AABP Award 728x90

Businesses take to eBay to relieve sellers of online hassles


Not sure what to do with that set of Stars Wars action figures gathering dust in your closet? Maybe looking for a nice home for Grandpa’s pocket watch collection? Or perhaps in need of purging your home of 25 years worth of odds and ends?

Bob Tyler has found a great deal of truth in the adage that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” The owner of Consign Online, which opened in Valley Junction in September, takes in customers’ items and putting them up for auction on eBay. He has seen his business volume nearly triple since his first month.

“To sell on eBay isn’t that difficult, but everything else in the process is,” said Tyler, an eBay member himself since 1999.

At Des Moines’ Metro Market, auctioneer Marty Mauk has taken a different approach in The Auction House, and one that is relatively new and largely unheard of in Iowa. Auction items first gather bids on eBay before Mauk opens it up for a live auction with both in-house and live, online bidders.

“What you’re doing is, you’re offering the best of all three worlds on a much wider scope, because you have the worldwide appeal of eBay and people who are bidding online,” Mauk said.

Both men say that many of the items they put up for sale on eBay might be difficult to sell locally. But by opening it up to the worldwide market, they reach more people willing to buy antique cameras and miniature classic cars, thus driving up the selling price during a week-long auction.

At Consign Online, most customers are between 50 and 70 years old and either do not own a computer or have very limited computer skills. Tyler takes the legwork out of the selling process, writing a description of the item, taking a digital photo of it and uploading the information onto eBay. With similar stores popping up across the country, he knew the time to open a store in Greater Des Moines was now, before a national chain moved into the neighborhood.

“There are about 10 million people who are active buyers on eBay,” Tyler said. “But a very small percent of those people sell, because it’s a lot more work.”

Many Consign Online customers are familiar with eBay and have bought items on the Web site, but simply do not have the time to put items up for sale. Some others know that they have valuable items that would sell for a significant amount of money, but they don’t have a computer and don’t know how to use the auction site.

“The biggest category of our customers is people who don’t know anything about eBay and probably don’t have any idea what their stuff is even worth,” said Tyler. “And then they have this lifetime of accumulation of items that they no longer have a need for. Typically, they’re moving into a townhouse, selling the family home, and they have all these things that they don’t know what to do with.”

Before opening the store, Tyler expected to see 10 or more customers come through the door every day, each with one item in hand that they wanted to put up for sale. Instead, he typically sees two or three customers every day, each with 20 or 30 items in tow.

Tyler was able to track similar stores from across the country, as eBay tracks their sales information. “The typical store of this nature does about a quarter of a million dollars per year, and I think we’re exceeding that considerably,” he said.

After a career in retail and many years of experience in both buying and selling on eBay, he has often had to make a leap of faith in agreeing to put some customers’ items up for auction. A set of Royal Doulton bone china bulldog figurines drew 26 bids and sold for $710, which he calls “one of my strong lessons in not taking something just because I don’t know much about it.”

“When I first started, I was very tempted to take things that just appealed to what I already knew about eBay [and what I thought would sell],” Tyler said. “So I’ve been forced to quickly expand my knowledge on a wide, wide variety of things. I’ll take almost anything, unless there’s something that somebody has brought in the past that has not sold.”

When a customer brings in a silver tea set, Tyler first looks on eBay to find a similar item that has sold within the last few weeks in order to estimate how much the item might sell for. He typically looks for items that would sell for $20 or more, but never stresses that, because many customers have little or no idea how much their items are worth.

Items are up for auction for about seven to 10 days before the sale is finalized. Tyler collects 35 percent of the first $200, 25 percent of the next $300 and 20 percent of the remaining price. He further deducts an eBay commission and sends the customer a check. If an item doesn’t sell, there is no charge.

“From a customer’s perspective, they bring in the item and just wait for the money,” he said.

At The Auction House, the majority of Mauk’s recent auction items have come from estates, either following a death or preceding a move to a smaller home. Items are up for bid on eBay for a designated period of time before he opens it up to a live auction between both in-house and live, online bidders, with the help of a high-speed Internet connection, several computers and a television.

He only schedules an auction after enough items have been collected to justify the $1,500 charge from eBay, which covers the cost of five auctions in a five-week period.

“It’s tremendously expensive and labor intensive to put together a live eBay auction,” said Mauk, who also operates under commission. In 2005, Mauk said he will likely reevaluate his operation and consider limiting live auctions only to high-priced items and auction off the remaining items in a traditional setting.

Following an auction, he tracks how sales are broken down between in-house and online bidders, though the numbers are very erratic from one auction to the next. One auction consisted only of one man’s collection of 200 pocket watches, of which 85 percent were sold to online bidders. And in one auction of more than 100 miniature classic cars, all but one were sold to online bidders. But in the last auction held, which consisted of a wide variety of items, about 75 percent of sales were from local bidders. Mauk charges a buyer’s premium to online bidders as an effort to keep Central Iowans interested in the auctions.

Despite the uniqueness of the live eBay auctions, Mauk, a longtime auctioneer, still finds more enjoyment in the traditional auctions, when his attention is not focused on computer and television screens and he can interact with all of the bidders.

“There is a bit of disenfranchisement, because the audience is not all the way there, and I find that a little strange,” he said. “For example, if we get three Internet bidders and our local audience [is not participating], it’s like we’re just watching TV.”

Mauk estimated that there are only five or six other auction houses in Iowa that are doing live eBay auctions simultaneously, “and of course everyone’s studying them to see if they want to do them.”

visionbank web 070123 300x250