How to Sell on eBay

Tips from an Expert Buyer

by Tony Hyman

Did you ever have the feeling that while you were shopping in California someone in Missouri was putting a really cheap price tag on exactly what you were looking for? Every time my wife and I hurriedly searched tables at flea markets or antique shows, we feared our treasure-to-be was somewhere else on the premises... and only a few feet away from our biggest rival who was just about to pounce. How we wished we could be everywhere at once.

Little did we know our wish would come true. In spades! It's called eBay, an online department store that lets you be at most of the nation's garage sales, flea markets and sales from private sellers at once. Better yet, if you type a few words, then push a button, you can print out a list of where you are most likely to find what you want. After decades driving 500-mile weekends to auctions, shows, fleas, and sales, and coming home happy if I found one or two items worth buying, I now sit home in my underwear snacking on rice crackers and Jack Daniels while sorting through endless piles of online trash on eBay.

In my four years on eBay I've read countless thousands of title lines, looked at around 25,000 full item descriptions, bid on about 3000 of them, and bought more than 1000, spending anywhere from $5 to $5000 at a time. I've bought the oldest item in my collection, two of the three most expensive, and more than half of my 100 favorite items in a 15,000 piece collection that took 50 years to build. In other words, I know how to buy on eBay and I love to buy on eBay, so in order to buy even more, I'm going to teach you how to sell on eBay...

As I race through mounds of online trinkets looking for treasures, I am amazed at the number of sellers who shoot themselves in the foot, losing bidders, bids and money because they don't understand what serious bidders need. For almost anything you sell, there are only a handful of people willing to bid strongly. If you lose them, you lose money.

Sellers would be smart to think of each eBay offering as a mini-website and follow basic guidelines of building successful websites. The following guidelines along with a few eBay-specific additions will help you increase your online auction bottom line...

Use your title line intelligently. You are competing with millions of other items trying to get attention and dollars. What you say in your title is critical because that's what eBay's (Google's) search engine reads. You throw away money when you neglect important key words that buyers search on.

A good title line should identify what you have (and sometimes alternative names that may be used to describe it). Always mention a brand name or maker (or artist) if known. Identify the material or medium it's made from whenever relevant. If selling an artwork or illustration of any type, the subject matter must be in the title. The more relevant information that you can jam into your title, the more bidders you attract. Bidders don't search eBay for words like "wow" or "look" so be smart with your space and make every word count.

Read similar eBay listings to whatever you are selling before you post yours. A little research can pay off. Every collecting discipline has a vocabulary, a standard way of saying things. Learning the basics of that vocabulary can be worth money to you. Wrong or irrelevant words can cost you money. For example, one seller sold his "scrapbook of liners" on eBay for $137. Had he identified it as "Cigar Label Sample Catalog" he would have attracted bidders who routinely pay $3,000 to $10,000 for them.

Listing items that other sellers have currently listed and that are not selling is not good business. Don't waste your time trying to sell things that nobody else seems able to sell or that no one is interested in buying. And don't think that because you are selling yours for a few dollars less than the cheapest one you can find will make any difference whatsoever, because it won't.

List items in the correct categories. In March last year, an item posted on eBay in one category sold for $34. Three months later, an identical item was put up in a very different category with a more informative description and it brought $1,700. List in multiple categories when in doubt.

When writing a description, give complete information in a logical order. At a minimum, you should describe [1] what your item is, [2] give the title if it has one, [3] give the maker or marketer or artist or author if known, [4] list all marks or signatures or other identifiers, [5] specify the medium or what it is made of, [6] give its dimensions, [7] give its condition, and [8] list any special features, characteristics or history. Make sure to include all dates, patent numbers, locations, companies, manufacturers and other information printed on your item or otherwise relevant to that specific item. "See images" is NOT a substitute for information.

If you really want to sell, don't make potential bidders and buyers do all the work with brief description followed by a sentence asking for bidders or potential buyers to email their questions. The fewer questions bidders have and the better they understand what you're selling, the greater the chances they'll bid. By the time you answer my questions two or three days after I email them, I've looked at hundreds of other items and you are no longer timely. Chances of my bidding have dropped substantially.

Spell words correctly. The misspellings on eBay are enough to give a 5th grade teacher a heart attack... and for you, a deficit in your bank account. eBay, Google and all other online search engines are places in life where illiteracy or being lazy about checking your spelling doesn't pay. Misspellings are bad enough in your text, but to misspell key words in your title caption is really bad business. Every serious buyer on eBay and elsewhere online has a story to tell about making a bargain buy on an item with a key misspelled title or text word.

If you post more than one photo, put your most informative photo first. That usually means a nice sharp overall view with important features clearly visible. Don't make bidders look at a string of non-essential views first in order to get to the one with the most important details.

Assume bidders are in a hurry because guess what? They are. Make it easy for bidders to read about your offerings (or art) and see your pictures. Keep it simple, direct, clean, and get to the point. Get our attention WITH YOUR ITEM and its description. Only then is your name or username relevant, as are your terms, what credit cards you take, ads for your shop, and pictures of your children. Details not directly relevant to the item being offered belong AFTER your description and item photos, not before.

Sellers who open their listings with page after page of details spelling out their terms doubly inconvenience bidders who often physically print out the descriptions and photos of everything they bid on (print-outs make perfect inventory and tax documents). Give us title, description, photos, then all that other junk. Listing incidental information first does not make us want to buy; how you display and describe your item makes us want to buy.

Avoid gimmicks, tricks or special effects in your listings. Just because you CAN do something, doesn't mean you SHOULD do something. I'm sorry if it offends your love of being cute or clever, but serious bidders and buyers find these types of things distracting and annoying. You don't need to attract my attention any more than you already have. I'm at your site to see your merchandise, not to be entertained. I'm there to offer you money if you have something to sell. Irrelevancies don't make you money and don't help you sell. Serious bidders hate it!

Make sure your images load fast. Learn to use your camera, scanner and photo-editing programs to keep image sizes reasonable. Good, clear, in-focus images that load quickly are perfect for eBay under most circumstances. If you're using scanned images, make sure they can be viewed in their entirety without scrolling. If scanning or photographing documents, scan the ENTIRE document, not just the parts you think people want to see. They want to see EVERYTHING.

Photograph against plain white backgrounds only. Base your listing on the needs of your customer, not those of your interior decorator, not those that show whatever's in the background because you're too lazy to move it. Cluttered backgrounds or other extraneous interference with whatever you're selling constitutes customer abuse.

Avoid background music or any type sound effects. When the sound starts, I immediately back out without stopping to look at what's for sale. It always distracts and annoys, especially if you force it on me at 1 AM when my senses are in low gear and the world is quiet and at peace. If you add music or sound to your site it is my wish that an elementary school marching band holds practice in your bedroom every midnight.

Avoid describing something as "awesome" or "rare." If an item is in my field and rare, I'll know it. If it's not in my field, the fact that some stranger claims an item is "rare" isn't going to make me bid. In thousands of auction items I've looked at, I have yet to see an item described as "awesome" or "rare" that was either. Use of words like "awesome" or "rare" usually indicate amateur sellers with limited knowledge or abilities to accurately describe what they're selling.

I've collected in every state, province and a half dozen foreign countries for 50 years. Every day of my life I see things I've never seen before. That doesn't make them rare. I hate to spoil the party, but rarity does not depend on whether or not you've seen it before. And just because something is genuinely rare doesn't necessarily mean anyone cares. Keep the judgments to yourself and let the bidders decide. They know what they're looking at.

Consider other avenues for selling before you put it up for sale on eBay. Although this article focuses on how sellers can better reach serious buyers with their eBay listings, it is in no way intended to suggest that eBay is necessarily the best way to sell anything. Many eBay auctions close for well under what winning bidders were willing to pay. More than a third of the auctions I've won have been at prices less than a third of what I was willing to pay.

This may be the Internet age, but a great deal is still to be said for a seller personally contacting a reputable established expert, collector or dealer and negotiating a price with their advice. In the last year, three private parties read about me in a popular guide to buyers, wrote or phoned to request my offers, got them, rejected them, and listed their items on eBay. My original offers were $40, $400 and $500. Those same three items sold to me for $5, $268 and $460.


Tony Hyman was a regular contributor for many years on The Saturday Early Show on CBS television, he hosted a nationally syndicated radio talk show on antiques and collectibles for over 20 years (well before Antiques Roadshow was a gleam in its creator's eye), and his book, Trash or Treasure Guide to Buyers, sold over 650,000 copies.


(digital plant & insect videos by Dominic Harris)

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