Tips To Sell On Ebay and Other Auction Sites

The following articles were written by Richard Seltzer for auctionstogo.com, a site that provided advice to sellers at online auctions (primarily eBay). That site no longer exists, but the advice is still relevant. The following articles were written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

Building Your Reputation As A Seller

The feedback system has grown to be a major competitive advantage for them. Everyone who has built a feedback-based reputation there has a stake in eBay's success. Their feedback points/reputation mean that they can get more bids and more money at eBay for their goods than they probably could anywhere else.

At eBay, nominally you can provide positive, negative or neutral feedback. In practice, anything but positive feedback is extremely rare. This is true in part because of fear of retaliation (the person you give negative feedback to could do it right back to you; and then you'd end up in an online shouting war, which wouldn't help either of you). But it is also true because most people go way out of their way to please everyone they deal with, to avoid any negative feedback which would look all the more awful because it is so rare. The mere possibility of negative feedback is an incentive for buyers and sellers to resolve their differences privately, through email, rather than taking their complaints to management -- which must be an enormous benefit to eBay.

Keep in mind that this is a quantity-based feedback system, that you can get feedback for both selling and buying, and that no distinction is made between selling and buying. Compare this approach to Amazon.com, where everybody rates you on a scale of five and the ratings received are averaged -- subjective ratings that sometimes seem arbitrary.

So the system is really a measure of the buyer's/seller's experience at eBay, plus his/her online social skills -- friendly people probably accumulate points faster than those that are just in a hurry to get the transaction over with.

What's Under Your Control?

So how can you build and protect your reputation as a seller? Three factors that are in your control can make a big difference: description, communication, and shipment.


Describe any and all defects in great detail and with great accuracy -- especially if they are not visible in photos. Don't raise expectations any higher than reality. Err on the side of conservative estimates when describing the condition of any collectible. Let the buyer be delighted that the goods are better than he/she would have thought. Over time this will bring you more bids and higher bids than if you resort to hype.


Check your "My eBay" page every day to see how your auctions are going. Whenever you can, email the winners of your auctions on the day that the auctions end (preferably before you receive the automatic message from eBay saying that the auction has closed). Provide payment information (shipping cost, your address, etc.) Offer to ship immediately if they'll just provide their street address. And add some personal friendly note -- perhaps something about the item or class of items which you didn't mention in the description; how you got it, why you saved it, or what other such items you have.


For low-cost merchandise (under $50), try to ship the merchandise as soon as you get their street address. Don't wait for payment. The risk is small, and the benefit in terms of feedback and return customers could be great. The customer will be delighted. If because of price, you feel you have to have the money in your hands first, still ship at the earliest moment that you feel comfortable. Do not delay.

Build Positive Feedback

Especially for collectibles, feedback can make an enormous difference in the prices that you get. For comic books, I got more than five times as much for similar items after I had about 20 positives, over what I was getting as a raw beginner. I believe that the difference was due in large part to the importance of quality and condition descriptions for collectibles. If they know they can trust your descriptions, that your descriptions are consistently conservative, they'll bid top dollar.

If you are relatively new to eBay, I suggest that you buy before you sell and that each time you immediately give the seller positive feedback and prompt him/her to reciprocate. Those buyer feedback points count for just as much as seller ones. (eBay makes no distinction.)

Then start selling things that are not rare, that you would not mind giving up for the starting bid. Whenever you sell, give the buyers positive feedback, send them email telling them you are doing that, and prompt them to give you feedback as well. Don't sell your gems until your feedback reaches 20 or, better still, 100.

Getting to Know Them

Part 1: Understanding the Needs

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.  

What do Elvis Presley, Fess Parker, Wild Bill Hickok, dachshunds, and zebras have in common? They all have fans.

And why should auction sellers care? Because that's where the money is. Those are the people who are likely to bid on items which classic collectors and dealers would ignore, and who sometimes bid far more than book value for items they want.

The auction price of collectibles is often determined not by supply and demand, but rather by the buyer's motivation. Hence it is very important to get to know your buyers, what they value, what they are looking for, and how they use auction sites. This information can change how you categorize and describe your items, how you set your starting price, and can also help you build shopping and contact lists: items that you should go out of your way to acquire for resale, and the people to alert when you find those items.

A classic collector might focus on baseball cards. A fan might want everything related to moose, and hence pay top dollar for a Moose Skowron baseball card of a Rocky and Bullwinkle poster.

Classic collectors and most dealers focus on categories, and eBay and Amazon are organized along those lines, making it easy for them to browse. They compete with one another in both buying and selling. Within a given category, they may have their own vocabulary, their own criteria of worth, their own precise definitions of "condition," and their own fine-tuned sense of the value of any given item.

When you set out to sell an item in a category that you don't know very well, either as buyer or seller, tread cautiously. Don't presume that you know why people might buy what you have for sale and what they would be willing to pay. What to you may be small differences, might be crucial to potential buyers -- leading them to bid very high or not at all. If you understand what matters, you can set your opening prices more accurately, you can highlight the critical factors in your description, and you can word your descriptions in such a way that others know that you know what you are talking about and can take what you say seriously.

The people who deal regularly in the same category often operate like a community. Their endeavors, whether as buyers or sellers, tend to be social. They want a particular item, in part, because others want it -- as a matter of pride and reputation, or as a matter of the effect of supply and demand on price.

Fans, on the other hand, collect not because other people collect these things, or because they could ever resell them, but rather to be different, building a piece of their identity around their collection. A particular item might be of great value to them but no value at all to anyone else in the world.

You might be tempted to sell your collectibles at a relatively small auction sites dedicated to a single category. If you sell baseball cards, or depression glass, or old books, that might seem the logical approach. You might figure that at an eBay, or Amazon, or Yahoo, you would be lost among the millions of other items for sale. But keep in mind that fans would rarely go to a single category auction site -- since their interests cut across all the typical collectible categories. And it's the fans you want to attract above all -- the people who might bid ridiculously high and still be happy to "win" auctions.

You want to put your items up for sale where fans congregate -- the big auction sites -- and you want to make it easy for them to find the items of yours that match their individualistic passions.

First, let's take a look at the differing perspectives of dealers, classic collectors, and fans: What factors attract their attention? What kinds of items might they value and why? What should you do to try to get the best prices for the collectibles you have for sale?

Then we'll look at the kinds of things that you can do to encourage buyers to reveal their particular interests, so you can build relationships with them and perhaps arrange off-line sales of other items.

Part 2: Dealing With Collectors

Dealers build their business around their in-depth knowledge of certain categories. They know what's available and what it's worth (or how to find out quickly). They have a sure eye for assessing the condition of a collectible, and an understanding how that affects price.

They have little interest in the "intrinsic" value of the goods they buy and sell. What matters is the supply and demand, the resale value.

They are both buyers and sellers. In some cases, they may do both online. In other cases, they may shop in the physical world for items that they know are in high demand at auction sites. Or they may grab a bargain at an online auction and resell it to a face-to-face customer.

They are very interested in the certifiable condition of everything they deal in. Your reputation for conservative descriptions of condition or for consistent grading is very important.

The level of their bids is restrained by book value. They won't get caught up in last minute bidding frenzies. They'd go out of business very quickly if they did. So don't expect to get high prices from dealers.

On the other hand, they are constantly in the market. The fact that they already have one of something doesn't prevent them from wanting to buy another and another, so long as they are confident of the long-term demand for such an item.

If you happen to have many of the same thing, and want to turn them to cash quickly, you should try to attract dealers to your auctions. Maybe you might want to use a Dutch Auction at eBay. As an alternative, you could offer just one item for sale, emphasizing the condition and resale value and mentioning in the description that you have quite of few of similar items. "Then if you get a dealer as a buyer, chances are good that he/she will be interested in negotiating with you off-line for the rest," says Simon Slade of SaleHoo.

Part 3: Understanding Buying Patterns

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

Fans (cross-category or theme collectors) have their own unique way of looking at the world. For instance, they may want anything and everything having to do with zebras or Marilyn Monroe, or the 1936 Olympics. It doesn't matter if the item is a statuette, a drinking glass, a trading card, or a ticket stub. If it has to do with their passion, they want it.

Fans typically don't know the book values within particular categories and don't care. When the frenzy strikes them, they might bid very high, restrained only by their budget, not by any concept of supply and demand, for things that they really want. This is why fans are very important to people who have collectibles to sell -- this is the primary audience that you would like to reach if you possibly could.

Often the condition of an item is not as important for them as it is for the classic collector. While a collector or a dealer would almost never bid on anything in poor condition and probably not on fair either -- the fan would.

The fan might also want more than one of the same thing -- not for resale, and not as trading stock, but to keep them all.

For the fan, there is no such thing as a "complete" collection. What they want has no pre-set bounds. These are not numbered items in a set. They want anything and everything relating to their passion. They wouldn't know what eBay or Amazon category to look under. The next gem for their collection might be anything, anywhere. Rather than browse through the categories, they use search and are delighted by the totally unexpected occurrence.

Sometimes, too, through research they might determine that something that they want is included in something else -- for instance an Elvis Presley poster in a particular old issue of Playboy. In that case, they might use very specific queries, and find the right stuff even though it is not mentioned in the title or description of the item up for sale.

While collectors probably have friends who collect the same kind of thing, with whom to trade items and swap stories and share their glory as collectors, fans might not know of anyone else who collects just what they collect. They do this not to share a common activity with others of similar interest, but rather to define themselves as individuals.

Often the fan's buying activity is tied to interior decorating -- they are thinking of how these items would like on that wall or that shelf and visually in conjunction with these other items. Fans tend to value items not for their intrinsic or supply-demand value, but rather for what they do to improve the look and feel of their total collection.

You want fans to find you. And of the people who buy from you, you want to be able to identify the fans and what they are looking for, and keep files on them for future reference. You might also want to check any "wanted" lists on the off chance that a fan wants something that you have.

Fans are crown jewels to auction sellers.

If you were a fan-style collector or have acquired such a collection and want to liquidate it, do not just post those items as ordinary auctions, scattered across many categories. Rather, use consistent tag words in the title, so a single search (say for "Elvis 1") would get all of them as matches. Also, use search to identify fans with similar interests, so you can alert them that you are putting the whole collection up and that they should search for this particular tag to see them all. If it's a large collection, and you will be selling the pieces over an extended time, you should consider creating your own Web page to advertise that fact, with links from there to your active online auctions, and make sure your page is well indexed by general search engines like AltaVista. But that's another story...

Part 4: Get Buyers to Reveal Interests

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

To get buyers to tell about themselves, you first should tell them something about yourself, preferably as relates to the product that you are selling. Your first opportunity for this is in the description. Your second is in the followup correspondence.

For example, I had a box of old bottle caps I wanted to sell in small lots. So I told people how I had come by them, giving them some of the flavor of their age, history, and condition.

"Back in the 1950s, I used bottle caps as an alternative to plastic cowboys and Indians. Ones with plain cork innards were the cowboys. Ones with white coverings over the cork (as was common with ginger ale) were cavalry. Ones with silver over the cork (as was common for beer) were the Indians. Sometimes I'd remove the cork to make one of them a chief or general. I wound up saving many hundreds of bottle caps for this purpose. Even when I stopped playing that game (around 1960), I still would occasionally throw a new bottle cap into the box.

"As a result have a great variety of bottle caps today -- some in very good shape, but most with a fair amount of wear. Some are of national brands, but quite a few were produced locally.

"1951-56 I lived in Rockville, MD (near Washington, DC). 1956-58 I lived in Baltimore, MD. 1958-64 I lived in Plymouth, NH.

"I stopped collecting sometime while I was living in Plymouth, so all these bottle caps date from before 1964, with the vast majority dating from before 1958."

Reading this, they would know that I'm not a professional dealer, that the caps aren't in pristine condition, that they are all at least 30 years old. They also get a sense that I have lots of other caps available, and given the places I've lived am likely to have brands specific to those areas. In addition, they have a story that they might identify with if they too had lived in the 1950s and 1960s. Selling such things at eBay, I've learned that many collectors do so not for resale or even for display, but rather to recapture memories of childhood.

That description prompted many queries about other caps that I might have available. Some people let me know that they were collecting based on their last name -- for instance, they wanted everything labeled "Gunther" or "Nesbitt." Others told me that they actually collected old soda or beer bottles, and wanted the caps to match, and hence it didn't matter that they were banged up a bit -- that a flavor of age and authenticity. Others were focusing their collections on New England brands, like Cott and Narragansett, or Maryland and Pennsylvania brands like Old Georgetown. Such information helped me to make a number of off-line deals by email, and helped me know which kinds of caps would be most likely to sell for a good price at eBay.

When a bottle cap auction ended, I also appended to my email to the winner:

"PS -- I have quite a few more bottle caps that I plan to sell at eBay. From your perspective, would it be better if I offered these as sets of four of the same type of bottle cap, or as sets of four different bottle caps?"

Many people took the time to answer this question. Some were just interested in one particular kind of cap -- like Hires -- and wanted as many of them as possible; duplication didn't matter. Others were striving to collect as many different types as possible, with each in the best possible condition -- for them "all different" was best. But most serious collectors and dealers were happy with lots of several of the same kind, using the duplicates as trading stock or resell. Based on that information, I offered my caps in a wide variety of ways -- different size lots, some mixed, some the same -- to try to catch the attention of people with this spectrum of interests. I also did very well with sale caps in poor condition -- accurately described and shown in photos -- which I would never have attempted to sell, if I hadn't learned the motivation of buyers through email correspondence.

I was much less wordy when selling Classics Illustrated comic books:

"Price on cover = 15 cents. Overstreet classification = first edition. Fair to good condition, creases on front cover (see picture).

I collected Classics Illustrated comics as a kid back in the 1950s and have stored them in plastic envelopes."

Once again, my words told buyers that I'm not a professional, that this is a personal collection. But I also let them know that I'd taken good care of these items over the years and understand something about their value to collectors and how to rate their condition.

Sometimes the replies I'd get would be helpful in making followup sales. For instance, one buyer wrote, "I'm a big Fess Parker fan. Even a comic in not so good shape is something I want. If you have any other Fess Parker items -- let me know."

In other cases, the reply was of more value from the perspective of human interest, than for future sales. For example, Broderick Miller wrote, "I'm thrilled to get this comic, by the way, because I sold a pilot to NBC called "Deadwood", which is kind of like "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir", only the ghost is Hickok. The comic will make a nice present to some undeserving producer or exec." When I checked back with him a few months later, he added, "Actually, the producers of "Deadwood" decided not to pitch it as a pilot. I am going to write the story as a feature screenplay and we'll go from there. We all agreed we would rather see it as a movie than a TV show. (It could always become a pilot later)."

And sometimes business and human interest combined, as in the case of someone named Phyllis Presley Collas who said she had bought an old issue of Playboy because it had a picture of Elvis Presley inside. I couldn't resist asking if she was related to Elvis, to which she replied, "It's a long long long story. I am originally from New Jersey, and worked in NYC. I have legally been Phyllis Presley for over 18 years. I have lived in Memphis for over 15 years. I am I guess what you call part of Elvis world here. I have a famous home that the fans visit all of the time ... My home backs up to Graceland. That's the story. If you are ever in Memphis I would love to have you stop by for a visit." Phyllis (known at eBay as "elvis77-99) is an active buyer and seller of Elvis-related items of all kinds, at eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo.

Basically, personal interaction is a natural part of person-to-person online auctions. Doing it well can be both fun and profitable. And the first step is to say something about yourself, giving a friendly human touch to the transaction, rather than being strictly business-like.

Make-on-Demand Selling

Getting to Know Your Customers

What can you do when instead of selling collectibles, you sell something you make new, on demand, like prints of photos?

Unlike selling items you stored in the attic and which you previously considered to be of no value, in this case you have fixed costs. In the case of photos prints, there's the cost of developing and special paper and chemicals. There's also the time spent taking the photos, filing the negatives, making the prints, and scanning the prints so you can show them with your descriptions at eBay -- in addition to the time all of us have to spend in posting the auction notices, packing and shipping the orders, and all the related record keeping. If you set your initial price too high, or if you use a reserve price, odds are good that you'll scare away most potential customers. But if the items go for too little, you could lose money on every sale. Should anyone even consider running such a business through person-to-person auctions?

An old friend of mine, Tracy Marks, (torreyphilemon at eBay) does just that and does it very well, as evidenced by 353 positive feedbacks. You can check her AboutMe page at http://members.ebay.com/aboutme/torreyphilemon/ She focuses on photos of figure skaters.

Getting to know her customers is an important part of her successful strategy:

"I mention at the end of many of my email acknowledgement that if there are particular photos that interest a buyer, let me know and I'll contact him or her when I have such photos available. At the same time, I create a database with a list of emails of those buyers who are interested in photos of particular skaters. Every time, I post new photos then of that skater (usually several sets at a time) I send an email to that "fan group" letting them know, and immediately get several bids."

The interests of the buyers also motivate her in her choices of the photos she takes. "Because the number one interest seems to be photos of Katia Gordeeva, I went to a show in Connecticut I otherwise wouldn't have attended, just to get three rolls of film of her, during her two skates. I've also paid to go to several after-show receptions in order to get autographs, because autographed photos sell for about four times as much as unautographed photos.

She adds, "I also mention in my email that if a buyer does not want to be informed of future photos of that particular skater, to let me know and I will remove his/her name from my list, so as not to bother him with unsolicited mail."

She sets the initial price, based on the associated costs, more for 8 x 10 prints than for sets of 4 x 6 -- usually between $6.50 and $14.95 -- with no reserve price. Half the time, photos sell for the initial price; other times bids reach $30 or $40. She also includes in her descriptions a link to a personal Web page of hers which lists her work "in process" (shows where she took lots of photos) as well as all the photos she has put up for sale in the past. Digital versions of all these photos (scanned in) are available for viewing at her site (a delight for figure skating fans). Many people learn about her work by finding her at eBay and perhaps buying from here there, then come back to order other photos from her collection. She also posts frequently on the figure skating newsgroup and on skating mailing lists, where her signature links to her eBay sales page.

She also points visitors to other Web sites of hers. (In addition to her career as a photographer, she also is an author, Web-page designer, and Internet consultant, and teaches Internet-related courses and courses in the use of Photoshop.) At the end of her page, she provides detail about her photographic techniques and the challenges she faces, about how she scans the photos and then edits them with Photoshop to make them presentable on the Web. According to the counter posted at the bottom, that page has had nearly half a million visitors since April 1997.

Is she getting rich? No, not yet. But she's having fun, and the potential is good as her reputation grows. She says, "I can't say I feel that successful... because of all the costs of taking skating photography and all the time it takes organizing negatives and taking them to the photo lab. I average about $6/sale and 1/2 hour per sale.....which means only about $12/hour. But it's easy to do work at home, and I do all my orders while watching skating shows on TV!"

An extra piece of advice -- Tracy also sells miscellaneous other items at eBay, such as secondhand books and videos. She notes, "When there are a number of bids and I only have one copy of the item but know how to get another copy at low cost, I sometimes contact the second highest bidder to ask if he'd be interested in bidding or directly purchasing the item for the amount of his/her bid if I was able to procure it. Most of the time, the answer is yes."

Building Web Pages to Help You Sell and Buy at Auctions

Part 1: Options

You are already familiar with Web publishing and selling from your experience with auction sites -- posting the descriptions of your items. If you are a successful seller, you probably craft the descriptions of your items very carefully, paying special attention to the title, so people who want that kind of item will be likely to find you.

You also probably have photos of your merchandise posted on the Web -- perhaps here at AuctionRover or perhaps at one of the general Web-hosting sites like Xoom, Tripod, and Geocities (now part of Yahoo). In that case, you are familiar with the rudiments of uploading files and perhaps know how to create simple Web pages.

Step back for a moment and consider what more you might want to do with personal Web space to boost your auction sales.

As a buyer/collector/reseller, you might want to post a list of the items you are interested in buying -- rare items that aren't often found even at a huge Web site like eBay.

Yes, you can post a "wanted" list at eBay. But that discussion board is not easy to find and not often used. (Click on Community; then under Chat, click on More Message Boards, and you'll see the Wanted Board under Chat Rooms.) And the only folks who would ever see that would be very dedicated and persistent people who are eBay members, when you really would like to be visible to the world.

You also might want to post Web pages in neutral territory (not at a specific auction site), pages introduce the whole range of your auction-selling activities, with links to your feedback pages at various auction sites as well as current auctions.

Yes, of course, you could set up an About Me personal page at eBay, so buyers could learn more about you, so you could build trust and hence get more and higher bids. That's not difficult -- just click on My eBay and at the bottom of that page click on Create your own eBay home page using About Me. Then fill out the forms. You don't need to know anything about creating Web pages. All the design details get taken care of automatically. And you can easily add your feedback here to show off the good things that people have said about your auction activities. If you'd like to see samples, at the bottom of the page with the sign-up form, click on "Visit another member's page," then enter the username of a member who you know has a page like Tracy Marks (torreyphilemon) who we highlighted last week.

You can also create a personal page at Amazon.com, that includes a listing of your current auctions (click on Community, then Member Pages to start).

But in both those cases you are very limited in the amount of space you can use and in the format you can use. The pages are automatically generated using fixed templates. And how would anybody who wasn't already at eBay or Amazon ever find you? In fact, the About Me pages at eBay have very complex addresses (URLs) that include a question mark (?). That question mark indicates that the information is being generated on request from a database, and is one of the signals that turn off the crawlers from public search engines. In other words, somebody looking for the kind of merchandise you have for sale would never be able to find your About Me page at eBay from a search engine like AltaVista or Hotbot.

What about the photos you've posted at Xoom or Tripod or Geocities or in the free space your ISP gives you? Those are sitting in public space, so can't they be found by search engines?

Today's search engines index text, not images. (AltaVista' new image searching capability is powerful and interesting, but is not yet to the point where it's of importance in publicizing auctions.) To be found, you are going to need more than photos. You are going to want to post text -- lots of text related to everything you want people to know about you and your auction-selling business.

So do you need to become a Web-design guru? No way. Your main purpose will be to make good, clear information generally available -- to everyone, not just people who regularly use auction sites. And you want that information to be found by people using search engines. The design of such pages should not matter -- just the text content.

Remember, the Web is not a magazine. A home page is not a magazine cover. People pick up magazines at news stands based on what they see on the cover. But on the Web, you only see a page after you've already arrived there, and it's the words, not the graphics and fancy design elements that lead people there. If you can create a document in Word, you can create an effective Web page. In upcoming articles, we'll take you step-by-step through the process of creating simple Web pages and then we'll cover what you can and should do to make those pages easily found through search engines.

Part 2: Keep It Simple

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

As we discussed last week, you have many options to you if you wish to use the Web to promote your auctions. In addition to making full use your item descriptions at auction sites, creating About Me pages at auction sites, and posting photos of your items, you also might want to post Web pages that introduce the whole range of your auction-selling activities, with links to your feedback pages at various auction sites as well as current auctions.

Many Internet service providers, including America Online, offer their dial-in customers free or low-cost Web space. And Web hosting companies like Xoom, AngelFire, Tripod, and Geocities offer free space. You can create your pages on your own PC or Mac and upload them to the service provider or Web-hosting site, where they are made available for anyone anywhere in the world to visit any time they want. The details of how to upload and where to put your pages vary. Check the help files or ask the support staff at your Internet provider or Web-hosting site to help step you through it the first time.

There are many ways to build Web pages. This article provides a few quick tips on what you can do and how, using a simple non-technical approach. Basically, if you can create a document in Microsoft Word, you can create Web pages.

If you use Word for Office 95, there is a free software patch -- the "Internet Assistant for Word," which can turn that word processing program into a simple and powerful Web-page authoring tool. Microsoft used to make the patch available at their site; but now they are pushing Office 97 and they have stopped giving out the patch for 95. You can, however, still find it at many other Web sites. Go to AltaVista (www.altavista.com ) and search for wdia204z.exe Pick the version that is right for your particular hardware and operating system, and follow the instructions for downloading and installing.

You can also use Word for Office 97. Either way, Word will handle HTML (hypertext markup language) as just another file format or template. You can use it to convert an existing Word document to HTML, by using the "Save As" command and choosing HTML. Or you can use it to create new documents in HTML.

Start a new document. In 95, under File, select Templates, then click on Attach, and from the selections shown, highlight "Html.dot" and click on OK, then OK again. In 97, under "File" click on New, then on the "Web Pages" tab, then select Blank Web Page

You should now see new icons in your toolbars. (If you don't normally use the toolbars, click on View and then Toolbars, and select "Standard" and "Formatting" and then click on "OK.") These icons open up functions you need to create Web pages.

In particular, click on the icon with a chain link in it to add a hyperlink to your page, and click on the picture with the image of a mountain to add a picture.

For an auction sales page, what matters is text -- clear and helpful writing -- not graphics and design. The pictures of the items you have for sale should all be accessible with your item descriptions at the auction site. Here you want to provide useful information about yourself, your auction selling activities, and the kinds of things that you sell. The more text you can provide the better, because search engines only index text, and that's how you want potential buyers to find you.

The most important parts of your page, from the perspective of being found by search engines are the HTML title and the first few lines of text. The HTML title is not the name of the file, and not the headline in large type, but rather words that appear in a special position in the header of your page. Search engines like AltaVista give high priority to the words in the HTML title when determining which pages will appear near the top of lists of matches. And those are also the words that appear in such a list as the name of the page.

Don't let the alphabet soup of HTML confuse you. This is very easy to do. In 95, first click on the icon that looks like the letter "i" on a sheet of paper. A box opens up for you to enter the title of your page. In 97, click on File, then Properties, and enter the title there.

Now enter your content, just as you would any other new document. If you'd prefer to start with something you wrote before, open that other document, then under Edit, choose Select All, and Copy; then exit that document, and Paste the contents into your new document.

To enhance the looks of your content, in 95, click on Format, then on Style, and in the bottom left-hand corner, under List, click on the down arrow and select All Styles. Use the scroll bar to see the full range of choices. In 97, click Format, then Style, and you'll see all the choices right away. Either way, to change the Style of a piece of text in your document, you highlight that piece of text, then go to this set of Style choices, select the one you want, and click on Apply. Experiment to see the range of choices. First select styles for your head and subheads.

The usual methods for highlighting text in Word apply here as well. For instance you can change words to bold or italics or underline just as you would normally. If you have lists, you may want to bullet or number them. You can do this by highlighting the text and choosing a particular style, or by simply using the numbered list and bulleted list icons from the toolbar, as you would normally.

To divide your text into sections, position the cursor where you want the divider, click, and then click on the dark horizontal line in the toolbar.

To add a hypertext link to another Web page, highlight the words in your text that you want associated with the link, then click on the chain in the toolbar and enter the URL (Web address that you want to link to). For instance, you might want to copy and paste here the URLs for your current auction items or your feedback pages or your About Me pages at auction sites.

If you are going to have more than one Web page, make sure that you have hyperlinks connecting them so readers can easily move from one to another and can always, from any of your pages, return to your preferred starting point or index page.

To add a hypertext link to an email address, simply enter under "File or URL" mailto:username@address, e.g., mailto:seltzer@seltzerbooks.com

If you have a long document, there is no need to divide it up into lots of smaller documents with links among them (which many people do). Keep it simple -- both for your own convenience and the convenience of readers. The fewer the documents the better. If they consist of text, with no graphics, they should download quickly.

If you have a picture of some other graphic element which you would like to use, click on the place in the document where you would like it to appear, then click on the icon showing mountains and Browse to locate and enter the file you want.

When you have finished your page, save it with a name that ends with the suffix ".html" and as type "HTML document." Then upload it to the site of your service provider or Web host. If you have links to pictures, be sure to upload them to the same directory.Next week we'll provide tips on submitting your pages to search engines and publicizing them for free over the Internet.

Part 3: Search Engines and Directories

As we discussed last week, you can use personal Web pages to help promote your auction-selling activities. But for that to be effective, you not only need to write and post informative pages, you also have to let people know that they are available. Your first step should be to make sure your pages are included in search engines and directories.

Search engines such as AltaVista (www.altavista.com), InfoSeek (www.infoseek.go.com), Excite (www.excite.com), and Hotbot (www.hotbot.com) index the contents of Web pages for free for the benefit of people who want to find information on the Internet. They send out webcrawlers -- robot programs that automatically find and retrieve Web pages and add the information to their indexes. They find Web pages from links to them on other pages. If your Web site is new, there are probably very few links to it; and, unless you intervene, it could take many months for the webcrawlers to stumble upon your pages, if they were ever to get there at all.

You need to get your pages into the search engine indexes as soon as possible, so people looking for the kinds of things that you have for sale will be able to find you. Go to each of the search engines and near the bottom of the home page, you'll see "Add URL". Click on that, and then enter the URLs of each of your pages. Then your information will be indexed within a day a day or two (AltaVista), about a week (InfoSeek) or within two to six weeks (the others).

Keep in mind that when you add your URL at a search engine like AltaVista, you are simply asking the crawler to fetch a particular page. The crawler brings back whatever text it finds at that address. All it knows is what it found on that page, not what anyone told it. Anyone -- not just a site owner -- can submit a URL.

While AltaVista indexes every word on every page, directories, like Yahoo (www.yahoo.com), the Open Directory (dmoz.org), and LookSmart (www.looksmart.com) provide categorized lists of Web sites with a brief description of each site to help take you to the home page of sites that might be of interest to you. Directories are, by definition, selective rather than all-inclusive. They typically aim for quality, rather than quantity. To be included in a directory, you fill out a form at the directory site, and eventually an editor will take a look at your submission and your actual pages and decide whether, in their judgement, the content merits inclusion. If your site is very small and contains very little useful information, they may reject your submission. Best case, expect a delay of anywhere from a month to four months from when you submit your information to when people can find you through one of these directories.

While a directory categorizes Web sites and contains very little information about them (just the description), a search engine indexes all the information on all the Web pages it finds. Directories are crafted by human beings, based on their judgement, like files in a file cabinet. Search engine indexes are generated automatically, based on the words and phrases that are found on Web pages.

Because directories and search engines are different from one another and complement one another's capabilities, most major search sites have partnered with one or another of the major directories. When you click on the name of a category, rather than entering words in a query box, you are using their directory capability.

A directory takes you to the home page of a Web site, from which point you can explore to eventually get to what you want.

A search engine takes you to the very page on which the words and phrases you are looking for appear.

Your listing in a directory will probably be the same whether you have one page or a thousand pages. What you submit is what you get (presuming the editors find your description to be clear and accurate and your content useful).

With search engines like AltaVista, presuming that you submit all your pages, the more content you have the more ways people will be able to find you. If your auction selling is related to a hobby of yours or to your full-time job, you should have a lot to say that others with similar interests might want to read. And your customers, too, might have content that they would be willing to submit to you for inclusion on your Web pages. Be creative. Keep adding to and improving your Web pages in response to the reactions you get. And whenever you make changes, go back to the search engines and Add URL.

Record Keeping for Auction Sellers

Part 1: Mining Gold Efficiently

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

Imagine that you just inherited a gold mine in South Africa. There's real gold in that ground -- lots of it. The only problem is that it will take a lot of work to mine it and refine it -- maybe so much work that it would cost you more than you could sell it for. So maybe you'd just let it sit until the price of gold went higher or until you could figure out a less expensive way of cashing in on it.

Now think of all the stuff you have stored in the attic and the basement that you don't really want or need. You've procrastinated about holding yard sales, because they're so much work and usually don't get very high prices. Now you hear about online auctions, which reduce the work of connecting with customers and also promise to get you better prices. You figure you've got it made. You list one item after another, and people actually bid on them. So you list more and more. Payments arrive, and you ship stuff, and you get lots of email. You list more stuff. Soon you have dig through stacks of paper and read and reread old messages trying to figure out who won what and what this check is for and to make sure that you really sent that package you thought you sent last week. In short order, you find yourself spending 20, 40, even 80 hours a week dealing with all the details of managing these auctions. What looked like a gold mine in your attic is starting to feel more like a tar pit; and you can feel yourself sinking.

If you find yourself in that position, pause; let your current auctions run out, and start all over again with careful, systematic record keeping. And if you are just getting started, get organized now before the problems start.

Remember, your own time is not free. If it takes you two hours to deal with all the hassle of listing, communicating, shipping, keeping track of the transaction etc., and the item which cost you $10 sells for $20, you're only making $5 an hour.

Typically, when you first get started, you don't count the time. You get a kick out of the experience and take pride in all the details. But once the novelty wears off, let's be honest -- if someone offered you a job doing this same kind of tedious work at that rate of pay, you'd turn it down.

But by organizing what you do and keeping careful records -- in a form that's easy and yet that provides you with everything you need to know to work efficiently -- you can cut down on the time you spend on tedious tasks. That means you can either wind up making money at a better rate, or spend the extra time on the creative and social aspects of auction sales -- communicating with the buyers and making your listings witty and fun as well as informative.Next week, we'll provide practical tips on how to deal with the details of record keeping. And the week after, we'll take a look at record keeping for taxes.

Part 2: Details

When you sell auctions, you can waste a lot of time either by over-recording (making more work than necessary) or by under-recording (meaning you'll have to waste a lot of time sorting out what's going on when people send you checks with scanty information or no cover note at all).

The method I use today works fine for me for handling about a hundred auctions a month. More than that, and I would seriously look into special software for auction management.

When an auction ends, I print out the page with all the information about it, including my description and terms and the name and email address of the winner. I then use those pages to record by hand any and all additional information regarding that sale -- such as the shipping address, shipping cost, type of payment, and date of payment. I put these sheets in manila folders. One set of folders is for items sent, but not yet paid for. Another set is for completed, paid transactions.

At eBay, when the winner's username isn't the same as his/her email address, click on that name, enter your own identification information when requested, and check the box for the system to "remember" you. Then when you see the email address of this person, click back to the auction page, click on Reload in your browser and that address will now appear on the auction page so you can print it.

Then I write an email to the winner, beginning "Congratulations", and providing details of price and shipping cost. Then I add by cut-and-paste my standard message, which has details on how they can pay and how they can reach me. The auction page goes into a manila folder for pending auctions of that particular type (e.g., comic books, trading cards, etc.)

When the buyer replies by email, providing a street address, I save that message electronically in the auction folder in my email account. I also write that info on the printed copy of the auction page, and package and mail the goods. (I find that for items selling for under $30 there's no need to wait to receive payment, or to wait for a personal check to clear. The vast majority of people are honest and cooperative. By filling the order immediately, you delight the customer, who didn't expect such quick service. The great feedback you get and the relationships you build with these customers are likely to boost the prices on your subsequent auctions, more than off-setting a rare loss. And at the same time, you greatly simply your paperwork and record keeping.)

Then I move the printed the auction page into the "Sent" folder for that type of auction, and I make an entry in a spiral notebook, where I include the type of item, a brief description, the sales price, the shipping cost, the name of the buyer, and the date I shipped the goods.

When payment arrives, I use both the notebook and the auction sheets to decipher exactly what the payment is for (many people are very sketchy about that), write "paid" next to that entry in the spiral notebook, and move the auction sheet to the "Paid" folder for that category of goods.

When you are dealing with many checks, each for a small sum, you can wind up spending a lot of time sorting through them, recording them, and depositing them. When I was at the height of my comic and bottle cap selling, I was getting about a dozen checks in a day, for an average of less than $10 each, with many of them (bottle cap auctions) as small as $2.55. I deposited these using postage-free bank-by-mail envelopes provided by my bank, saving the time it would have taken to drive to the bank and wait in line.

I entered in my check register not just the total of that day's deposit, but also the amounts of each check, together with the last name of each buyer. That provides me with a quick extra backup to my other ways of keeping track of transactions.

Obviously, there are many other ways you could handle these tasks. The important point is that you need to be efficient and consistent, and be prepared to backtrack, given all the manifold ways that buyers may respond. or instance, some people won't respond to your email, but rather will send you a check with a note and their street address. Some just send the check, and the only indication of their address is on the check. I have to match the scanty information provided by snailmail with the sheets in my Pending folder to determine what I need to send them.

Be prepared for the infinite and unpredictable variety of human response; but at the same time, keep your record keeping as simple and time-efficient as possible. And don't turn to automated techniques until you have had enough experience to determine if you really need them and if they will actually cover the variety you are likely to encounter.

In the words of my friend and fellow auction seller Tracy Marks (torreyphilemon at eBay), "Systematize! Systematize!" She breaks her process down into: listing, recording buyer, emailing buyer using form letter, indicating response, indicating payment received, indicating shipped, indicating having given feedback. She uses tables in Word and different color highlights for the various stages of the process.

How efficiently you can handle the record keeping will determine how many separate auctions you can maintain at a time. I found, with my homegrown techniques, that I could handle a maximum about 100 simultaneous auctions -- each running for seven days, and with some ending each day of the week. At around that point, the sheer volume and the tedium of all the tasks involved started to become a serious burden. I was able to handle that many only because I had many customers who bought than one auction item from me in the same week, often doing so in order to save on shipping charges. So 100 auctions might translate to less than 30 individual customers, and of those 30 maybe a dozen had done business with me before, and I might even have credit card info on file about several of them. All this repetition cuts down on the recording keeping, as well as the time involved in packing and shipping.Next week, we'll deal with record keeping from the perspective of taxes. (Yes, this isn't "free money." Everything you earn from auction sales is income, subject to the same taxes as all your other income.)

Part 3: Yes, Virginia, There is an IRS

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

Many people get involved in auction selling out of curiosity -- could I sell this rather than throw it out? Then you might get hooked on the social and collectible aspect, both selling and buying a few things a month, with the sales helping to finance the purchases. It's a more or less expensive hobby.

Then at some point, imperceptibly, the hobby starts to become more like a business. You find yourself buying things at thrift stores and yard sales because you know they'd do well in online auctions. You find yourself beginning to depend on the flow of money that comes in from your auctions.

Then you one day you realize that you're probably making more from auctions than your friends are at their office jobs. After a moment of prideful joy, it suddenly occurs to you that you may be liable for taxes. But you haven't been keeping track of your revenue and expenses. You haven't been saving receipts. And you haven't set aside any money to pay taxes. Yikes!

According to SaleHoo, Some people misunderstand the "moratorium on Internet taxes." That just means that Congress, for the moment, has agreed not to impose any new taxes. But existing taxes still apply -- that includes income tax and also sales tax when the buyer lives in the state you do. The money you get from online auction sales is not "free money"

A reader recently asked me about procedures for applying for a merchant credit card account, so she could accept credit card payments for her auction sales. She was confused because the credit service company she first contacted asked her for information about her sales, expenses, etc. In fact, she had been averaging about $300 to $400 a week for about six months, but hadn't kept any receipts for her expenses (e.g., purchases from thrift stores and retailers). She asked "How can I provide accurate information or is there a better way to obtain a merchant account? I want this under my social security number and would opt not to have a business name at this time. I thought under the laws that Internet sales were not taxable and exempt from reported earned income. If that is true why would the credit card company need all the financials? And will this be turned into the IRS? I just want to be able to accept credit cards on-line, period!"

First, and most important -- income is income is income, and income is always taxable, by both the feds and the state. You are required to report all income on your income tax returns (Form C). And to be able to prove the accuracy of what you report, you must save receipts and keep careful records.

Also, if you sell items to people who live in the same state or city as you, and your state and/or city have sales taxes, you should register to collect that tax, and insist that those customers to pay it to you. For the moment, there does not seem to be a requirement to collect sales tax on online auction sales when the buyer lives in a different state. But due to pressure from brick-and-mortar stores that feel at risk from Internet sales, that may change at some point.

There may be a delay before the Federal government and the states start going after people for income taxes and sales taxes from online auctions. But it will happen. And when it does, there will be penalties, and you could find yourself in a very awkward position. The IRS will have access to the data that eBay and other auction sites keep about everything you sold and what you sold it for. And you will have to explain why you didn't report any of this, even though the money coming in was equivalent to what some people make in regular jobs. And if you can't document your expenses, you will be liable for taxes on the full amount of the auction sales.

If you are in this position, begin keeping careful records now, and do your best to reconstruct records of everything you've done in the past. Next week, we'll provide practical tips of tax-related record keeping.

Part 4: Tax Time

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

The latest issue of Time Magazine (Feb. 21, 2000) indicates that about 20,000 people "derive their income from auctioning items at eBay." (p.27) Presumably, they mean that that many people get all of their income that way. Many more substantially supplement their wages with auction sales. The opportunities are simply too good to pass up.

But when you earn income, you are required to pay taxes on that income. And if you got into auction selling as a hobby and are now making significant money, chances are that you have not been keeping the complete and clear records that they will need when filing tax returns.

Keep track of all your expenses and all the money that comes in, and be consistent about how you record information. The IRS is well aware that people are making serious money through online auctions, and every sale of yours is permanently recorded by the auction sites like eBay, as part of their mechanism for collecting fees. So even though you aren't a dealer and are just selling old junk, it would be wise to report all your auction earnings on your income tax return (using Form C). And be sure to record and document every related expense, otherwise, to the IRS, it will look like all the money that came in was taxable profit.

Start by retrieving a complete list of your sales from the auction sites that you use, and gleaning whatever information you can from the records you kept just to keep track of who bought what and where and when you shipped it.

Gather all the auction-related expense receipts that you can find -- including credit card bills that list such purchases. And begin to save such receipts on a regular basis. I put them all in a box, then once a month record them in an accounting book. The Dome Simplified Monthly Bookkeeping Record works well for that. You can find it for sale in most office supplies stores.

Religiously save postage receipts. If you pay by check or credit card that will give you a back up way of tracking that kind of expense, but keep the receipts as well.

You might benefit from using home accounting software, like Quicken. If you enter all your income and checks and credit card expenses, religiously, you will be able to generate very useful reports at the end of the year, and that will make the ordeal of tax time far more tolerable.

Also, keep a notebook in your car in which you record all auction-related mileage. That includes every trip to the post office or to the office supply store. Note the date, the starting odometer reading, the ending number and how many miles that means. Also record the reading on your odometer on Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 each year. Currently, the IRS allows 31 cents per mile. Over the course of a year, a daily trip to the post office can add up to a significant expense.

If you pay some auction-related expenses by credit card -- e.g., the fees at eBay or buying office supplies at a nearby store, if possible put all those payments on the same credit card, and only use that particular card for your business. That will make it a lot easier for you to keep track of expenses.

If you are a serious auction seller, you should concentrate your activities, if at all possible, in one room of your house or apartment, so you can qualify for home office expenses. If you have an eight room house and use one of those rooms exclusively for your business, you can count as a business expense one-eighth of all the utilities.

If you are that serious, I strongly recommend that you buy and use tax software, such as Turbotax. That will help step you through the complex steps and help make sure that you have included everything that you can and should. You can also then submit your taxes electronically over the Internet.

Keep in mind, that in addition to federal income tax, you may owe state and local income taxes. And you probably also owe self-employment (social security) tax, which is recorded on your 1040, but which is a separate additional tax. If you have a regular job and a high income, you may already have paid the maximum for the year. If not, your income on your own little auction selling business will be considered as self-employment income, on which you have to pay a social security tax of 12.4% and a Medicare tax of 2.9% -- in addition to income tax. That's why it is very important to record and document every expense. The more expenses, the less the income and hence the less the tax. If your auction income is a significant part of your income, you may also be required to file quarterly estimated taxes with the IRS and possibly with your state as well. That's another reason why it is very helpful to use tax software -- the tax regulations have simply become too complex for the ordinary individual to understand without help.

But above all focus on keeping good records. Without such records, regardless of how good your tax software or your tax accountant/advisor may be, you are likely to end up paying far more in taxes than you need to. And if you rely on your memory or enter what seem to be reasonable estimates, you could be in a very bad position if audited because you will not be able to provide proof, and may wind up paying serious penalties.

Basically, if auction-selling has become a business for you and you are making serious money, treat it like a serious business. Get organized, and keep careful records.

Start Auctions to Get the Most Bids

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

Most bidding occurs in the last couple hours of an auction. For items that are common, many people won't even bother to look at auctions that have days or even a week left to go. Rather they'll click on the ones that are ending soon. That way they may get the immediate gratification of finding the item they want and winning it on the same night, and they also can have a clearer idea of the likely ending price before getting emotionally involved. Hence the auctions that end on the day of the week and at the time of day when most customers are connected will get the best results.

The two top auction sites, eBay and Amazon, don't give you a choice of when your auction will end. At those sites, the time of day that you start is the time of day that you end. If you start your auction at 7 AM EST (which might be convenient for you -- taking care of it before leaving for work), it will end at 7 AM EST (which might be terrible in terms of how many potential bidders are connected at that time of day). So you have to plan ahead and post at the right time to get the right setup. And if getting high bids on your auctions matters to you, you might have to rearrange your life. For instance, it might turn out that Monday evening is the best ending time for your category of merchandise, but that's your bowling night or bridge night, or you don't want to miss Allie McBeal. Or the unexpected happens frequently, and you miss the perfect time slot, and wind up waiting another day or another week before posting. Even if you can free up the right time, if you have dozens of items you want to post, it will difficult to get them all in with an end time close to what you want.

Yahoo does let you choose your closing time (pick any hour, Pacific Time); but you can't afford to miss the more interesting opportunities at eBay and Amazon.

Fortunately, as part of their Auction Manager service, AuctionRover allows you to schedule your auctions -- for eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo -- to post at whatever time you choose. You can schedule your auctions up to a month in advance, and can schedule them to start during any 15-minute time period.

So how can you take advantage of this new flexibility and control? When should you schedule your auctions to end? What day of the week? And what time of day do you want your auctions to end, to make it more likely that interested buyers will be connected during the final, potentially exciting and hectic moments of your auctions?

The market fluctuations for different kinds of goods tend to be different.

People buying for hobbies and personal use are likely to connect evenings and weekends, or maybe over lunch break from work. People buying items for use at work, may prefer business hours.

Also, remember time zones. 6 AM on the East Coast of the US, pretty much rules out participation from the West Coast where the time would be 3 AM; but might be convenient for folks in London, where it is 11 AM. If you end auctions at around noon Eastern Time, that will allow Western Europe and California to get involved in last minute auction frenzy for your items.

Also, remember that the audience is global. If you have a potentially large market south of the Equator, the seasons are reversed there (winter there when summer here). And for Australia and the Far East, noon time there is midnight on the East Coast of the US.

From my experience selling collectibles, I do best with auctions that end on weekends -- Saturday a little better than Sunday. And 9 PM Eastern Time works best for me as an end time. For others who are selling new and refurbished merchandise, like digital cameras and computer gear, week days may be better than weekends.

So how important is timing to you?

If this is just a lucrative hobby and you've been selling for a few months or more, you own personal experience and instinct may be enough to go by. What has worked best for you in the past and when would you go on line to bid on similar items? Then consider where in the world your bidders are likely to be concentrated, and adjust for time zones.

On the other hand, if you are going to sell a number of items in the same category, and this is a business for you, you may want to do some serious research. Use the search function at your favorite auction site. For your particular category, check the ending days/times of auctions for items similar to yours, and log the results. Noon on Saturday might be great, but noon on Tuesday terrible. Also, log the months, looking for seasonal variations. There may be a significant seasonal dip over the summer. Also, check to see if the duration of auctions seems to make a difference in the final price (at eBay you can choose 3, 5, 7, or 10 days; at Amazon 1, 3, 5, 7, or 14; at Yahoo any number of days from 2 to 10).

Then, using AuctionRover's Auction Manager, you can do all the input for your auctions at the time that is convenient for you, and schedule you posting for the optimal times. And if there are seasonal variations, you can use that information to schedule your much-needed vacation.

What's It Worth?

Whether you are buying or selling, you should check the value of the merchandise before starting.

For new or nearly new, brand-name goods, with only utilitarian value (not a collectible), you should first check the prices for identical items at online stores. In many cases, they can be quick and easy, using shopping bots such as Pricescan, BottomDollar, or MySimon. You certainly shouldn't pay more at auction than you would at a store. In fact, unless emotional factors come into play and you wind up bidding for the experience of winning, you should expect to pay significantly less, because of the extra effort involved in bidding, the uncertainty of whether you'll win, and the delays involved in actually receiving the merchandise, rather than just buying at a fixed price with an online credit card transaction. So if as a buyer your purpose is practical, and you know very well just what you want, you should do that research, and rationally arrive at your maximum bid, and not let yourself get carried away. And as a seller, you should do that same research when deciding whether it is worth your while to try to sell this particular merchandise at auction.

If the retail price is significant -- $100 or more -- it would probably be worth your while to take your research two steps further. First, check the collective buying sites/buyers clubs, such as Accompany, DealTime, and Mercata. There the more people decide to buy an item, the lower the price goes due to volume purchase.

Then, instead of relying on the major person-to-person auction sites, such as eBay, Amazon.com, and Yahoo, you should look at the retail auction sites, such as First Auction, OnSale, and Shopping.com. where the site is the venor and you compete for bargains on new or refurbished brand-name merchandise being sold as excess inventory. Such sites sometimes hold "flash" auctions, which only last for 30 minutes and which begin with starting prices as low as $1.

For collectibles, price research is far more difficult and the search capabilities at person-to-person auction sites are an important source of information.

The major complicating factors in this case are closely interrelated: condition and rarity. Except to the trained eye of the experienced collector or dealer, condition may seem very arbitrary or subjective. But condition determines both rarity and demand. There may be millions of this particular item in existence, but only very few of them in "mint" condition. And even if the kind of item is rare, there may be no demand at all for items in "fair" or "poor" condition, because the few avid collectors wouldn't be interested in anything less than "very good." A small, but clearly defined difference in grade can make an enormous difference in value.

Regardless of the site that you plan to buy or sell at, I'd suggest that you go first to eBay to research the value of collectibles, because their database of current and past auctions is so enormous. Click on Search, then on Completed Items. (You want to find out what the closing bids were.) Then search for listings of items very similar to what you have for sale or are interested in buying.

First scan the range of prices to get a sense of whether further research is likely to be worth the effort. For instance, checking "Lionel train," I see a fair number selling for $200-$300, a few for $500. One got a bid of $755, but the reserve was not met, so no sale was made. Another sold for $678.

Another had the starting bid set at $3000, and no one bid on it. And still another sold for $4737 (starting bid of $4600, only two bids). With a range like that, you would be well advised to seek expert opinion so you don't end up selling a $4000 train for $40 or even $400; or if buying, don't end up grossly overpaying. If you know collectors or can find local dealers, ask them for advice. If not, look for related newsgroups (at a Web site like Deja.com),and post your questions there.

For common categories of collectibles, like coins, stamps, baseball cards, books, and comic books, pay particular attention to the descriptions and the language used to describe the condition of the items getting the highest prices. In particular, check the language used by sellers with a number of items of this same kind for sale, in other words people who are likely to be dealers. What are the variants among items that to the initiated might seem identical? (e.g., "first edition," "double struck") What words do they use for the highest category of quality -- "excellent"? "uncirculated"? "proof"? "mint"? Having gotten a sense of the range of prices and the typical descriptive language from looking at the auctions that are finished, click on Search again, and this type take a look at active auctions, checking off "search title and description" and including the highest quality category (e.g., excellent) as a query word. Take a look at matches which have pictures and compare what is said with what you see in the picture. How large and clear is the picture? Is the seller describing all the obvious defects in detail? Pick a few items where the seller is obviously a dealer, and send email asking for a clear definition of the words used to describe the condition.

If you might want to buy many items of this kind (becoming a collector), or if you have many items of this kind that you would like to sell at auction, you should be much more thorough in your research, perhaps buying, reading, and regularly referring to books on the subject (which you should be able to find quickly by searching at Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble).

Another related factor that is important to consider is to what degree can you trust the seller or can you expect buyers to trust you? We're not talking about integrity. We're talking about knowledge of the field and hence reliability and consistency of grading and describing the condition of the merchandise. If the seller has little of no feedback, buyers are likely to be skeptical of the written descriptions, depending more on large, clear photos. So as a seller, trying to get the highest possible bids, you should either go out of your way to build positive feedback before attempting to sell what could be a gem; or you should take extra special care to make sure your photos show everything significant about the item in great detail and, perhaps, from more than one angle. (NB -- that Lionel train that sold for $4737 seems to have been sold by a newcomer, amateur. But the listing included half a dozen clear, closeup photos. Seeing is believing, and believing can make a huge difference in price.)

Be Creative: Do's and Don'ts of Off-line Sales

The fact that you have to correspond with your buyers to work out shipment and payment details opens an opportunity to get to know them and build relationships with them. Beyond the basic facts, ask friendly, chatty questions to find out what they really want and value -- what other items they are looking for, what size lots work best for them, etc. Also, if you have more of the same kind of item, probe to find out if they might like to buy a larger quantity now (because they need them for a special purpose, or because they are buying them as "trading stock"). If so, try to negotiate a deal immediately so you can send them all in the same package, saving on shipping cost and hassle.

Correspondence with customers is one of the most time-consuming, but also one of the most rewarding aspects of selling at person-to-person auctions. You want to minimize the time you spend on this task, while at the same time getting the maximum value from it -- in terms of information about your particular customers and the auction marketplace for your particular category of goods, as well as reputation. I have a few standard messages as word files, one for each kind of item that I sell. Those messages include questions geared to catch their attention and start them talking about themselves and their collections.

As you get creative in promotion of this kind, some tactics will occur to you that the auction sites prohibit. Be sure to read the community rules carefully.

For instance, eBay provides you with the email addresses of everyone who bids on any auction -- not just yours, you may be strongly tempted to build mailing lists of people interested in the kinds of things that you have to sell. For instance, you can click on "bid history" and get a list of the usernames or "handles" of all the bidders; then click on an individual handle and, after entering your own eBay username and password, see that person's email address.

The temptation may be very great, but don't go down that path. As a rule of thumb, never add anyone to an email list without their explicit permission. Otherwise, many recipients of your promotional messages are liable to consider them as "spam" -- unsolicited and unwanted advertising. Some will probably be mad enough to send you nasty messages in return, to remember you and not bid on your auctions in the future, perhaps to give you negative feedback, and perhaps to complain to auction site management, who frown on "misuse of bidder information." They don't want their members subjected to spam, and will take steps to prevent a recurrence.

In general, it is not a good idea to initiate contact with an unknown person who is a bidder at an auction for the sole purpose of selling something to them off-line. But there's a wide gray area, involving personal rather than mailing list messages, that you might want to explore.

For instance, if you have more than one copy of an item that you put up for auction, when the auction ends, you might want to contact the second highest bidder. This message could let them know that you are starting a new auction with the same kind of item. That kind of message would be probably be acceptable to auction management.

Or you might want to ask them if they would like to make a deal off-line for a similar item. Auction management would frown on that because they don't get posting and transaction fees for your off-line deals.

According to Internet auction site SaleHoo, what matters most is how the recipient of your message would take your suggestion. If the bidding was intense, and this person really wanted that item, your message may be very welcome.

On the other hand, if you were sending the same kind of message to someone who was the second highest bidder at someone else's auction for an item similar to what you have for sale, that would be taking a step out of the gray and into the dark side.

At the other end of the gray spectrum, when I conduct business at eBay, I build relationships with repeat bidders and buyers. People email me with questions while an auction is going on. They ask me if I have a certain related item and would be willing to sell it to them off-line. And when someone repeatedly bids on or buys items of mine, and we repeatedly correspond on the subject, I feel no qualms about letting them know about other related items of mine that they clearly would be interested in. The auction takes place within the community. But what I do in other ways with folks that I met there is really my own business.

But keep in mind that the acceptability and desirability of a given tactic depends on the kind of item that you are selling. Personal off-line communication is common and generally welcome with regard to collectibles, especially rare items. But if someone is selling brand name, mass manufactured merchandise, the temptations to over-promote and the reactions of potential buyers to their messages are likely to be quite different.

For instance, someone might watch other people's auctions and contact the bidders to offer the very same merchandise, off-line, at a lower price. While some people might welcome such a bargain offering, such behavior disrupts the auction environment and is a clear violation of community rules.

On the other hand, if you are a regular seller at eBay, with many items in the same general category, you can expect that people who have seen your auction listings will occasionally contact you and ask for an "off-auction" price for a similar item. As Ron Rothenberg noted in one of my weekly chat sessions, "Some people find the idea of auctions just awful and don't have the patience." Those kinds of people might use online auction sites as a way to identify sellers and then make their own separate deals, quickly and simply.

Importing Inexpensive Products to Sell on Ebay

For many online retailers these days, buying from wholesale suppliers from within their own country simply isn't the cheapest way to buy. Margins can potentially be much higher if they go straight to the manufacturer, who more often than not, is located in Asia. But is importing viable for small sellers? And what are the options available?

The SaleHoo product sourcing directory contains many international suppliers and staff are experts in the ins and outs of importing.  They believe importing is simple enough for new sellers if they import only in small quantities and only generic-brand products (picking the fakes from the genuine brand is complicated and too risky). Many of their members start out this way, with the situation made easier by the fact that most of the Asian suppliers in the SaleHoo directory, whilst having vast inventories, are willing to sell as little or as much as SaleHoo member's want to buy.

Another advantage of importing in smaller quantities is that shipping simply becomes a matter of organizing a courier company such as EMS or UPS to pick up and deliver. The courier will also organize customs clearance and on small lots, sellers will be relieved to learn that duties and tariffs are unlikely to be significant.

Then, as your business grows, you have the option of scaling your importing accordingly. It's quite common for sellers to initially start off using drop shippers or light bulk wholesalers, as these types of suppliers can be easier to open an account with and usually don't have minimum order quantities (moqs). But as the seller's business becomes more profitable, they consider going direct to the manufacturer.

Of course, importing by the container load does require a certain amount of liquidity in the business, because it will easily cost $8,000+ all up ($3000-$4000 for the container and a few thousand on the product itself). Importing in these quantities is a fantastic way of cornering a market, but SaleHoo advises waiting until your business is established before taking this step. You need to have the infrastructure in place, such as a customs broker and freight forwarder, a warehouse to store your stock and staff to manage your orders and ship everything out, before this option becomes viable.

However, there are plenty of people who are "in-between" these two groups and SaleHoo caters for this group as well. If you've done the small-scale importing thing, but you don't yet have enough liquidity to go and purchase a whole container load on your own, then you can consider joining a buyer group. Although SaleHoo is not directly involved in setting up these groups, their community forum facilitates like-minded sellers who wish to import by giving them a place to organize buying groups. Groups are typically between 5-20 individuals and usually based around a geographic location to avoid unnecessary transportation costs.  Group members split the costs and the tasks associated with organizing the import among members according to skills and experience. For many sellers, this method of importing is ideal as it allows them to get all the benefits of importing, without carrying all the risk.

Using Auctions to Promote Business 

Listings as Marketing Messages

The following article was written for GoTo Auctions (formerly known as AuctionRover). The rights have reverted to the author.

A major online auction site -- like eBay, Amazon, or Yahoo -- is a marketplace with millions or even tens of millions of visitors. Hence, regardless of whether you sell anything, you can get value by making your goods and services visible to this audience. Basically, for less than a dollar, you can insert your message in a catalog seen by millions.

If you are simply reselling brand-name merchandise that fits into very crowded categories, the advertising value of an auction listing is likely to be minimal. But if what you have to sell is unique and appeals to very few people, then buyers are likely to search rather than browse when looking for such items and there's a good chance that they might find your listing. In such cases, auction listings can put you in touch with potentially valuable customers that otherwise you would never have been able to identify or reach.

In some cases, you may not actually want to sell the item that you list; but, rather, you want potential buyers to know that you can provide items of this kind.

You might have a large number of collectibles that fall into a category that is very crowded with similar items. In that case, you might want to post a listing of the absolute gem of your collection -- with a very high reserve and with no expectation or desire to sell that item. Rather, you hope that people will read that description and through it learn that you have many other related but lesser items for sale at that same auction site. The gem serves as an attention-getting ad for the rest.

Or you may be in the business of crafting custom-made products to order. In that case, you might want to list one such item, with a description worded well to capture potential customers. You explain what you do and how, and encourage people to contact you directly if they'd be interested in having you design/make something specifically for them. For instance, my parents sell armorial or crest jewelry -- gold rings, pendants, etc. with a family coat of arms engraved on them. They could list and show pictures of one such item at eBay, say with the Seltzer family crest on it, without any expectation that people would bid on it; but rather hoping that people seeing that listing might contact them and place orders for jewelry with their own crest.

There's an interesting related opportunity at Amazon, through their cross-links program. When you list an item for sale at auction, you can include links to up to nine other products that are for sale at Amazon. Currently, there's no extra cost for that service. In other words, if you are selling a book, you could have a mention of your auction appear as a "related" item when people looked at the description pages of nine similar books for sale in the regular book store section at Amazon. For instance, someone is looking for a particular book, goes to that Amazon page, and sees along with that description that you are holding an auction for that very same book or other books by the same author. And you aren't just limited to books. Every product for sale at Amazon -- music, videos, toys, videogames, etc. -- has a unique identifying number; and you can associate your auction with those.

Also, at Amazon, for relatively low cost, you can set up your own online store, in their zSHOPS area and have links back and forth from your store to your auctions, and with cross-links from both to related items for sale at the main Amazon store -- once again using auctions as a form of promotion.     

Auction Selling

Remember the lemonade-stand game? It taught business basics. Lower your price and you increase demand. Then if you are in a position to fill that demand efficiently, the increased volume of sales could earn you more profit in the long run. But the rate of increase of demand varies. Sometimes a small difference in price might make a big difference in sales. Sometimes lowering the price just lowers your revenue. The object is to balance the variables that are under your control in order to maximize your profit.

You can think of online auctions as an immense game like that. If you have lots of similar merchandise to sell, you can experiment again and again with the variables -- starting price, time frame, messages in description, and use of photos -- to make your auction sales more profitable. Or you can use online auctions as a test market where you learn lessons that you then apply to offline sales.

By studying the results of other similar auctions that others have held, as well as through your own experiments, you can get a quick feel for demand, price, and effectiveness of marketing messages -- valuable information that is very difficult and costly to obtain by traditional methods.

Maybe you think your product should be worth $100. Post it at eBay with a starting price of $1-3 and see how high it goes. Do that not just once, but several weeks in a row, and modify your message, in response to the reactions you are getting. When communicating with buyers about details of payment and delivery, ask them what interested them and why.

Involvement in auction sales can also open your eyes to variables you might otherwise have overlooked. Imagine you had a box with 2000 old bottle caps, and you could see from records of past auctions that you could probably sell them for anywhere from 50 cents to $4 a piece at eBay. Could you do so profitably? In other words, could you streamline your procedures such that you could pay someone $10/hour to do the grunt work and still make a reasonable profit?

One factor is the packaging. Can you create batches of bottle caps that are intriguing to collectors so instead of selling them one at a time, you are selling them a dozen, two dozen, or even three dozen at a time?

Another factor is human interaction and the trust, knowledge, and relationships that can result. Can you interact with the collectors so they get to know and trust you and so you get to know what they are looking for and what they value most and hence what batches will work best?

Another factor is how you present your marketing information -- the words you choose for the description and the accompanying photos.

You can generalize those lessons beyond just bottle caps or whatever else you might sell in quantity at online auctions. This is a laboratory, where you can learn not just the basics of business but also the dynamics of ecommerce, where -- by one mechanism or another -- dynamic pricing is likely to become the rule rather than the exception. Basically, auctions put large numbers of buyers and sellers in touch with one another and let supply-demand determine price. For commodity consumer goods, the buyer gets a good price and the merchandise moves quickly.

If you run a large business, have your managers clear out their attics and basements and start selling at online auctions, for the lessons they'll learn about business in general and about ecommerce in particular. Have them do this not just for a day, but rather for months -- periodically getting together to brag about their successes and share what they have learned. They are likely to learn the value of feedback and reputation and relationships, that feedback becomes the basis of your community reputation (your online "brand") and has an enormous effect on the number of bids you get and how high the prices go. They will learn that successful ecommerce is not about automated transactions. It is about relationships. And at the same time, they'll get a feel for how auctions work and the market-related information that's available there for free, and when and how to use auction-based experiments for market research.

Setting Starting Prices for Auctions

Setting the right starting price is a balancing act. And the factors involved depend on your style of selling.

If you are simply trying to get rid of the items:

-- to clear out space in the attic, or

-- to recycle merchandise that is no longer useful to you, and that you want to throw it out because it would be a waste,

then set the starting price at a penny and see what happens. As long as the buyer pays for shipping, you have nothing to lose but your time. And you've already made a commitment to yourself that this activity is worth your time.

If, on the other hand, you are a professional and sell many similar items at online auctions, you are likely to focus on the average end price rather than the end price for any single item. Your aim is to attract bids. Low starting prices help to get bidding started. And what you lose on one item may be picked up from higher end prices on other items. You'll lose some, and hopefully your win more. In this case, you should base your starting price on your direct personal experience -- check your records and experiment to find the optimal level. Also, take a good look at your counters, to see if the ratio of visitors to bidders varies with different starting prices.

If you are a regular, but not professional seller, your challenge is more difficult. You probably have limited inventory, so you can't experiment for weeks or months to arrive at an optimum starting price. You know that reserve prices greatly reduce the number of bids, so you'd prefer to avoid that route. But you know that your starting price may well end up being the selling price, so you have to be prepared for that eventuality. You may want to set a low starting price to encourage bids, but you can't afford to go so low that you'd feel awful if that's what the item actually sold for.

If you are in this kind of bind, you might want to try a couple of special programs at Amazon.com: First Bidder Discount and Take-It Price.

By offering a 10% discount to the first bidder, you encourage people who see your auction and are interested to hurry up and bid, rather than waiting and seeing. Of course, you could make offers of that kind in the description to your auctions at any auction site. But at Amazon buyers expect it and understand it without lengthy explanation -- it's a standard feature. And also, Amazon handles all the accounting and notifications for you automatically, and discounts your fees accordingly.

At Amazon, you can also set a Take-It Price. If anyone bids that amount -- which is posted with your auction listing -- the auction ends right there and you accept that selling price. Amazon suggests that you set the Take-It Price at a level that you think is the highest you could hope for. As long as the bidding stays lower than that point, the auction proceeds as normal. But the first person to bid that much wins, immediately. If there's some serious interest in your item and bidding approaches that point, chances are that someone will take the leap and snap up the item for that price, beating their competitors.

A few details to remember: you can't use Take-It Prices in Dutch Auctions; the Take-It Price has to be higher than the reserve price; and if you offer both First Bidder Discount and Take-It Price, first bidder receive no discount if they bid the Take-It Price.

In any case, you should consider the cut off points for insertion fees when setting starting prices. For instance, at eBay for a starting price of $.01 to $9.99 you pay .25; $10 to $24.99 you pay .50; $25 to 49.00 you pay $1; and $50 and up you pay 2.00. So never have a starting price of $10, $25 or $50 -- instead go with $9.99, $24.99 and $49.99. (Why throw money away? Even if it is just quarters, they add up fast if you run a lot of auctions.)

For unique items that you only have one of and that you believe have significant value, you may want set a reserve price. With a reserve price, you can set the starting price extremely low -- down to a penny -- and you still might not get many bidders. It's a gamble. Can you afford to sell the item for less? Can you afford to take the time to experiment with one reserve price and then another and another, and then maybe eventually dropping the reserve before the item eventually sells?

Remember that without a reserve, the starting price could be your ending price, so if you want to make a profit, you need to understand your costs. The total cost of an auction to you equals the cost of acquiring the item; plus the time and hassle of creating the auction, communicating with the winner, record keeping, and shipping; plus any auction fees.

It probably takes you a minimum of half an hour to do everything associated with a given auction, even if you are running a dozen similar auctions at the same time, with similar descriptions and shipping procedures that are routine for you. If the auction is unique, figure an hour. As a rule of thumb, don't pay yourself less than $10/hour. That means that for items that essentially cost you nothing (clearing out the attic), you should be aiming for an average sale price of no less than $5 per item. Adjust that estimate based on your actual experience, and try to arrive a starting prices that will get you at least that much on average.

To reduce your per unit costs, and hence enable you to have lower per-item starting prices and hence more successful auctions, consider grouping your items in lots. It will probably take you just as long to process and manage an auction for a lot of six as it would for a single item. Just be sure that you can provide a good clear image of all the items in the lot with a single reasonable size (easy to load) photo, and that all those items will fit conveniently in a standard size envelope or box.

Posting Auctions With "Inventory"

Auctions are a great source of "found money," letting you turn objects that you considered trash into cash. But they also can be a source of lost time, meaning you wind up doing nowhere as well as you thought you would.

Even if you do all the work yourself, you need to think of the time you spend as a cost. (How much is your own time worth to you?) And anything that helps reduce the time you spend per auction increases your real profit

So how can you organize what you do and how you do it to minimize time spent in repetitive, hassling activities? How can you maximize the number of auctions you can juggle effectively, while keeping this a fun activity, rather than having it deteriorate to another dreaded chore?

I had been scrambling to keep track of my auction-related activities in paper notebooks and computer files and folders full of printouts of auction descriptions with handwritten notations. Then I finally switched the Auction Manager, a free service offered here at AuctionRover.

You can click to "Take the Tour" and get a quick view of the various features. But until you start using the Auction Manager, you won't get a sense of what it can mean to you in terms of saved time, reduced stress, and greater flexibility and control in managing all aspects of your online auctions -- not just at eBay, but also at Amazon.com and Yahoo.

So how can a single application help numerous auction sellers, each with their own idiosyncratic ways of doing things? We all have different starting points and what to one person is obvious to another is a revelation. We even use and understand words, like "inventory," differently.

When I saw "Inventory" as the first element in the Auction Manager, that put me off. I sell stuff from my attic as "collectibles." I didn't buy this stuff to resell it. There's no cost associated with it. I keep it in stacks so I can tell at a glance how much of what is left. So why should I waste my time keeping records of inventory?

But I do need to list series of similar auctions. For instance, I have many Davy Crockett cards that I saved when I was a kid back in the 1950s. I sell them in lots of four, so they are likely to sell with a starting price of $5 -- which is about as low as I can go and not waste too much time per auction for the activity worthwhile for me. Each auction has much in common -- the same standard terms and the same basic description. But each has a slightly different title (listing the numbers of the particular cards) and some new words in the description (the name of each card and its condition). I used to list new ones by accessing the description of an auction that had closed and then "relisting" it, editing to enter the new information. Now I do it all through the "Inventory" function in the Auction Manager.

I click on "Inventory", then on "Create new item." There I enter the title of the first auction of this kind that I plan to do, assign a number and a name to this category of goods that I have for sale -- not an auction site category, just a name that makes sense to me (e.g., comic books, baseball cards, coins, postcards). If I have a lot of similar items, and will want to run a series of auctions, but haven't bothered to make an exact count, I pick an arbitrarily high number for the starting quantity -- 100 or 500. I skip purchase price and reserve because those are irrelevant to me. And I enter $5 as the starting bid, which I'm now using for all my collectibles auctions. Then I enter the item description for this first auction, choosing at the same time a template, for how I want to information to appear on the screen. Then at the bottom of the screen, I choose which auction site (eBay, Amazon, or Yahoo) I want to sell this item at, and when I want the auction to start.

Next, I click on "Continue" to get to a form tailored for the particular auction site I have chosen. If you wish, Auction Manager will remember your standard settings for each of the different auction sites and fill that in for you the next time around.

When I have identical items that I want to list at several different auction sites (as I do for books that I have written and published, such as The Lizard of Oz and The Name of Hero), I simply edit that inventory item to select the new auction site and time.

To enter a new auction for a similar item (e.g., a second lot of four Davy Crockett cards), I go to Inventory and click to edit the entry for that category. Then I enter the new title, edit the description, change the photo, and once again choose an auction site and time. It's a quick and easy way to post multiple similar auctions, even though, for my style of selling, it really has nothing to do with "inventory."

What other benefits do I get from this service?

Once I've used Inventory to create auctions, I can click on "My Auctions" and then on "Scheduled," "Open," "Closed," or "Archived" to get a single view of all my auctions at all three of the major auction sites.

The list of open auctions includes not just the current high bid, the number of bids so far, and the closing time, but also "Hits" based on counters which I can add to my pages or reset at any time by just selecting auctions from the list and then clicking "Add Counter" or "Reset Hit Counter". Then with a quick scan you can see where your problems and opportunities lie -- items that are getting no hits at all may be in the wrong category or have a poor description or may not be good items to sell at online auctions. And items that are getting lots of hits but no bids may have poor photos or may have a starting bid that's too high.

The whole concept of "scheduling" auctions was foreign to me -- because the auction sites themselves don't let you do it. For instance, at eBay the time of day that you enter an auction is the time of day that it must end, seven or five or whatever number of days later. AuctionRover provides a buffer zone where your auction information is stored until the time you want to start, and then it is automatically submitted to the target auction sites for you. That means that you can do your auction setup work when it's convenient for you (maybe set aside one day a month or one day a week or a few hours each day, and have the start and finish times spread out so you'll better be able to handle the work load when they finish, and so they'll start and end at optimum times for attracting bids and so your own auctions don't compete with one another. Also, I like to do all my auction-related work together -- taking photos then entering the items. In the past, that was awkward, because the lighting for taking photos is best during the day, but the best time to start collectibles auctions seems to be in the evening. Now that's no longer a problem for me.

The Image Library is also surprisingly handy. In the past, I posted my photos in my free personal Web space at Xoom. Now I post them all at AuctionRover. It find it's easier and quicker uploading images, and then I can see thumbnails of all my images, with the word-labels I gave them, so I don't have to remember file names. And when I attach a photo to a particular auction, auction visitors seem to get much faster response time, and much more reliable performance. (With Xoom, sometimes, unpredictably, the wait was so long the connection would timeout.)

After auctions close, you can use Auction Manager to send out customized automatic email messages to customers. This can be very useful if you always ship the same kind of thing with the same shipping cost. In any case, you can flexibly set the options the way you want them -- automating the kinds of communication that are repetitive, routine, and tedious, and sending by hand the kinds of messages that you use to get to know your customers better.

Your Closed Auctions page helps you keep track of all the related details -- what items have you shipped? who has paid? etc. all in a single easy-to-understand display. From here, too, you can leave feedback for one or multiple customers with a single click. (That's an important task that otherwise you might forget or might skip because of the time it takes). You can also quickly relist auctions that ended with no sales, and can move finished auctions to your Archive

Sell More Profitably: Hosting, Scheduling, and "Closed Auctions"

Last week we talked about how you can use AuctionRover's Auction Manager to post and keep track of all your auctions at eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo. What other benefits can you get from this service?

Before I started using Auction Manager, the whole concept of "scheduling" auctions was foreign to me -- because the auction sites themselves don't let you do it. For instance, at eBay the time of day that you enter an auction is the time of day that it must end, seven or five or whatever number of days later. AuctionRover provides a buffer zone where your auction information is stored until the time you want to start, and then it is automatically submitted to the target auction sites for you. That means that you can do your auction setup work when it's convenient for you (maybe set aside one day a month or one day a week or a few hours each day, and have the start and finish times spread out so you'll better be able to handle the work load when they finish, and so they'll start and end at optimum times for attracting bids and so your own auctions don't compete with one another. Also, I like to do all my auction-related work together -- taking photos then entering the items. In the past, that was awkward, because the lighting for taking photos is best during the day, but the best time to start collectibles auctions seems to be in the evening. Now that's no longer a problem for me.

The Image Library is also surprisingly handy. In the past, I posted my photos in my free personal Web space at Xoom. Now I post them all at AuctionRover. It find it's easier and quicker uploading images, and then I can see thumbnails of all my images, with the word-labels I gave them, so I don't have to remember file names. And when I attach a photo to a particular auction, auction visitors seem to get much faster response time, and much more reliable performance. (With Xoom, sometimes, unpredictably, the wait was so long the connection would timeout.)

After auctions close, you can use Auction Manager to send out customized automatic email messages to customers. This can be very useful if you always ship the same kind of thing with the same shipping cost. In any case, you can flexibly set the options the way you want them -- automating the kinds of communication that are repetitive, routine, and tedious, and sending by hand the kinds of messages that you use to get to know your customers better.

Your Closed Auctions page helps you keep track of all the related details -- what items have you shipped? who has paid? etc. all in a single easy-to-understand display. From here, too, you can leave feedback for one or multiple customers with a single click. (That's an important task that otherwise you might forget or might skip because of the time it takes). You can also quickly relist auctions that ended with no sales, and can move finished auctions to your Archive for record keeping and future reference.

So I'm now a regular user, and will be pushing the capacity of Auction Manager in future weeks, trying to see how many simultaneous auctions I can now handle comfortably.

Encouraging Bids

If you are having trouble getting bids on your auctions, the problem could be:

On the other hand, you might be right on target but just need to give potential bidders a bit of a nudge to get them started.

Remember, auction behavior is not always rational. In fact, you'd like to encourage irrationally high bidding -- a spirit of competition and wanting to win that goes beyond the desire to simply buy a particular object. Bids attract more bids. An auction can sit idle day after day, then once one bid is posted others come in and the auction comes to life.

To diagnose your situation, first add counters to your auction pages. You can do that quickly and for free from AuctionRover's Auction Manager. If you are getting lots of visits but no bids at all, the odds are good that your initial price is too high or your description confusing.

Then if the auction ends with No Sale, restart with a lower price or, if you have a number of similar items, start a new auction that combines several items into a single lot, with the same starting price you previously had for one of them.

Basically, you want to make that starting price so attractive that potential buyers won't want to let this opportunity get away. But at the same time, you want it high enough so it will be worth your while to go through all the hassle of posting and shipping and record-keeping that online auctioning entails. It will probably take you about the same amount of effort to sell a lot of five as it would to sell a single item. So sweeten the offer by making larger lots, rather than reducing the price.

I was recently selling Davy Crockett cards at eBay. The green series sold great in lots of four cards, with a $5 starting price. But for the orange series (which apparently is more common), I got zero bids for eight auctions, each for a lot of four, with the same $5 starting price. The next week I regrouped those orange cards in lots of six -- taking new photos, editing the descriptions, and keeping the starting price at $5. This time they all sold, and the average winning bid was about $10.

You also should take a close look at your auction descriptions. Many people are inclined to make their descriptions very busy -- so busy, in fact, that potential bidders just click away in annoyance. You may have the right words, which help people find your auctions using search. But with type size and color and other effects, you've made the description almost unreadable.

Keep in mind that a special effect -- even something as simple as upper case, large type face, italics, or bold -- only attracts attention and aids in communication if it stands out; and it can only stand out, if there is some baseline to begin with. As a rule of thumb, express your main message with plain ordinary text. Then use special effects to emphasize just one sentence or just a few words. Less is more.

Encouraging Bids the Creative Way

When you start an online auction, you are basically opening your own store. Yes, the auction site sets the basic style and rules; but within those limits, you have enormous freedom. You can make your auctions reflect your personality and appeal to your target audience by the words you choose, the basic layout you use repeatedly, and the special offers that you build in.

Keep in mind all of the variables that you have to play with:

And also consider who you can offer special terms to: Recognizing the importance of getting bidding started, Amazon.com has a special feature you can elect, that offers a 10% discount on the final sale price when the first bidders ends up winning an auction. They handle the accounting for this (the price you pay an auction fee on is the actual price paid), and help promote this offer. Unfortunately, for many categories of goods, Amazon still doesn't have anywhere near the audience of buyers that eBay does; so the first bidder may well turn out to be the last bidder with no other bidders involved. But this does look like a very good idea. So build it into your description at eBay -- making your own personal offer, with whatever discount you feel is likely to be effective.

Clearly state your offer up front in the description and highlight it (e.g., with bold). If you have many auctions, make the same offer, explained in the same words and style, in all your auctions. If you find this approach is effective, this will become part of your online "brand." Then follow through consistently with your followup email -- for instance, telling the winner that because she was the first bidder as well as the winner the price for her is X instead of Y. This way you are not only encouraging bids, you are also encouraging return buyers.

Don't wait for the auction sites to come up with creative ways to help you encourage bidding. Do it on your own. Perhaps instead of a discount on the price, you could offer free shipping or premium shipping at the regular shipping price. Or you can offer to ship as soon as the auction has ended, instead of waiting to receive payment. And you can distribute such rewards however you feel will get the best results. You might want to reward people who win more than one of your auctions, or who bid on your auctions regularly. For instance, if you have many auctions going in the same category, you might want to reward winners who had also bid in other simultaneous auctions regardless of whether they won. And you might want to offer larger rewards for repeat winners based on how many times they have won.

If you regularly sell merchandise that is relatively costly (starting bids over $50) in the same category, and if you have a large supply of related items that you would be inclined to consider a giveaway if you ran a physical store and that wouldn't be expensive to ship, you might want to offer to send one of the giveaways to anyone who bids on any of your auctions. In that case, it would be best to have them contact you by email after the auction is over to claim their prize and give you their street address. If the giveaway comes in a number of varieties and could be considered a collectible, that could work even better to build good relations with return bidders as well as return buyers.

Let your imagination be your guide. Just try to keep the offers easy to understand and easy for you to administer. And be sure to always be clear about the terms and consistent in following through. It's your reputation that's at stake; and in online auctions, reputation is your most valuable asset.

Intro to Refunds and Guarantees

When you go to a physical store, you know who you are buying from -- either a local proprietor or a well-advertised, well-financed chain. Either way, you know with some degree of confidence that if something goes wrong, the store will make good.

The situation with online auctions is analogous to buying at a flea market or through classified ads -- the vendor is an individual or a dealer who probably doesn't have a store front: a total stranger. Yes, to do business with this person you need a physical address -- a place to send your check/money order or the merchandise. But this person may be on the other side of the country or in another country. So if something went wrong, it could be awkward and time-consuming and costly to try to set things right.

So to stimulate business, the online auction companies have gone out of their way to set things up so 1) bad things happen very rarely, and 2) both parties feel very comfortable that they have recourse to simple and effective remedies and know that even if they can't trust one another, they can trust the auction company as a fair arbiter.

For instance, the elaborate and well-established feedback/reputation system at eBay helps make the community self-regulating. Building lots of good feedback helps establish your credibility, and hence, if you are a seller, increases the number of bids you get, and how high the bidding goes. Bad feedback is extremely rare, because savvy sellers and buyers go way out of their way to avoid it, striving to resolve any disputes amicably.

Also, eBay provides free insurance, covered by Lloyds, for any buyer "in good standing." "Good standing" means that your net feedback rating is zero or above and you've provided accurate contact and identification information. If the winning bid was greater than $25, a buyer is insured up to $200 (minus a $25 deductible) if after sending the money to the seller he/she does not receive the goods or receives something that differs significantly the item description. There are exceptions. For instance, if the merchandise is lost or damaged in transit, that is the responsibility of the shipping company. But this policy seems to cover most instances in which a buyer would have serious reason to complain.

For sales above $200, eBay recommends using their escrow services. The escrow company, i-Escrow, acts a bit like someone who holds the money for two people who have made a bet. The buyer sends a check or money order to i-Escrow rather than directly to the seller. i-Escrow holds the money and only forwards it to the seller when the buyer has had an opportunity to inspect the merchandise and okay the payment. Likewise, a seller can use i-Escrow to have an opportunity to check a returned item before the refund check gets sent to the buyer.

In addition, eBay has a SafeHarbor staff dedicated to dealing with issues involving possible fraud and trading offenses. And they are now conducting a pilot program that will let eBay buyers and sellers use SquareTrade's service to resolve disputes for sales greater than $100.

And, physical world remedies still apply -- for instance credit cards. If you pay by credit card and you are dissatisfied with what you received, you can call your credit card company and the item will be taken off your bill, pending investigation. Merchant credit card accounts are very important to business people, and hence they go far out of their way to avoid jeopardizing those accounts. Also, credit card companies make it time-consuming and costly for a merchant to resolve disputes, so merchants have good reason to avoid disputes and keep their customers happy.

Services like Billpoint (offered through eBay) make it far easier for sellers to qualify to accept credit card payments. There's no application fee, no set-up fee, and no monthly fees. Sellers get charged a small amount per transaction. And buyers can buy with confidence that the usual credit-card-related recourse applies if anything should go wrong.

In other words, even if you as a seller do not offer refunds and guarantees, your customers seem thoroughly covered and should be able to deal with you with confidence.

Refunds and Guarantees

Although auction-site services, feedback mechanisms, and credit card policies provide lots of protection for buyers and sellers, many auction descriptions still include the words "refund" or "guarantee." In fact, a recent search at eBay showed 127,903 auctions using the word "refund," 146,499 with the word "guarantee," and 34,305 with both words. Clearly, many sellers feel compelled to use these words. Why? What do they gain?

With so many sellers making such claims, this isn't a feature that will distinguish you from the crowd and make people more likely to bid on your auctions than someone else's. And sellers acknowledge that by putting the words not in their titles -- where they mention the most important selling points -- but rather in the descriptions. (While 146,499 use the word guarantee; only 176 use that word in the title).

Often the words are used very loosely. Sellers say, "I guarantee that this is a genuine ..." without any mention of what happens if the statement is not true. Or they say, "satisfaction guaranteed or money refunded," without making it clear whether just the purchase price or also the original shipping cost or also the cost of shipping the goods back to the seller are covered. Such statements amount to little more than a protestation of honesty, and the more you feel the need to make such statements, the more likely you are to arouse doubt in potential bidders.

Yes, you should stand behind your every sale with the confidence and integrity of a local shopkeeper. You should do everything possible to make sure your customers are satisfied and are motivated to give you good feedback and to come back and buy from you again and again. And yes, a customer of yours should never feel they have to use other remedies -- like filing an insurance claim with the online auction site or calling their credit card company to protest a charge. Yes, you should guarantee your own merchandise, and provide full refunds (including shipping costs as well as sales price) when by any stretch of the imagination you are at fault. The entire deal -- including the resolution of any disputes -- should ideally involve just the buyer and the sellers. That keeps everything as simple, quick, inexpensive, and hassle-free as possible for everyone.

But my personal recommendation is not to go into that kind of detail in your auction descriptions. Those should be crisp clear and to the point, focusing on the important characteristics of the items you are offering for sale. Be direct and honest, including details about any flaws. Be open and friendly, with a personal touch, when appropriate. But don't say anything more than you need to.

Your offering a guarantee/refund makes problem resolution much simpler and quicker and less of a hassle for everyone. No third party needs to get involved. But you need not state that in your auction descriptions. It can just be your standard business practice -- people expect it of you.

After all, what would you think of a stranger who when first introduced to you insisted, "I'm honest. You can trust me. I stand behind my every word..."


Back in November and December of 1999, the Auctioneer Licensing Board of North Carolina got national headlines by claiming that their rules applied to people selling at online auction sites, like eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo. They weren't going after the sites themselves, but rather the individuals and companies who sold there. They also weren't going after people selling items from their attic, but rather those who buy merchandise for the purpose of reselling it at online auctions. Anyone living in North Carolina who was in that business would have to pass a test and pay $250 for an Auction Firm license.

When inundated with protests, they backed off and asked the state legislature to address the issue. Meanwhile other state auctioneer licensing boards -- for instance, in New Hampshire and Tennessee -- said that they intended to interpret their regulations as applying to online auctions.

Where did this nonsense come from? Individuals who run into problems related to online auctions and who don't understand all the means at their disposal to get satisfaction (see last two articles) may sometimes turn to their state auctioneer licensing board, asking for help. Then the board, likewise not understanding online auctions, feels obliged to step in to "protect the public" and attempts to enforce in cyberspace regulations written with traditional auctions in mind.

Since every state has an auctioneer licensing board, and since legislators are likely to be just as confused about what's happening on line, you can expect more such incidents. (If you'd like to contact your state's board to find out what they intend to do or to let them know your opinion and advice, you can find the address and phone number in the State-by-state guide to auction boards at www.msnbc.com/onair/nbc/dateline/auctions/maptext.asp).

According to SaleHoo, basically, the misunderstandings arise from the fact that in online auctions there is no "auctioneer."

In traditional auctions, the auctioneer is typically not the owner of the property, but rather is an agent who conducts a sale on behalf of someone else. That is a unique occupation, and to perform it well and to properly serve the interests of both buyers and sellers, such a person does need training -- just like a plumber, a barber, or a real estate sales person needs training. Licensing provides a means for government to regulate such a profession, ensuring that the public is well served and also providing quick recourse in cases of negligence or fraud.

In consumer-to-consumer auctions, such as eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo, the online environment mediates between the sellers and the bidders to determine the winner, without human intervention. And site management establishes policies and mechanisms to strongly encourage proper behavior and to provide recourse in case of mischief or fraud. No one serves as "auctioneer." And everything works just fine without special government regulation.

Furthermore, in traditional auctions the sale takes place at a fixed geographic point, which is clearly in a specific governmental jurisdiction. But on the Web, sellers and buyers are usually in different states, and often are in different countries. And they normally consummate the details of the sale (payment and shipment and reconciliation of differences) individually, at a distance, without ever meeting anywhere. In other words, regulation would be a jurisdictional nightmare, and any attempt by an individual state to enforce its own laws here would likely be in restraint of interstate and international trade.

So stay tuned. Be aware that this could become an issue in your state. But don't panic. It just takes a while for all the pieces to get sorted out when a totally new way of doing business suddenly emerges.

But at the same time, don't be lulled into thinking that "licensing" in general doesn't apply to you. Next week we'll take a look at what you need to know about other regulations in your city and state -- like registering to collect sales tax, registering to run a business, etc.

Comply With Laws

As you are increasingly successful at selling through online auctions, your activity is likely to grow from a casual hobby to business, if not in your eyes, then in the eyes of the law.

The turning point may be difficult to spot. You could be blind to it, as you are blind to the growth of your kids until something happens to alert you of the change. One sure sign is when you find yourself buying goods at flea markets and yard sales or even from wholesalers not for your own use, but rather with the intention of reselling them at auctions.

When you reach or as you approach that point, you should check to find out about sales tax collection in your state. Are the kinds of good that you sell subject to sales tax? The rules are totally bizarre and vary widely from one state to another. Don't be confused by the federal moratorium on ecommerce taxes. That just means no new taxes. Sales tax still applies. So if you live in a state that has sales tax, and sell to someone in your state -- whether face-to-face, by want ads and snail mail, or by online auction -- you are required to collect the appropriate sales tax and pass that money along to the state. But to collect sales tax, you must first register to do so; and how you do that varies also from state to state.

Do not delay. Whether your auction activity is a hobby or a business, you still have to report your profit with your income tax (IRS Form 1040, Schedule C). In today's computer networked world, you can presume that sooner or later the state department that collects income tax and the one that collects sales tax will cross-check their files. You also can expect that sooner or later the IRS and state income tax departments will ask for access to the records at eBay and other major on-line auction sites, looking for major sellers and cross-checking to see if they have been reporting their auction income.

Perhaps, for the fun of it, you have given your online auction business a special name -- maybe your user name at eBay or the user name you have for your personal Web site, which may be something fun, rather than your real name. Maybe you have a domain name for your Web site and use that to identify yourself. Most states and cities require you to register your "doing business as" name. (In Massachusetts, it is referred to as a D.B.A.) That way if a customer of yours should report a problem, the state has some way to quickly identify you and track you down. Normally, the filing procedure simple, and inexpensive. But if you had not filed and someone complained to the state, you could wind up with a complicated and possibly costly problem.

In addition, some states require you to have a special license to conduct certain business activities -- such as selling real estate. Is there any chance that the kind of goods you sell through online auctions could fall into such a category?

"These are questions you should deal with whether you are doing business face-to-face or on the Internet," says online auction expert Simon Slade, of SaleHoo. The only factor that is different on the Internet is that it is so easy to do business, and so easy for that business to grow that you can wind up with a very visible activity, generating significant revenue without ever having made a conscious decision to do this as a business, and hence without having done the usual research into the regulations and procedures and other technicalities that might apply.

For help, turn to the obvious local resources: your Chamber of Commerce and your City Hall. If you need more in-depth counseling to make sure you are on the right track and haven't forgotten something that might later prove important, check with the local office of the Federal Small Business Administration. In particular, you should get in touch with their SCORE program, and get an appointment with one of their volunteer (i.e., free) consultants.

Auction Fees and Credit Cards

A reader recently asked a couple of related questions: How do most auction sellers pay their fees to the auction site? I know of some sites request a credit card upon registration for automated collection of their fees -- I believe eBay is one. Do sellers widely accept this practice, or is there still some resistance to using credit cards over the Internet?

First there's the question of using credit cards online. For a long time, the major holdback to buying and selling over the Internet was psychological -- a lingering, illogical fear of using credit cards online. It was like the introduction of ATM machines, or of the use of 800-number services for buying goods with credit card, or even the first introduction of credit cards. It takes a while to get used to the idea, then you simply take it for granted. For most people, that's no longer an issue.

Keep in mind that the $50 limit of liability online is exactly the same as the liability for physical world use of credit cards. And just as in the physical world, when you pay with a credit card, and you have a problem, you can report the incident to the credit card company and they'll remove the charge from your bill, pending investigation, which is likely to prove costly and time-consuming to the merchant. If you are in the right, the charge will be reversed and the vendor will end up paying penalty fees to the credit card company, in addition to losing the purchase. Plus, if the credit card company gets too many complaints about a given vendor, it can take away that company's right to take credit card orders, which could seriously hurt that business. In other words, whenever you pay with a credit card, you have a way to get disputes resolved with the merchant, no matter who that vendor might be and where it might be located; and the merchant has lots of incentive to make sure that you are satisfied.

Second there's the question of auction sites requiring that you provide credit card information in order to register to sell. Even Yahoo which is a free service, with no charge to post your auctions and no fee assessed on the sales price, insists that you provide credit card information.

Remember that on the Internet "no one knows that you're a dog" or a cat or a seven-year old. To provide a safe environment for buying and selling goods, to be sure that they can get in touch with someone in case of difficulty, they need an independent way to verify your identity -- something more than an email address. Credit card info is an efficient way to do that. And Yahoo ask for it when you submit an auction or when you want to enter the adult section of their site.

Amazon, likewise, provides no alternative -- you have to provide credit card information in order to register as a seller. And they automatically debit your card for posting fees (ten cents per item) and post-auction fees and also for the special services you choose to make your auctions more visible to buyers. "Checks or Amazon.com retail gift certificates cannot be used to pay transaction fees."

eBay has the same concerns, but provides alternatives. They explain that they need to verify that sellers are of a legal age and are serious about listing an item on eBay, and they also want to provide protection from irresponsible or fraudulent sellers. If you don't have a credit card, you can use "ID Verify" as an alternative. "ID Verify uses a third party to check the information you provide and verify that information for accuracy."

eBay also provides an alternative to credit cards for paying auction site fees. They will accepts check or money orders but paying that way involves lots of hassle and wasted time: "Check or money order payments: If you have a credit card on file but want to send a check or money order instead, it is necessary for you to monitor your account status and mail payment for the money owed or greater 10 days prior to your Billing Cycle Date. Mailing your payment 10 days prior to your Billing Cycle Date will allow for enough time to process your payment before your next invoice is calculated (invoices are calculated at the end of day on your Billing Cycle Date). Please keep in mind that any money owed at the time your invoice is calculated will result in a charge to your credit card on file."

So while you have choices -- at least at eBay -- you're much better off just using your credit card, just as you do for so many other kinds of payments.

Building Habits

Most auction sellers start by making to-do lists, which grow and grow and grow. Perhaps you organize these by the kinds of things you have to sell, and/or by the series of activities involved in every sale, such as: taking digital photos, putting the photos online, entering item descriptions, sending email to winners of auctions, responding to auction-related email, packing and shipping, record keeping, etc.

Keep in mind that every task as three components -- the labor of deciding what to do, the labor of getting started, and the labor of doing. Try to establish habits -- repeated routines of doing this kind of task on Monday and this kind on Tuesday, and the sequence of steps that you go through. Then you can quickly deal with the first two kinds of labor. It's Monday, so this is what you should be doing; you don't have to decide. And after this, you always do that, so momentum carries from one task on to the next one, and you don't come to a standstill time after time, having to overcome inertia and get started all over again.

To establish a habit, force yourself to do a task in similar circumstances (in the same sequence with other tasks and/or on the same day of the week at about the same time of day) three times in a row. The amount of mental energy you need to expend to do it a fourth time should be small next to what it was the first few times. Basically, by doing this repeatedly you have worn down your mental resistance, reduced the friction.

If you find that you are drowning in paper juggling all your auction-related tasks, try the Auction Manager at GoTo Auctions. That can speed the process of submitting and tracking your auctions and provide quick views of where all your auctions at eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo stand at any given moment, plus provide you with easy access to records you've stored in their archives.

Perhaps your to-do lists include lots of tasks in addition to auctions -- perhaps you have a life as well, with a full time job and a family and responsibilities. In that case, I suggest that you get a Palm Pilot, AKA "personal organizer." This is a handheld computer. The various models sell for anywhere from about $170 to $330. They are set up to make it very easy to enter and retrieve schedules, addresses/phone numbers, to-do lists, and memos. You enter info by scribbling directly on the screen with a stylus, using a shorthand "graffiti" that is very close to ordinary cursive, and that you become used to in minutes. You can even add alarms to particular items in your schedule so your Palm will beep to alert you that it's time to do something.

Use a Palm for a day and you'll become addicted. Use it for a week and the information you have stored on it will be far more valuable than the purchase price, and you'll think nothing of replacing the gadget if you should lose it, so long as you could retain the information. Fortunately, you can easily connect your Palm to your PC to backup (HotSync) your files.

Be Your Own Good Boss

As you become increasingly successful at online auction selling, you'll find this activity takes up more and more of your time and gradually becomes less of a hobby and more of a job. Then you'll wake up one morning and realize that not only are you your own boss, but also you're probably the worst boss you've ever had. At that point, you can either quit and go to work for someone else, or learn how to be a better boss to yourself.

To-do lists are necessary. But as they grow, they can become like an ever-increasing load of bricks in your backpack. No matter how hard you work, no matter how much you get done, the burden of all the things that you should be doing and haven't done gets heavier and heavier, until you just want to drop the weight altogether and forget about it.

If someone else is your boss and knows how to manage well, that boss will help you set priorities: you don't need to do everything today; do this one important thing and do it well, and you'll be a hero. The boss will pat you on the back now and then and let you know that your work is appreciated. The boss will insist that you take breaks and that you not work on weekends or holidays except in emergencies, and will insist that you take a vacation.

But when you work for yourself, unless you learn how to be a good boss to yourself, the whole burden of everything that needs to be done may weigh on you 24-hours a day, 7-days a week, year-round.

First, prioritize those to-do lists, and try to set reasonable expectations for yourself. Each day there should be one task that if you can finish that day, you'll feel you've done something significant. Anything else you might do is a bonus.

Next, begin to keep lists of accomplishments. You may have half a dozen or a dozen kinds of things that you need to do on a regular basis. Keep a list for each of them, including a category for "miscellaneous." When you turn your attention to one thing and start working on it, continue working on it until you arrive at some logical stopping point -- a point from which it will be easy to start again and that feels like an "ending," so you can add it to your list and get a sense of accomplishment for having done it.

The lists are a way to pat yourself on the back -- it's cumulative. The longer your list of accomplishments gets, the more you'll feel good about adding to it, and even looking back at it.

Also, if you can, while working on projects, divide what you hope to accomplish in a day into pieces -- so you aim to get to this part done by 10 AM, that part by noon, etc. That way, when you work fast, you can reward yourself with breaks. One of the challenges in working alone is that you are likely not to give yourself any breaks, and not to give yourself any rewards or pats on the back either.

In addition to to-do lists and accomplishment lists, make lists of goals and plans. But keep those loose and flexible. Don't make them like New Year's resolutions -- objectives that you will never accomplish and that just make you feel guilty thinking about them.

Make the to-do and accomplishment lists first; and by looking at the patterns, put together some short-term goals and practical plans for moving in that direction.

"The Power of "Creative Procrastination"

A reader recently asked -- "Not working in an office everyday, I find that I sometimes get lazy and procastinate about the things that have to get done. In an office, we have to meet the expectations of the boss and co-workers. That usually is enough to motivate a person. Being alone now I have to keep finding reasons to make progress and move forward with goals/plans. I have to be able motivate myself to get things done on time. Could you share your experience with me? How do you maintain your focus? How do you keep yourself motivated?"

I use "creative procrastination" and lists galore.

At any given moment there are dozens of things that you could and should be doing. Make a list of them. Keep adding to that list.

Typically, the item at the top of the list -- the task that is most important to get done -- is something you just don't want to do, at least not now. Your mind is interested in something else. So work on the "something else." It should be on your list too.

All the time, in the back of your mind, you're remembering the thing you really need to do now. That gives you guilt-generated energy to do what you want to do faster and better.

If, in the normal course of events, you aren't likely to ever get the urge to do that task that's at the top of your list, try to think of another task that you need to do eventually and that's even more of a turn off for you. Put that really abominable task on the top of your list. Convince yourself that it's important. The more you think about that one, the more the one that used to be at the top of your list and that really needs to be done now -- won't seem so bad afterall; and you can do that one to procrastinate having to do the one that's now on top.

Over time, try to discover your natural rhythm. Categorize the things you need to do on a regular basis, and get a feel for how often you get the urge to do such things. For instance, Web site updates, paying bills and keeping track of finances, cleaning the house or yard, doing creative project work. For me the cycle is about a week. If I try to pay bills and balance my check book on a day when I feel like working on a creative project, that's like pushing rocks uphill. Likewise, working on a creative project when my mind would prefer the relaxing tedium of a repetitive task, is laborious and unproductive. In other words, do the things you need to do when they feel natural to you.

Once you find the rhythm, try to schedule; but be loose about it. For instance, say your rhythm is a week and one of the chores is finances. Aim to do that on Saturday. Try to make that a habit. But if your mood isn't there that day or something else comes up, don't worry about it. Over the course of a week or two, you should cover what needs to be covered, by just following your natural inclinations. And since you're doing this stuff when you are in the right frame of mind, it goes faster and you do better.

Keep in mind that, under normal circumstances, we all have times when we feel comfortable doing non-creative, repetitive, mindless tasks -- mowing the lawn, filing, straightening your office, etc. If there is a regular task that you have committed to do that you never have the urge to do, regardless of creative procrastination; maybe you should rearrange your life in such a way that you are no longer required to do this, or else hire someone else to do it and avoid taking on projects like that in the future. You are who you are. Don't fight it.

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