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Going Back to School with eBay U

According to spokesmen James Griffith, in August of 1996 eBay had 5,400 registered users, listed on the site alphabetically by their email addresses. Today, email addresses are no longer user ID's, and listing all eBayers would be problematic — being as how eBay has grown to over 147 million registered users world wide, making it perhaps the seventh or eighth largest 'nation' on the planet.

On top of this, according to A.C. Neilson research, there are over 700,000 American sellers who claim to make a part or full-time living on eBay. Is it possible to expand on this fantastic growth?

eBay thinks so. To grow its sellers and increase sales and revenue, eBay launched the latest version of its traveling road show known as eBay University in June 2005, teaching three courses on how to successfully sell on the site. Since then and through the remainder of 2005, eBay University will have visited 34 cities, and plans to continue the program in 2006.

eBay University is touted to registered eBay users through emails and a link on the eBay site. The three, day-long courses are "eBay Basics," "Beyond The Basics" and "eBay For Business," all taught by a group of eBay and general business specialists, many of whom have written how-to books on successful selling strategies for the site or their areas of expertise. The fees are moderate — $59 for each course, with a 'package' price of $89 for the 'Basics' and "Beyond the Basics' classes.

The moderate fees cannot begin to cover eBay's costs for running a program such as this, but then eBay's agenda here is to promote the site, and the eBay University program does just that. Besides the "eBay Basics" course — which is intended to segue eBay buyers and non-users into the seller mode — the two advanced courses heavily promote PayPal, optional features, encourage International selling, and offer strategies designed to propel small volume and occasional eBay sellers into Power Seller status.

This reporter caught up with eBay U. at the Jacob Javits Convention Center in New York City in late October and sat in on the "eBay For Business" and "Beyond The Basics" courses. Though selling on the site since 1999, I expected to find cues and tips that were useful in future selling. These I found, along with much general business and mail order information and insights that would be useful for anyone selling online.

Each course is accompanied by a 100-plus page book covering in detail what the presenters discuss. Some course instructors can be exuberant, with presentations sprinkled with such adjectives as "awesome" and "very awesome" (whatever that might be), but they are all skilled speakers, and the presentation issues are accompanied by a 20 foot projection screen, emphasizing and summarizing each point.

eBay for Business
Unlike the other two courses, eBay for Business is offered once rather than twice over the three-day program, possibly due to the schedule of its tax/legal issue instructor, attorney Cliff Ennico, a nationally syndicated columnist and author on the subject.

Issues include selecting from the various forms of business entities, that which suit's the individual situation — such as sole proprietorship, partnerships, "C" and "S" corporations, and limited liability companies — each presented with the pros and cons in a clear, concise manner.

The presentation moves on to legal liabilities for selling on eBay — warranties, express and implied, legal disclaimers, refund and return policies, etc. Under dealing with deadbeat bidders, you can call and threaten to sue, but it is advised that you cannot imply that the debtor has committed a crime, call in the middle of the night, or threaten to attach a debtor's wages or property — unless you actually intend to do it!

The final suggestion is to consult an attorney before calling a deadbeat bidder.

Tax issues are complex and covered in detail, beginning with the basics of tax compliance such as Federal and local tax ID's, filing on time, tax payment schedules, requirements for sales tax collection, and the like. Deducting home office space used to automatically trigger an audit, but this is no longer the case, though home office space must be precisely measured, and a baby's stroller or any other non-business item in the space kills the deduction.

Accounting and bookkeeping issues are also covered at length, including what to look for in an accountant or bookkeeper. Also covered are the legal aspects and responsibilities of hiring and firing employees. Under the delicate topic of firing a worker, it is advised to lock the employee out of the computer before the meeting, fire on a Monday, not a Friday, have a witness present, keep emotions out of it, and, strongly emphasized — the less said, the better.

In all, Ennico's presentation should provide valuable information to all but the most experienced and savvy entrepreneurs.

The Business course then segues into operating an eBay business, starting with setting goals, and the first of several pitches touting Power Seller status and why and how to achieve it. (Power Seller status begins at 'Bronze' with sales of at least $1,000 a month, and extends into the stratosphere to 'Titanium,' at $150,000 a month.)

There are common sense suggestions, such as avoiding the use of music in listings and keeping image sizes reasonable (since 50 percent of the U.S. still uses slow dial-up connections,) knowing your competition, avoiding spelling mistakes and combative seller terms, and, in general, making an attractive presentation in your sales.

The section on Research Tools should be useful to many eBay sellers. Selling something without researching the item's past performance is a recipe for wasting time and, often, losing or leaving money on the table. eBay offers several services that provide insight into what moves on the site with a link in it's Marketplace Research page, accessed via web browser at

The first of these is the "What's Hot" page linked through Seller Central. By clicking on "Sell By Category," then "In Demand," a seller can determine currently popular items in most categories.

Relatively new to the site is the "Want It Now" page linked through the eBay home page. There, buyers post items they want but cannot find on the site.

For those who wish to tie their sales to eBay's promotions, there is the "Merchandising Calendar" linked through Seller Central that gives advance notice of promotions — a tool particularly useful to Store sellers.

The course segues into common sense solutions for finding merchandise to sell on eBay, suggesting the usual suspects — garage and estate sales, flea markets, thrift shops, auctions and the like, as well as cueing sellers into the "Whole Sale Lots" category on the site, then using search words such as 'bulk,' 'pallet,' 'case,' 'lot.' The problem with this strategy is that many sellers are wholesaling goods for a reason and it is often because the item cannot be sold individually on the site. In the "Beyond The Basics" course, finding independent eBay certified wholesalers is dealt with in detail.

The afternoon sessions offers micro detail cues on how to start, maintain and grow an eBay business in the auction and Stores formats — from pricing, listing, keyword strategies to shipping advice and virtually every issue in between. Interspersed throughout are touts for eBay products such as PayPal, payments that are offered by a large majority of eBay sellers. eBay claims that sellers who offer PayPal average 6-7 percent higher sell-through prices than those who don't.

eBay — Beyond the Basics
There is a certain amount of redundancy between the 'Business' and 'Beyond the Basics' courses, but deeper detail and additional presentations, such as International Selling, add to the value of this course.

International Selling covers an untapped source of revenue for many eBay sellers. In fact, eBay claims that 46 percent of their sales are now international, and that cross-border sales average 6.3 percent more than domestic sell-through prices. The presentation whets the appetite of the audience with the fact that someone in Germany was willing to pay $77 for a $3.99 five-pack of Oreo cookies. Whether anyone else will ever again pay $77 for the same cookies on eBay is another matter, but the point that many American products can do well overseas, is fact.

The presentation covers the basics of how to fill out a customs form, legal issues including accurate and honest declarations, the most cost efficient shipping (generally USPS), language and money conversions, and foreign buyer-friendly ways to list. And, again, pushing sellers to use PayPal. eBay claims that foreign sellers who accept PayPal payments average 16.7 higher sell-through prices. This makes sense because transferring funds from overseas can be costly and difficult for international buyers who do not have an expedient such as PayPal, Bidpay or Western Union checks payable on U.S. banks. For anyone who sells mainly or exclusively to overseas buyers, PayPal is a requisite.

In the "Beyond the Basics" course, eBay screams the following: Give the buyers what they want! To that end, a number of sophisticated search and marketing report tools that aid in nailing down what's hot and when, are covered. One such pay-for, eBay certified site is Terapeak, which offers sophisticated data on category results, key ratios, listing features and successful duration times, among other features. Free and optional eBay features such as "Sales Report Plus," are also covered in considerable detail.

Under the topic of search engine marketing, there is also an interesting presentation on the necessity of getting a 'top-30' search result placing on Google and Yahoo!, as well as methods of getting into the top five results, or "before the fold," which yields the best results in search engine queries. This is accomplished by bidding on a pay per click (PPC) basis for top placement on the search engines. Bids or prices paid per click-through range from a few pennies to $100. Also covered in detail are important keyword cues for linking with buyers and many other aspects of search engine marketing. This should be a fascinating presentation for all those, who like myself, are semi- to totally clueless on the process and its value.

While many aspects of the "Beyond The Basics" course are covered elsewhere, here they are covered in greater detail. Under finding merchandise to sell, for instance, eBay certified but independent wholesalers who do not sell on the site (and thus do not, theoretically, compete against you) are offered, as are others. (The rub here is that often you have to buy BIG: one speaker contacted a wholesaler on the minimum order for an item and was told it was five shipping containers — for $160,000.)

eBay claims that it takes 20 minutes to manually list a sale, and if you list one-of-a-kind-items as I do, this can certainly be the case. eBay offers a variety of free and optional charge automation tools such as Turbo Lister, which can be useful for any seller who deals in bulk listings. File Exchange, a new eBay tool that is platform independent, allows medium to high volume sellers to list o eBay auctions, fixed-price or Stores with a single application from an MS Excel spreadsheet, MS Access or other software.

Cross-merchandising and promotions are covered, as well as linking to stores and external web pages with free and optional eBay tools.

The remainder of the course offers advanced suggestions and solutions for virtually every other aspect of eBay selling — from photography, headers and descriptions through packing and shipping to feedbacks and sales and inventory management. It's noted that the dreaded task of packaging is not thankless: well-packed goods give a sense of professionalism, and do lead to more positive feedback — not to mention that the item does not spin back because it broke in transit.

The presentations are lively and upbeat, interspersed with anecdotes and eBay success stories with examples that could incite greed in a hermit, such as the free box at a garage sale which contained a fish lure that sold for $32,000. (On the screen we see a rather silly looking lure, in our hearts we feel money lust.)

eBay University is also offered online, but the live presentations are recommended. For most people, the impact of the live presentations accompanied by a 20-foot square projection screen and frequent question and answer periods should enhance and ease the learning experience over merely reading a downloaded book or PC screen.

Overall, eBay University with its moderate fees constitutes a bargain in today's ecommerce solutions marketplace, and should prove itself valuable for many, if not most, eBay sellers.


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