How to sell on eBay: what to do … and what not to do!

You will see everywhere articles “start selling online and make lots of money”, or even worse, “it is very easy to get rich when selling on eBay”. Is this true? Is it a myth? Let’s try to answer this.

In case you wonder, if there are rules for selling on eBay, there IS a strategy for buying on eBay too. I will deal with this in a different article. For now, sell only.

I have a lot of experience in selling (and buying) on eBay. I started selling and buying in 1998 when online payments were really a challenge; well, at least THAT worry is no longer with us, nowadays we have in fact too many competing online payment services.

eBay was different in the beginning, but we are not talking about an eBay history; I only wanted to mention the 1998 start because I had the opportunity to follow eBay from its humble beginning to today’s position as a major online retailer.

You may wonder if this article will try to prove if eBay is “good” or “bad”; no, it will not try that. eBay is what it is and regardless of what we think of it, if we need to use the services that eBay provides, we need to know how to do it. In my opinion eBay is a very useful tool for everyone, if used correctly.

Can you get rich on eBay? Probably yes. Can you get rich on eBay EASILY? Definitely not. Selling on eBay takes time, effort, a product line, a supply chain, customer support, knowledge of eBay practices and most of all, knowledge of the market and its relation with your product(s).

Most examples here are from my experience with selling (and buying) calculators. This site is geared towards the calculator collector but many principles mentioned here would apply to other domains. However, keep in mind that I will refer mostly to the limited world of vintage calculators when giving examples.

Let’s start! This is part 1 of the full article, it will be continued in part 2.

What to sell on eBay

Well, in our case, vintage calculators! But you could sell everything and anything, from homes, to cars, to seeds, to electronics and anything in between.

I have personally sold stamps, calculators, books, sewing supplies (my wife is an absolute sewing nut, if you don’t believe me, just look at her web site, household items, computers, computer parts, software, appliances (both working and for parts), cell phones, books, magazines, etc. And this is only me, a private person.

You name it, chances are, it is on sale on eBay. And if it is not on sale, so much the better – you are the only one with THAT particular product. eBay is not picky: if it is legal, they ill take it, allow you to list it and get their share of the sale.

You want nettle seeds? eBay has it. Ah, fishing line? Yep. Latest iPhone? Sure! What about TVs? Oh, can you say “galore”? Magazines from the 1930s? Just say the name. Literally, everything. Make a test: think of a product, then search on eBay. 99 times out of a 100 you will find it. I just made a test right now, I looked for “moon rock”, I got 40+ results. To be completely truthful, I looked at first for “meteorite rock” but I got over 1500 results, so I looked for a more exotic one!

Who sells on eBay

There are in my opinion five categories of eBay sellers:

  1. Private sellers that sell their own stuff
  2. Private sellers that go around finding “treasures” and sell them for a small profit on eBay
  3. Businesses that actively buy and sell, or facilitate others to sell on eBay. There is a fine line between second and third category.
  4. Small manufacturers that sell their product(s) on eBay
  5. Large corporations, usually based abroad (mostly in China) that sell a wide variety of items.

I will not discuss here anything but the first two categories. By the way, also in my opinion, the last category exists only because shipping from China is subsidized, because it is absolutely impossible for someone in mainland China to sell a pack of 100 resistors (1KΩ 5% 0.25W) for $0.75, shipping to the US included!

In the following I will always assume that you, the reader, are in either the first or the second category. For vintage calculators this makes sense.

How much does it cost to sell on eBay

The rules are complex, depending if you have an eBay store or not, what kind of eBay store you have, what kind of item you sell and how you accept payments. I will assume that you are a beginner, do not have an eBay store and are just starting to sell. Obviously if you are NOT a beginner, you already know how much it costs.

Basically, you do not have to pay anything out of pocket as a beginner, but you do have to pay a percentage of the gross amount of the sale.

I am going to make it very, very simple: selling on eBay will cost you about 14% of the value of the product sold. You sell something for $100? Count on the fees to be around $14, so you will make around $86 net. there is an upper limit for the eBay fees but I suggest don’t worry about it as a beginner.

Beware we did not talk about shipping costs here, this is a different issue and may affect how much you actually net from the transaction. I will deal with this in a separate chapter.

If you are really interested in what eBay charges, here is a link to all the small print. Good luck; I never read the full text, I have better things to do and I am very, very sure that when I created an eBay account, I have already agreed to all the conditions in the small print. So what would be the point, my only choice if I don’t like the condition is to NOT use eBay. Link here: eBay selling fees

What are the basic rules when selling on eBay

The rules can be summarized easily:

  1. eBay is always right
  2. When eBay is not right, rule #1 applies

Let’s elaborate a little.

Always stay within eBay rules

eBay is a multi-billion dollar company with global presence; short of a serious government effort (and I don’t mean the government of Panama), there is nothing that will influence eBay. So you, a a small private seller, have to abide by eBay rules without any discussion. Or else.

There is absolutely nothing you as a small seller can do to sway eBay

You may think I exaggerated when I said “government of Panama” would have no influence; no, I did not. The Panama GDP in 2017 was less than the annual eBay sales, and unlike Panama (or the US, I might say), eBay has a healthy profit every year. Take a look below (the data and charts belong to the respective sites):

Panama GDP 2011-2020 source
eBay sales source

But I digress. The point is, eBay is a giant, and as a small seller there is nothing you can do to influence it.

Do not try to circumvent eBay contact policy

The first rule is: any little thing that may even look like you are trying to circumvent eBay and sell privately will be punished. For example: any private message with phone numbers, email addresses, any identifying information will be very likely identified and blocked. If you persevere and try to circumvent the rule, you may find yourself banned from eBay.

You may be lucky and get away with it the first time. You may get away with it for a limited time. But eventually they will catch you if you try it. They really put effort into this.

Moreover, if it looks like you arranged to sell an item to a buyer outside eBay, the company will consider this as against the rules and will actually charge you a fee similar with the fee they would have charged, had the item been sold on eBay. They do not make a secret out of this, they announce it loudly, here. Of course they say the policy is because of concern regarding fraud; and if you believe this, I have a bridge to sell. The company does everything it can to make sure sellers and buyers are restricted to the eBay realm since only from transactions on the eBay platform will eBay receive fees.

Let me give you an example: I was selling a calculator on eBay a couple of years ago and I got a message on eBay (using the eBay messaging system) from a guy who pretended to be a professor at a university. He gave me his name and the name of the university. Assuming he was real, there would have been no problem finding a contact for him, had I wanted that. I however did not try to find a contact, I saw no reason why a university professor would contact me privately and I am wary of such attempts.

Note: I did not answer the message, I did basically nothing at all.

What do you know, two days after I received an angry message from eBay from an automated mailbox (a bot, basically) with a stern warning: stop trying to circumvent eBay, or else! And remember, I did absolutely nothing!

Of course they don’t want you selling privately, they want their commission! eBay is a business, not a charity, despite their best efforts to make it look like they are the “good neighbor”. They are a for profit business, period.

The buyer is always right

Another rule is: eBay does not need small private sellers as much as they need the buyers. Therefore eBay will never side with the small seller in a dispute with the buyer. This means that as a small seller you need to bend backwards to accommodate all buyers, an get this: even the ones that are unreasonable.

And yes, there are a lot of them. Another example: from time to time I get calculators that are not really collectible, like a HP-12C or a HP-83+. I am selling these as fast as I can, my space is cluttered enough with things that I WANT, I don’t need extra. And I sell them cheap, to get rid of them. Many times I thought it would be less trouble to simply discard the machines like these, but what can I say – I do believe we need to do our part and if I can recycle something instead of throwing it away, I will do it.

I sold a non-working HP-83+ (advertised as not working) for something like $3; at that time a working one was selling for about $40. There are people who buy these and from parts make cheap calculators for schools, and the one I had, had an issue with the keyboard but did pass the self test otherwise. Remember, the machine was advertised as “non working”. Well someone bought it (for $3) and then made a claim on eBay for a refund because the machine was non working. Doh! Of course it was non working.

But eBay decided for the buyer as I knew it would, and I lost the calculator, the shipping cost and the PayPal fee. Small potatoes. But you have to be prepared for these instances, and bend backwards to make your buyer happy. eBay will not help the seller.

And get this: at that time I talked on the phone with an eBay representative who pretty much told me “Yes we know the system might be unfair to sellers sometimes and some buyers are unreasonable”. The second part of the sentence (“we value the buyer more than the seller”). was not stated but was there, the elephant in the room. From eBay perspective, this does make sense of course.

Another example: I sold some HP books which I thought were in like-new condition. Going through the books I have not seen any marks, the spines had absolutely no creases, the covers were pristine. Of course they were still 40+ years old books. The buyer asked (and got) a 30% rebate from me after the sale because, he said, there were lines drawn inside the cover of one book. I have not seen those lines when I looked, and I did look ()perhaps not very carefully), but I also knew it is pointless to fight since eBay would have found for the buyer anyway. Taking the books back would also have been pointless, I would have lost shipping both ways and I would have possibly ended up with books having marks inside anyway. So I gave the rebate.

Bottom line: be aware that some buyers are out there to make your life difficult, and be prepared to lose some money in these situations. Not many buyers like that, and they can only strike you once, but they are out there. The rule holds: the buyer is always right, even when he is unreasonable.

I know: my situation is not typical, I am not selling on eBay for profit. I only sell items that I get but I do not want or items that have outlived their usefulness for me, or perhaps I have a duplicate, or I no longer want that, etc. As a collector I am not expecting to make a profit out of this. And of course I am not making a profit.

Err on the side of caution

Ok, you have a nice vintage calculator. It looks beautiful, it works like a charm. You describe it as “working” and price it accordingly. It is still a 40 years old machine and you are wary of possible events during shipping, so you even say in your listing “no warranty, sold as is”. Guess what. IT DOES NOT MATTER.

eBay allows the buyer a one month period in which he/she can report if there is anything wrong with the item received. Sometimes there is, the seller makes a mistake. Sometimes the seller sends the wrong object, shipping snafu. And sometimes the item breaks in transit.

You described the machine as “working”, and if it does not within the eBay one month period after delivery, and you can not prove the buyer willingly caused the defect (of course you can not), you are responsible. And you will need to take it back if the buyer asks. And give a full refund including shipping costs, AND on top of that you will need to pay for shipping back.

Some buyers know that and will claim that the item does not work then ask for a rebate of – guess what – exactly what the shipping both ways would be, perhaps just a tad greater. Will you give it to them, even if you suspect it is only a ploy to just lower the price of the item? We can debate this later, but for now let’s come back to the title: err on the side of caution. In other words, NEVER guarantee in the listing (or show in the photos) things that you are not prepared to back 100%.

And you know what: the item might be even in full working condition, but there is no way for you to prove that. Life is too short, fighting windmills (i.e. eBay and a dishonest buyer) is not worth your effort, so better protect yourself from the start.

For example, for items where shipping is very expensive, I will always describe the item as “as is, no warranty or guarantee whatsoever” even if I can see it working. A real example comes to mind: I had a Wang 4xx calculator which I had to sell like this simply because I was not sure that the fragile internal contacts will survive the harsh shipping conditions (I shipped it Fedex).

Another example: I had a HP 9825B that I wanted to sell; I am very limited in my storage space so I needed to remove most of my large desktop machines (I still have some though). I came to an understanding with a buyer, and the buyer’s address was in an area where I could deliver the machine myself. Delivery of the machine has advantages for the buyer, he would not have had to pay the $100 or so shipping fee (those calculators are heavy!). And there would be advantages for me, for a small detour on one of my planned trips I could actually hand the machine over to the buyer and test it on site.

Guess what; the buyer did not want to accept my delivery, insisted I ship. To me, that was a red flag of immense size – why would someone not want to save $100, AND make sure the item gets there in good shape? After all, I had his address anyway, it was not a mater of privacy anymore. So I decided I don’t need the possible trouble and I cancelled the transaction.

So my advice here is: always assume the worst, and always be prepared to refund your buyer and take the item back. If you did not make any claim in the listing it is more likely that the buyer will not try to take advantage of you.

The second part of the post will continue with How to sell on eBay: part 2.

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