For the past five years, we've been serious sellers on the eBay platform, offering our estate sale discoveries in our Cool Vintage Finds Store. We've learned a few things through this experience, that's for sure. If you've ever thought about becoming an online seller or are just curious about the gig, here are some insights into what it's all about.
(Almost) anything will sell eventually.
It's a big world. There's a market for just about everything—it's just a matter of connecting to buyers. We've had items languish in our store for several years, then sell out of the blue. Nowadays, having learned from trial and error what's desirable in today's marketplace, we're a little less likely to list duds. But even duds sell with patience! Condition, price and rarity all factor into the speed of an item's sale. Traffic also matters; we need eyes on our stuff at just the right time to close the deal. For the most part, we "set it and forget it"—until it sells!
Most buyers (and sellers) are honest and kind.
If you hang out in the selling blogs or online seller Facebook groups, you might get the impression the marketplace is loaded with people trying to pull a fast one and get something for nothing. Our experience tells us otherwise. The vast majority of our customers are respectful, cheerful shoppers who are delighted to find something in our store, willing to pay a fair price and grateful when their purchase arrives intact. Like the saying goes, if you want to attract more bees, pour on the honey. We've seen grumpy customers change their tune when we simply acknowledge their concern. Here are two examples of exchanges that could have gone south quickly: twice in the last six months, a customer contacted us to say they didn't receive what they ordered in the box that arrived from us. Instead of sending an irate email suggesting they're trying to scam us, we responded by very nicely asking them to check the packaging again. In one case, the buyer had hurriedly unpacked a box containing two items and missed one of items entirely! In the other instance, because we had used a recycled box, the buyer thought they had received file folders! Both led to happy endings. On the rare occasion of a truly difficult customer, we do our best to please them, but if they persist in being unpleasant, we don't engage in a war of words. Instead, we just move on to the happier campers.
USPS is an excellent partner.
Last year, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) delivered an average of 20.5 million packages per day throughout the year, with deliveries spiking to more than 28 million daily package deliveries during the two weeks prior to the Christmas holiday. That's a gargantuan load of mail to manage! Lost packages and other delivery errors are extremely rare. We've never had a lost package, though a few times a box was misdirected and took a little longer than expected to arrive at its destination. For that reason, and the fact that we have an amazing postal carrier who works very hard to see that our packages are picked up in a timely manner, we ship most of our orders with USPS. Once in a while, when we have a very heavy or extra large box, we may choose a different carrier, but the vast majority of our packages go by USPS.
Free shipping is unrealistic for small sellers.
Ebay, Amazon and Etsy push sellers to offer free shipping. Buyers may love it, but it's not a sustainable arrangement for the majority of solo entrepreneur online sellers. Either the buyer pays for free shipping through an inflated price, or the cost falls on the backs of small sellers (and these costs are back-breaking). The fact is, it is expensive to ship things. Sellers must acquire or purchase shipping materials (boxes or mailers; bubble wrap, foam or paper; and don't forget tape) and take the time to package with care. These costs apply on top of postage.
About two years ago, we succumbed to pressure from eBay and decided to offer free shipping across the board (domestic only, of course). We were assured our sales would increase to offset whatever costs we would eat shipping items across the U.S. Well, after more than one year of this experiment, we found no improvement in our sales. In fact, shipping costs made a significant gouge in our ability to realize a profit. We've returned to charging a reasonable fee for shipping. For the most part, customers understand that the volume of our business does not permit free shipping and are willing to pay to have the items they desire shipped to their homes.
The eBay Global Shipping Program works well for international shipping.
We are happy to sell to overseas customers, and we have on many occasions. However, we've found that the only viable way for our business to manage the shipping piece is to rely on the eBay Global Shipping Program (GSP). Our store stocks a wide variety of items, with different weights and dimensions. It would be too hard for our two-person shop to pre-package and calculate shipping for myriad countries. Instead, we simply ship to one US address and GSP takes care of the rest, including any customs forms that need to be completed. Customers may pay a little extra for this service, but they also benefit by knowing their purchase is protected in the event it gets lost or arrives damaged. We also have a handful of international customers who purchase through a shipping service that manages OUS shipments.
The market and the rules change all the time.
Since we've been selling online, we've seen drastic swings in the going price of many collectibles. For example, our very first eBay transaction was the sale of a first edition book for over $100. In today's market, that book might fetch $10 at best. Because so many booksellers have put their entire inventories online, only very rare or unique books command a high price in this platform. Similarly, Bing & Grondahl plates, Hummels, Norman Rockwell prints and other items that were desirable and expensive "back in the day" now sell for a small fraction of their original price. Demand for Arts & Crafts era decor is still relatively strong, while interest in Mid Century Modern is waning. A segment of Millennials are driving a growing interest in collectibles from as recent as the 1990s.
What's causing the downward shift in prices? Younger, minimalist globe trotters aren't shopping the same way their parents did. Baby Boomer estate liquidations are starting to glut the marketplace. But there's still opportunity for merchants who curate with care and offer stellar products and service. Even if Americans hit their limit, there's opportunity among international buyers.
Every day, new sellers jump onto the online bandwagon. Sites pop up to compete with the eBay platform. Trends come and go, and tastes change. Certainly the rules (and costs) of selling morph over time. In order to survive, eBayers need to be flexible and adapt to new policies and fluctuating demand.
Share your eBay experience and/or questions!
Let us know what your eBay experience has been like, as a buyer or a seller. We're happy to answer your questions too. Thanks for reading!
Learn about our recent discoveries and what captures our imagination in this blog, then peruse the treasures in our Cool Vintage Finds Store on eBay.
Brought to you by...
... Susan Buie, writer by day, vintage curator and co-proprietor of the Cool Vintage Finds Store on eBay in all the moments in between.