Need cash? Sell stuff through online auctions

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If you’re looking to raise some extra cash you’ve probably already started thinking about selling grandma’s silver candlesticks or your childhood stamp collection through an online auction.

Would anyone want to buy them? How much could you get?

You don’t have to be a seasoned seller or even an eBay junkie to have success as an online auction seller. But the way you present or “sell” your item can make a big difference. The key to success in online auctions lies in crafting an effective ad or listing. Following are a dozen do’s and don’ts from the three experts: Maureen Ellenberger, CEO of auctionPAL; Nancy Baughman, a certified appraiser for eBizAuctions; and Jeff Livingston, an assistant professor of economics at Bentley College in Massachusetts, who researches online auctions.  

“People are desperate for cash,” says Maureen Ellenberger, CEO of auctionPAL.  While her site has only been around since the fall of 2007, Ellenberger says that by late winter she started noticing a big jump in people saying they were selling because they “need cash.”

Nancy Baughman, a certified appraiser for eBizAuctions and author of “Buy It, Sell It, Make Money,” started seeing a similar trend about nine months ago. Clients of eBizAuctions, which serves sellers in the North Carolina area, used to be more casual sellers. Baughman now estimates, “At least 70 to 80 percent of the people now just need the money.” From the hobbyist collector who recently lost his job to the woman on a fixed disability income, circumstances differ but the motivation behind selling is the same.

As an assistant professor of economics at Bentley College in Massachusetts who researches online auctions, Jeff Livingston is not surprised. In a slowing economy, he notes, people are going to consider selling possessions to help make ends meet.

1. Don’t appear desperate for cash.“There are two fundamental principals of negotiations — never be an overeager buyer and never be a desperate seller,” says Baughman. “If you know somebody’s desperate to sell, you’re going to offer them less.” Livingston agrees with the rule but has different reasoning. “In the auction context, the big problem with sounding desperate isn’t so much that people will try to take advantage of you but that you sound less professional. People are going to have more faith that they’re not going to get ripped off by someone who appears to be professional.” Letting on that you’re only unloading some stuff to raise cash quickly could well raise a red flag.

2. Do make the ad look professional. Consider downloading a template from the auction site, or just look around to see how people with auction site businesses set up their auctions, Livingston says. Using spell-check and having a friend look over the ad before it’s published also help. An ad with a lot of misspelled words makes potential buyers wonder what kind of seller they’re dealing with and whether other details may be incorrect, Baughman notes.

Beyond eBay
There’s little doubt eBay  is the gold standard in online auction Websites, but there are alternatives. Depending on your individual circumstances and needs you may want to consider the following lesser known auction sites:
Other auction Websites
  1. AuctionFire
  2. ePier
  3. Overstock
  4. WeBidz
  5. Auction-Warehouse
  6. Amazon
  7. OnlineAuction
  8. Auction

3. Do include a basic item description.
And include all the relevant facts. Both to help draw interest and avoid misunderstandings (that is, unhappy buyers). A seller’s tip sheet on eBay advises including the item style/type, brand, condition, and other attributes, and keeping in mind, “The more information you provide, the more likely buyers are to place a bid.” Tips offered on the auction site ePier also include describing the item’s shape and size, as well as what it’s made of and how old it is. When applicable, adds Ellenberger, also list specs like the model or serial number, “because there are so many fakes out there.” Staff at auctionPAL find themselves doing quite a bit of fact checking in pricing items for clients. And, finally, include the shipping terms and acceptable methods of payment.

4. Do aim to be reader-friendly.
“I have been frustrated so many times weeding through paragraph after paragraph of an ad, trying to find the information that I want,” Baughman says. It’s not just a tedium issue. “People feel like maybe you’re trying to sneak stuff in there, maybe to hide a bit of info like a broken piece that’s mentioned,” she adds. Strive for “economy of words.” Also, says Baughman, use a bulleted list to break up any big chunks of text.

5. Don’t copy someone else’s description.
Ellenberger recalls a woman who recently was selling a wheelchair. When auctionPAL staff requested more detail, “She did what anyone might do, taking a picture and description right off the company website. We put it up, thought it was hers, and the wheelchair company called us.” While the company dropped the matter after the copy was changed, “not everyone’s that nice.” Popular auction site eBay removes ads where the copy is discovered to be someone else’s, and if the owner of the text pushes the issue, eBay may ban you from selling ever again.

6. Do be honest.
“It’s going to come back to haunt you if you try to gild the lilies, so to speak,” Baughman says.

7. Don’t forget photos.
Auction experts say pictures are important as or more important than words. Baughman advises photos taken from different angles and shots of any particular markings or damage. Ellenberger, whose site has a video offering tips on taking the best pictures for an online ad, suggests even taking a photo of the receipt for the item, if you’ve still got it (with personal info blocked out, of course). Authenticity paperwork is also worth a shot. If using someone else’s wording seems to be a must, write something like “As noted on xxx, these are the features,” she adds.

8. Don’t reveal too much.
Tread carefully if mentioning why you’re selling, for example. This may be an exception to the honesty rule. When auctionPAL gets clients selling because of financial need, the copy may say things like “reducing the size of my collection” or “moving” instead, Ellenberger says. Still, at least one marketing expert believes it’s ok to admit misfortune, as a way to help sell an item with a below average price that may cause buyer suspicion. In that case, explaining the situation acts as a “credibility enforcer,” says Jean Biri, president of Groupe Biri, a strategy consulting firm that works with entrepreneurs. “Retailers understand this principle well when selling normally expensive items at bargain prices” — when they’ll mention seasonal sales or going out of business sales, for instance.

9. Do try to add a personal touch .
“We think it’s important to tell a little bit of a story about the item,” Ellenberger says, adding that it might say the item was found in your mother’s basement or that you have many happy memories using it. “People might be touched by and attracted to a personal story,” Livingston says. As Baughman points out, “There’s a fine line between not enough info and too much info. What your Aunt Tilly did with the item, I don’t care. If the info is pertinent to the item, then list it. If it’s not, then leave it out because you don’t want to turn off a buyer.” Is there an instance where someone might care about Aunt Tilly’s affection for the piece? Perhaps, Baughman says, “if she worked for the Rockefeller’s and they gave it to her as a parting gift.”

10. Do maximize title space.
A punchy media-like headline won’t cut it. The best titles include all key words a buyer would search for, as well as unique or description attributes, according to an eBay tip sheet. Say you’re selling a pair of designer shoes. The brand, size, and color should all go in the title, Ellenberger says. An auctionPAL seminar on title writing also advises listing the most important words first.

11. Do fill in the attributes section.
Do fill in the section for specific item attributes and descriptions so that buyers will find your ad during a search.  Words entered to describe the color, brand, model, etc. become “tags.” Strive to use keywords that you would use if you were looking to buy the same type item. Don’t worry about repeating words or phrases used in the title.

12. Do revise the ad, if necessary.
Questions from potential customers will clue you in on if you’ve missed something, Ellenberger says.

Finally, here’s a crash course in other selling success strategies:

  • Build a bit of a reputation first. This can be done in as little as a few days, Livingston says. His research has found buyers don’t need to see a huge number of successful transactions to be convinced of a seller’s honesty — about 10 or 15 solid transactions ought to do it. Those transactions can be as a buyer and for items that cost just a few dollars.
  • Choose a reasonable minimum bid. Too-high minimum bids tend to discourage bidders, who will “ignore the auction and go find another one.” Livingston notes. Setting a “secret reserve price” will ensure a minimum price is met.
  • Increase the shipping fee. According to Livingston, studies have shown that buyers don’t seem to fully take shipping costs into account — they’ll decrease the amount they’re willing to pay by only about 50 cents for every $1 the shipping price is increased. (Just don’t charge $100 to ship a baseball, he cautions.)
  • Offer a “buy it now” or “best offer” option. “The auction can still last a certain amount of time, but you will start to get offers quickly,” Ellenberger says.
  • Select an appropriate end time. “Most bidding activity happens near the end of the auction, so you want the ending to happen when people can be near their computers,” Livingston says, suggesting an 8 or 9 p.m. EST end time. Ellenberger suggests a Sunday or Monday night, to maximize weekend browsing.

Melissa Ezarik is a Connecticut-based freelance writer.