New York Times:How Not to Sell Obscure Stuff on eBay


Clearly, the smart thing to do before listing various obscure items on eBay last week would have been to take my friend Dana’s advice.p. After all, Dana is the sort of experienced eBay seller who has shipped nearly 400 itemsincluding a full set of vintage Homer Laughlin dishesacross the country with minimal breakage. Her auction descriptions successfully lure bidders even to such obscure items as an old metal Thermos (a “classic plaid design,” she wrote) or a porcelain Christmas bell figure Yule log (“clapper intact”).

But I missed my chance. One day before I moved from Long Island in August, Dana came over to offer an eBay consultation and advised me to sell my stuff instead of carting it unnecessarily to California.

But I didn’t have time to do it before the move. So instead, one morning last week I finally got around to unpacking box No. 231, which contained such useless items as four AT&T Merlin five-button telephones and a cargo cover that fits a station wagon I no longer have.

At that point – amid a pile of crushed packing paper that reached nearly to the ceiling – I started to panic. If I didn’t get rid of some of the junk fast, I would never have room to unpack box No. 232.

So I rushed to eBay to list the cargo cover (actually, I listed two cargo covers that belonged to two different cars I no longer had; what are the odds?), as well as the Merlin equipment.

For good measure, I also listed some Martha Stewart Everyday shower curtain rings I recently had bought erroneously (I needed chrome instead of brass); if someone bought them, I could avoid the shipping cost of returning them to

For my four lots, I specified three-day auctions, reserve prices and “Buyer pays actual shipping.” I posted no photos on eBay; the digital camera was still packed,possibly in box No. 246.

Then I sat back to wait for bids to pour in. By the end of the first afternoon – with no action – I started to get a little nervous; I had, after all, run up $7.60 in listing fees. For advice, I phoned Charles Wood, an assistant professor of management at the University of Notre Dame who has studied buying habits on eBay.

That’s how I learned that I was a case study in how not to sell things on eBay. Professor Wood agreed that my instinct to turn to eBay had been correct.

“Before eBay, you probably couldn’t have sold your station wagon cargo cover anywhere because there wasn’t a mechanism to find buyers for such a specific item,” he said. “Now, there’s the possibility you’ll get money for your worthless-to-you cover.” But he said my methods were all wrong.

For instance, I would have been better off listing my items for a longer period than three days. (“The longer the auction, the more chance someone has of seeing your item,” he said.)

I should have timed my auctions to end on a weekend day. (“The same people bid more for the same item on the weekend.”) And more important?

“You should put a photo online,” he said. “Any bid on eBay is a leap of faith to some extent, and people are more likely to make that leap if they can see that you really have the item you say you have.”

By the end of day two of my auctions, however, things had perked up a little. I had a $25 bid for one cargo cover, two bids for the other ($10.01 was the high bidder) and a $1 bid for the Martha Stewart shower rings. But I had no bids on the Merlin phones.

I tinkered with my Merlin listing. (EBay allows sellers to change or update auction listings if no bids have been placed.) After I found another auction offering an identical model phone, I copied the image and inserted it into my own listing. I also improved the text description of my items.

But I had a new problem: the $25 bid for one cargo cover met my reserve price. That meant I would somehow have to pack and ship the awkwardly shaped itemit resembled a rolled-up 53-inch-long window blind and weighed nearly 10 pounds. How? And how much would it cost the buyer?

By the time the auctions ended, both cargo covers had sold, one for $41 and the other for $50.82.

Unfortunately, the easy-to-pack-and-ship items (shower rings and phones) did not sell; each got only a single bid, for $1, which was below my reserve.

I was desperate for shipping help. I sent Dana an instant message.

“These things are expensive to ship,” I whined.

“Did you say how much it would cost when you listed them?” she wrote back.

“How would I know that?”

She patiently advised me to check post office shipping rates online at, which will calculate your costs based on size, weight and distance you plan to ship. “If the post office won’t take it, you’ll have to try U.P.S.,” she warned.

As for the oddly shaped cargo covers, “You’ll have to use cardboard to make a box for each,” she wrote. “Surely you have some lying around, after your move.” So I drove to an office supply store to buy a roll of packing tape ($2.57), then returned home to spend 20 minutes building a box for one of the cargo covers, which I planned to use as a test package.

Then I drove to the post office with the test package sticking out one car window. The clerk weighed it and quoted rates for shipping it to the buyers’ zip codes.

Then I drove back home with the box sticking out the window, informed the buyers of the costs by e-mail, and propped the cargo covers in a corner to await payment.

Probably I should feel lucky that I managed to sell anything, given my less-than-expert methods. But success was exhausting. Perhaps box No. 235 will get listed one Bay this week, unopened. If so, I’ll let Dana write the description.

October 3,2002

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