Top 5 Reasons Why New Sellers Fail on eBay

Many people read about the billions of sales and revenue on eBay and decide that they want a piece of that action.  And it’s true; thousands upon thousands of items sell every single day.  Want to join the party?  It’s super easy to set up an account and get started; eBay has simple instructions that anyone can follow.

But would-be sellers often don’t realize that far, far more items don’t sell.  In fact, most listings don’t sell.  And the reasons are pretty basic.  Maybe you just want to clean out your closets so you don’t care if that beat-up suitcase doesn’t find a new home.  But if you plan to invest in merchandise for resale, your venture into entrepreneurship can easily end in failure.  Here are the top 5 reasons why new eBay sellers fail, and how to overcome them.

These two sterling silver Gorham Strasbourg salad forks (6 3/8 inch) are offered on eBay.  The one on the left also includes a photo of the backside (and hallmark) with an asking price of $27.99.  The one on the right shows only the front side with an asking price of $68.99.  

Which would you buy?

1. They Don’t Sell the Right Stuff. This sounds obvious, but it’s a neophyte’s biggest mistake. It’s fun to go to garage sales and flea markets to harvest stock to resell, but if nobody wants it you’ve wasted your money.  Think you can sell that pretty Limoges teacup?  A spot check on a slow Tuesday morning showed 810 listings and almost none of them had any bids.  But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.   At any given time on eBay, there are over 9 million baseball cards; 50,000 Mickey Mouse t-shirts; 65,000 pottery vases; 140,000 handkerchiefs and even 13,000 liquor bottles.  The vast majority will never sell.

It takes a lot of observation and research to determine what is marketable.  If you are thinking about a particular purchase for resale, first take a quick peek at eBay to see if that item is even in demand (the advanced search option at the top right of the home page can direct you to listings that have actually sold).  If you find some winners (that’s the hard part), look at the final sale values, because that is what you can expect to get.  If there’s a good profit margin over your cost, then take a look at how many aren’t selling. Wow. Can you compete?  Your offering needs to be unique in some way, less expensive than the others and in better condition.   If you find a good niche – say dollhouse furniture – you’ll need to become an expert on the brands and styles that sell better than others.  Yes you can sell!  But it does take homework.

It takes effective research to determine what people are willing to buy – and it’s not always what you think. The purveyor of this novelty has sold over 1,300 of them on eBay at $14.98 apiece.

2. They Don’t List Correctly. New sellers often want to put out a lot of inventory as quickly as possible so they skimp on descriptions and photos. These mystery wares almost never sell.   Buyers need to know dimensions and sizes.  They need to know how many pieces are in the Mahjong set.  They need to see in-focus photos of all sides and especially all labels and hallmarks, because that is how they assess condition, age and authenticity.   Sometimes small things can make a big difference in value (the advertising on a book’s dust jacket might determine if it is a first edition). Sellers who skip the important information and instead go straight to their manifest of rules and conditions are just going to get bypassed. 

All listings start with a title, because buyers have to find your offering first.  Successful sellers use as many descriptive search words as possible.  A pair of cowboy boots will compete with 450,000 other listings – but Tony Lama Black Label lizard boots will match with less than 50.

Another mistake is listing in the wrong category.  Think about who the buyer will be.  Collectors often browse through specific categories instead of typing in key words, just to see what unusual find might pop up.  A Braniff postcard needs to be listed with other airline memorabilia, not in the generic postcard category.  Snapshots of vintage Halloween costumes will sell better in holiday collectibles, not in photography.

Identifying a first edition is complicated and experienced buyers won’t fall for false claims.  This successful seller includes all the important photos: the title page, the copyright page, the back dust jacket and the front dust jacket flap.

3. They Ignore the Importance of Feedback. With all the competition out there, it isn’t enough to just have better quality and better prices. You also need buyer confidence.  Buyer confidence increases dramatically with thorough descriptions and photographs.  Buyer confidence also increases with positive feedback.  Everyone starts out with zero feedback – it gets built up over time from positive experiences.   Like any new business, you might need to make some investments to get started.  Get that feedback ball rolling by selling a few great items in excellent condition for inexpensive prices.  Offer free shipping.   Be fast and friendly; it will pay off.   And above all, avoid the mistakes in the next two failure reasons or your feedback will tank.

4. They Deceive. New sellers often think that if they are too honest, their item won’t sell.  They don’t really lie, they just don’t really tell the truth either.  But this tactic can have bad consequences.  eBay protects buyers to encourage commerce, and that’s a good thing. But that also means that sellers who misrepresent have to pay for returns.

If there is a small spot on a tie, a missing rhinestone on a piece of costume jewelry or a tiny chip in the edge of a Waterford glass, point it out.  Describe wear, fading and any other condition issues with close-up photos. 

If you aren’t an expert (or don’t have access to an expert), don’t claim anything is authentic or genuine. That includes designer jewelry and purses, electronics, Lego mini figures, movie posters, Tiffany lampshades, autographs and anything else that is reproduced.  It doesn’t matter how it is marked or if it came from an estate sale in an expensive neighborhood.   If reported, eBay will kick off sellers of fraudulent merchandise.  It’s not worth the risk.

The best rule of thumb is just don’t say anything you don’t know to be a fact.  That includes age, edition, originality, fur type, country of origin, famous ownership, metal content, etc.  Do some research first and sell what you understand.  Your honesty will be rewarded with positive feedback (and buyer confidence).

This seller showed a close-up photo of a small snag in an Hermès scarf and also mentioned it in the description. She has a high feedback rating.

5. They Cut Corners in Shipping. This is a common mistake that rookies make, and it’s a bad one. They want to save a few bucks on shipping costs so they don’t buy proper packing materials. Antique beaded moccasins need to go in a sturdy box where they will be protected, not stuffed into a cheaper mailing envelope where they’ll get smashed and the beads will spray everywhere.  The original box that comes with a vintage toy is just as valuable as the toy itself – so don’t think it can double as a shipping container.  When a sale arrives damaged due to faulty packaging, the seller has to refund both the item and the postage cost.  If you want to start racking up bad feedback and returns, mailing on the cheap is a great way to do it.

Shipping is my pet peeve.  I once received a large framed Maxfield Parrish print (with original 1920’s glass) wrapped in empty 30-pound dog food bags (complete with cockroaches) and padded with used Styrofoam drinking cups.   The seller saved money by using free household trash for shipping materials, but I guarantee his eBay selling days are numbered.

Delicate glassware, like this 19th century Gallé vase, always need to be bubble-wrapped and then double boxed – with clean foam packing pebbles between the boxes.

Does it all sound a bit daunting?  Perhaps.  But there are many successful eBay sellers and you can be one.   It’s pretty simple, really.  Spend time to figure out the most cost effective things to sell.  Be honest.  Be thorough.  Price competitively.  Package professionally.  You’ll go far.  I promise. 


Liz Holderman is a Worthologist and accredited appraiser who specializes in books and collectibles.

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