“Pulling in Sales on eBay: ‘Powersellers’ Offer Some Pointers” Hartford Courant (February 8, 2008) It was 1998 and Rick Flannery was establishing himself as a collectibles dealer. Three years before he had quit his job at IBM and opened a store, Collectible Madness, in Brookfield.  He was doing all the things dealers do to promote their wares, including renting a stall at the local antiques mall. It was there, while vending his Snoopy figurines and Superman mugs that he first heard about eBay from another dealer. The online auction site is a ubiquitous force for vendors, but ten years ago, it needed explaining. For an ambitious entrepreneur, eager to break out of the local market, the ability to reach a mass of unknown buyers was miraculous. Today he makes sales to places as far as Russia, while enjoying a following among Connecticut pop culture buffs. While the Brookfield store has, on average, 50 to 60 visitors a day, his eBay listings attract thousands.  More than four-hundred sales a month is the result of all that traffic. By contrast, the website for his store generates at most a few dozen sales in the same period. Flannery adapts his business to the opportunities of online retailing. When eBay began to offer vendors “stores” for fixed-price sales, he jumped in.   For the rare and pricey collectibles, he goes the auction route.  At the same time, he stocks his online eBay store with plenty of inexpensive “buy it now” merchandise. To hear eBay pioneers recount the early days, the changes in online retailing are substantial. It was not just eBay that was in the larval stage. Related technologies and services were only emerging.  Digital cameras were expensive gadgets that required careful handling. “I hired someone to take the pictures,” Flannery recalls. And payment was cumbersome. Paypal, the online money transfer service, was one dot-com startup among thousands that came—and, in many cases, went—in the late 1990s. Pat Klein of East Berlin is another dealer whose business was transformed by online vending. The biggest change of all: the diminished importance of the antique shows. Klein used to take her inventory on the road, hawking her wares on the regional circuit. The costs associated with exhibiting at a show were around $1,500, but the ability to reach new collectors made it worth the expense. That business decision was upended by eBay, which she joined in 1998.  Instead of spending time and money doing the shows, it makes financial sense for Klein to stay at home filling online orders. Flannery and Klein are not fulltime “eBayers,” but their efforts are a world away from the occasional listings of the retired neighbor cleaning out the garage. Both are “powersellers,” the special eBay designation for high- volume vendors.  The minimum requirement for “bronze” powerseller status is monthly sales of $1,000 or 100 items. They emphasize that opportunities abound for part-timers, who want to supplement their income. The rules for success are the same whether you do a few listings a month or are a “titanium” powerseller with revenue in the millions. For one, to make a profit you have to sell something for more than you paid. This is a basic rule that sometimes gets overlooked by beginners excited by their first sale.  Reliability is another factor. The transaction is not complete until the buyer has the item in hand. Online retailers enjoy autonomy, but they don’t get to pad around the house in their slippers all day. It’s the difference between “being self-employed” and “working at home.” Frequent trips to the post office are one part of the job. Another is finding stuff to sell.  The collectibles market is characterized by quick sales for under $50.  To make decent money, the dealer has to keep a lot of merchandise in circulation. Flannery sells some new things, so he can count on a stream of magnets and key chains from manufacturers.  Getting a hold of the vintage pieces is a lot less routine. He checks out local garage sales, but the big hits tend to come from his network of collectors. Recently, he bought 200 cap guns from a man who was selling off a horde of memorabilia. Klein is similarly resourceful. She spends the weekends at flea markets and auction houses, where she stocks up on steady-sellers like royal commemoratives and ocean liner souvenirs.  Plentiful, too, are the school plates, with their sepia views of the headmaster’s house. Klein enjoys hunting down good pieces. Like all successful vendors, though, she distinguishes between collecting and dealing. She is less interested in things she likes than in things other people like. “I sell things that I think I can sell,” she says pragmatically. It is not enough to haul home a box of old gewgaws. You must also “put them on eBay”—and that’s when the real work begins.   Everything must be photographed and documented. At minimum the description should include the dimensions and condition. Buyers also like to know the manufacturer, history, and age of a piece. Klein estimates that each object takes three to ten minutes to process. The postcards are quick work, but certain categories take more time. In the case of playbills, for example, the principal actors must be listed. “You’ve got to be able to list and list,” says Flannery, who maintains around two-thousand listings in his eBay store. A tolerance for clutter can be another influence on the size of a home retailing business. Klein keeps it all in the basement, where things can be easily retrieved, thanks to her computerized inventory system. The final step —the packing and shipping—is something most people face once a year, in the second week of December. For active online dealers, holiday-volume packing is part of the typical business day. Other online collectibles sites have been founded in the past decade, but many dealers are loyal to the original because that’s where the buyers are. “Nobody comes close to eBay,” says Flannery. “Buyers come back because they have fun with it.”   It is satisfying for dealers, too. “It doesn’t seem like work,” he says. 
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Amy Gale
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