advice on how they might succeed selling antiques and collectibles on eBay. We eventually developed what we first called “The Ten Most Important Rules for eBay Selling”. As time went on (we have been selling on eBay close to 17 years now) the list of “Rules” grew to what you will find below. More than a list of selling suggestions, these are, in actuality, the practices that define OUR eBay business – following this model week in and week out has allowed us to create a very successful operation – our sell through rate is 99%, we are Platinum Powersellers with consistently high ratings in all categories and we have developed a strong base of serious customers who follow our auctions every week and bid / buy from us on a regular basis. This business model may not work for everyone but it has worked exceptionally well for us and we share it here in hopes that others might join us to make eBay, once again, the premier venue for the sale of antiques and collectibles that it once was.

First a couple of tips for those who are newcomers to selling on eBay. Before you start to list items spend a significant amount of time studying the site. Most importantly learn just what types of items are selling and what types of listings are attracting bids. The “Completed Items” search in one of the most powerful tools eBay has to offer – after 12+ years we still find ourselves using that tool every single day for one reason or another. During the early stages of an eBay business, the “completed item” search will quickly show you what is selling and what is not. Use the “Advanced Search” option and search “Auctions” only (Buy it Now listings are not an indication of either prices or popularity in any given category). Enter search terms related to the items you are thinking of selling (say “Civil War” or “Majolica” or “Campaign Pin”, etc.) and organize the list with the “highest price” first. Then scan the results looking only at items that have received bids and actually sold – the more bids the more information you will get from the listing – these are the items that have attracted both attention and bids – this is the main goal of any successful eBay listing – to attract attention first and then to encourage actual bids. If you are interested in the types of items we sell (and we do sell many different types of items in some of the most popular categories on eBay) then certainly use our listings to help educate yourself about what to sell and how to sell it. Most off all take your time and learn what is selling and how it is sold – this is the first step to successful eBay sales.

Now the Rules:

1) Auction vs. Buy It Now: ALWAYS sell using the Auction format – “Buy it Now” listings do NOT encourage people to check out your listings and I can tell you from experience (35+ years in the antiques business) that none of us has ANY idea what anything is worth – every week things surprise us (both good and bad). If you list a “Buy it Now” item and it sells right away you can be sure that you would have gotten a lot more by selling it at auction – if it does not sell, that doesn’t mean it is not worth the price (although it may not be) – it just means that people figure – “Gee its listed at that price and nobody wants it so I guess its not worth it” or some other rational that has little to do with the actual value of the item. MANY times – almost weekly – we sell an item that is similar to one that is listed by another seller at a fixed price – the final auction price is often SIGNIFICANTLY higher than the “Buy it Now” price of the other seller but he failed to generate any interest in his item while the auction format, by its very nature, generated the interest necessary to sell the item at a good price.

2) No Reserve: List all items with no reserve and with a nominal opening bid (we use $9.00 as an opening bid for everything – whatever you choose make it less than $10.00). Now we jump right into the scary stuff. First – Reserve Auctions DO NOT WORK – PERIOD!! A Reserved Auction immediately alienates a good 75% of potential bidders (probably more). Many bidders simply will not participate in a Reserved Auction and there is nothing more annoying than to enter a bid and be told “You are the high bidder BUT the Reserve has not been met” (I can tell you that from personal experience as a “professional” bidder myself). Bidders want to know that if they enter the highest bid on an item they will get to purchase that item for that high bid – if that is not the case than bidding is simply a waste of time – just list the thing as a “Buy it Now” and stop alienating your customers – better yet – list it without reserve and it will sell for what it is worth – that day, that time to those customers you have attracted!! We have sold items with final sale prices as high as $38,000 – many every week that sell for $1,000 and more – and every auction starts at $9.00. Nothing attracts bidder’s attention more than BIDS. 95% of all items on eBay never get a single bid. When scanning search results bidder’s eyes are immediately attracted to those items with green colored bid amounts (items with bids) and an item with multiple bids (the more the better) are the most attractive – regardless of anything else the bidder’s first thought is – “This item is interesting to a number of people – perhaps I should see what is so interesting”. On most weeks 80% or more of the items we list have at least one bid within the first 24 hours after they start (unheard of on eBay) – the bids might be small and nowhere near what we expect an item will bring (as well as nowhere near what we paid for the item) but it has gotten “action” and “action” attracts “attention” (there is that word again – it should be your mantra – “attract attention - I look at that as my main “job” – get “attention” for our listings and “bids” will follow – no “attention” – no “bids” – this whole list of tips is about getting “attention” and then the “bids” will follow).

3) Quality: Sell Good Stuff!!! Boy is that a meaningless sentence!! Yet this is likely the most important of The Rules that we will be talking about and it is the only way that selling without reserve and with a nominal opening bid will ever work. What is “Good Stuff”? – that’s the million dollar question – I have said a thousand time over the past 17 years “If I knew the right stuff to sell on eBay I could really make some money” – I have said this knowing full well that I am one of the very best and most successful sellers of antiques and quality collectibles on the site. Here are a few guidelines, however – first buy and sell items in those fields that your research has told you are “hot” on eBay – I don’t mean the “fads” like Michael Jackson stuff the day after he died – I mean the “always” strong sellers – take a look at the stuff we sell – Civil War Items, Antique Advertising Items, Tobacciana, Antique Toys, quality 19th and early 20th century Sports Collectibles, Western Americana, Political Americana, Autographs - I actually could go on and on but these are the things that I know about, that I like and that also sell well on eBay – you will discover (and uncover) a similar list of your own. In fields like Majolica, Roseville, Art Pottery, etc. where there are thousands of things listed yet only a handful bring high prices, you will find that it is the very rare and very unusual that are the only items worth listing – a run of the mill Roseville Vase will cost you much more to buy at a live auction or antique show than you will ever get for it on eBay – but the rarity – now that’s another story – the sky’s the limit and eBay is the way to that sky. If there are 10 examples of something listed on eBay than you know that is not something you want to buy or sell – if you have never seen it before, its in a good field and it is interesting – GO FOR IT!!! You HAVE to trust your instincts and your taste – if you don’t, QUIT RIGHT NOW - this is not the path for you to take. You have to trust that if you find something odd and interesting and maybe even important, than other knowledgeable collectors and buyers will also. Trust yourself, your taste, your knowledge and, thus, your offerings – Good Stuff will reward you with good prices. That being said, be ready to lose money on some of the items you sell each week – We lose money on 5 to 10 items in each week’s eBay auction. Don’t look at the profit or loss that results from each sale but look at each week’s Auction as a “Lot” – we judge an Auction by adding up the cost of all the items in that auction and then comparing it to the total sale price of all the items in the Auction ()minus eBay Fees) – if we have doubled our total investment (or better) than it was a successful week even if we lost $150 on one item and $50 on another and $75.00 on another – there were other items that made up for that loss and then some so we simply move on and try to learn from the experience – try to buy more “winners” and less “losers” (if I ever figure out how to do this without fail I will surely pass along the information but I trust it is an unending learning experience). We will talk more about this MOST important (and most frightening) aspect of our eBay business model at the end of this discussion.

4) Duration of Auction: List all items for 10 days. The cost in minimal – 10 cents (now it is free) - if your main goal is to get attention why not have the item available to potential customers for three extra days. This also allows you to “overlap” your weekly auctions (more about this later).

5) Consistency is Key: Be consistent and ALWAYS have auctions running. Develop and stick to a regular schedule for your auctions. ALWAYS start your auctions on the same day and during the same time period each week and ALWAYS have them end on the same day of the week and around the same time. Also, NEVER have individual items end at exactly the same time – think of your “weekly” auction as simply a live, onsite auctions run online. If you list 40 items in each weekly auction than have them close every 3 minutes say starting at 7PM – so your first item will close at 7:00, the next at 7:03, the next at 7:06, etc. We have found that with the 10 day auction format we can start our listings every Friday evening beginning around 7PM and they end 10 days later on a Monday evening – this gives the item its best exposure times (when it is first listed and when it is near the close) on weekend days when the majority of potential bidders have free time to check out items on eBay.

By keeping to a regular schedule, your customers will eventually learn that “Monday evening is auction closing time for Walnutts”. We have many customers who “attend our auctions each Monday night just like they would a live auction at an auction house. They follow along as each item closes and bid on those they are interested in or that they think are a good deal.

When arranging the sequence of items in a weekly auction, group items in similar fields of interest together – if you have 5 Match Safes in that weeks auction list them one after the other, 5 Civil War items – the same thing, 5 Advertising Signs – again, one after the other. This way is someone collects Match Safes they can know that at (say) 7:18 to 7:33 walnutts Match Safes will be closing and they don’t have to keep checking back throughout the evening – the attention span of those of us working online is exceptionally short and I can’t count the number of times that I have been bidding at a live auction online and (because there were a dozen or so items between those things that I was interested in) switched to working in another browser window only to miss the item I wanted because I did not get back to the auction site in time. Starting and ending your auctions on the same day every week makes it possible for customers to check your listings once a week only and know that they will never miss anything you might offer.
The second part of this rule is consistency – ALWAYS have auctions up and running. It is important that every time a customer checks your listings they find something there. If they check back 2 or 3 times and you have nothing listed, you have lost them and you will have to attract them to your auctions all over again – again it is that short attention span of those of us who buy and sell online – there is too much stuff out there to look at and we simply don’t waste time on fruitless searches if we can avoid it. By running your auctions for 10 days, each auction overlaps the previous and following one – you get folks to look at next weeks auction while bidding on closing night for this weeks auction 9because “next week’s auction” began 3 days before – another reason why 10 day auctions are better than 7 day auctions.

6) Organize Listings Ahead of Time: Use a Listing Program to prepare your auctions ahead of time and to schedule their start time. We use the free eBay Tool Turbolister -it likely is not the best but it works well, is simple once you get used to it and it is wholly integrated with the eBay platform – if you have a problem you talk to eBay about it and they will help, not a third party “partner” who can easily blame eBay for any problems you might be experiencing. I am sure there are great 3rd party listing tools but, as always, we find it best to “keep it simple”. Which leads us to….

7) Clean It Up!: Keep your Listings visually clean, simple and uncluttered. Do not use any of the fancy listing templates with borders and colors and flowers and music and who knows what else. The plain, simple eBay listing page with no fancy frills is THE best way to present your items. The colors and borders and everything else in the “custom” listing templates are distracting and in many cases downright annoying to potential bidders. We find it counterproductive to look too “slick” and too “professional” – buyers of antiques and quality collectibles don’t want to purchase their treasures from a “business” but rather an honest, knowledgeable, down to earth “human being” who cares about the “stuff” and not about how fancy or how big there business “looks” online. The item description and pictures of the item should more than dominate the listing page – this also means keeping other text to a minimum. There is no need for long winded shipping and payment rules, rules about returns, rules and regulations regarding this and that – once again – keep it simple.

8) Describe What It Is: Write HIGHLY detailed descriptions. This is likely the most important ingredient in maximizing the final bid price. Although you are going to include a number of pictures of the listed item, you still need to describe it COMPLETELY. Always include a date when (or around when) an item was manufactured / produced as well as the manufacturer, the size (all dimensions) and title (if applicable) within the first sentence or two. Begin the description with a subjective assessment of a positive aspect of the item – “Rare”, “Beautiful”, “fascinating”, “Important”, etc. – these are a matter of opinion and if you believe the item to be such than use its positive attribute to show that you are excited about the item and entice the potential bidder to become interested also – once you have gotten the bidder to view your listing (gotten the item the all important “attention”) it now becomes your job to get him interested in and “excited” about the item.

Include in the first part of the description all of the physical aspects of the piece along with any interesting and / or important historical or other background information. Research all items thoroughly – you will often discover information that will help increase the item’s desirability and thus final bid price. If an item is a photo of abolitionist John Brown, give a little background about this fascinating historical character and the insurrection he led – don’t get too wordy – if you want to add a LOT of information leave that for the very end of the description – after you have described the condition and closed the main body of the text. Use Wikipedia freely as it is a great source of concise information about just about everything but be sure to edit and condense what information goes into your listing. After fully describing your item use the final paragraph of the description to describe “condition”. BE VERY complete, honest and thorough about all condition flaws and damage. This means COMPLETE disclosure – however, also be sure to describe the good aspects of an items condition also – fully describe the problems but also emphasize the positive aspects of the condition – read the “condition” paragraph of a few dozen of our descriptions and you will get an idea of how to fully describe all flaws while still presenting your item is the best possible light.

9) Photography: Include numerous, high quality photographs of every item. Invest in a high quality digital camera and set up a “photo studio” that includes white surface, white backdrop and at least two, 500watt, blue photoflood light sources. Our “studio” is a desktop with white foam-core on the table top, a sheet of white foam-core for a backdrop and two light weight tripods with aluminum reflectors that each hold one 500 watt Blue photo-flood bulb – cost of set up was about $75 – cost of bulbs about $7.00 each – the bulbs burn out after about 8 to 10 hours of use so have a good supply on hand. Show your item from all angles and include close-ups of important details. Your final pictures in the listing should show damage, repairs, or problem areas clearly and in detail. We host our own photos and upload a single, larger photo (no wider than 1450 pixels and no taller than 1300 pixels – you could do larger if you wish but sometimes this is counterproductive as relatively minor blemishes begin to look like craters on the Moon) to eBay. The rest of the images are included at the end of the description so they are all present and available to view at the same time. The ideal size for these images is 800 x 500 but they should never be taller or wider than 880 (that’s getting too large to view on one monitor screen and not mobile friendly). Include a break (<br>) and a return (<p>) between the html for each photo – that way your photographs always show up one under the other and not side by side thus avoiding the creation of a non-mobile friendly listing page.

10) Title It!: Write the perfect title. The items title is THE most important element in your quest to get the listing seen by the most potential buyers. Use as many of the letters that eBay allows and thoughtfully choose “keywords” to include in the title that will garner the most search returns. Don’t, however, make your title just a collection of “keywords” – it needs to both describe the item well AND include important and popular search terms. ALWAYS include a date in your title – when the item was made, when the photograph was taken, when the document was executed. If you don’t know the exact date than use a good estimate – 1860’s; 1910’s; ca1880; etc. No one searches for these dates but having a date (especially as the first element of your title) separates your item from the myriad of modern reproductions and reprints that clutter up eBay and will get returned in the same searches that include your original item. EBay has a continuously updated list of most popular keywords – most are not much help to those selling antiques and collectibles but there are a few that show up regularly (including “Civil War”, “cast iron toy”, “Advertising Sign”; etc. Use your head when writing a title and think about what search terms someone who might be interested in that that Item would use to try and find it.

More rules to follow…

3 Responses to Tom’s Rules of Ebay

  1. Sarah P says:

    Thanks for the tips. I have sold on eBay before years ago, but am ready to give it a serious look now and your article was very informative. My father in law recommended you and I’m glad he did.

  2. David Tobias says:

    Excellent information that I really needed. Learned valuable facts about selling on e-bay. So far it’s been hit or miss. I’m sure I will do better with this info. Thanks, Dave Tobias

  3. Bill Rabara says:

    I recently ran across Tom’s “Rules of Ebay.” They say that you learn something new every day…and I Did, AND then some. This man knows what he’s doing. There have been a few times where he has answered questions that I have messaged to him…How about that! His record proves that he IS the master. I don’t do too terribly much business on Ebay but now I feel inspired and intend to sell like a madman! :o) You know what they say “down south” (and elsewhere)…”Tom…you da’ man!” Thanks, Bill Rabara

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