Auction websites turn unwanted items into much-wanted cash

A foray into online selling is largely inspired by my wife, who now pays the mortgage from her eBay auctions.

This week, I sold a couple of wooden dolls through an online auction for about Dh70 each. I am terribly pleased with myself because I bought them for Dh21 each from a guy with the unlikely name of Alladin, on Hamdan street in Abu Dhabi.

Online auction sites such as eBay are a great way to make extra cash without having to lay out capital for a costly retail space. My foray into online selling is new and largely inspired by my wife. For the past year, I've watched enviously over her shoulder as she built up her account to the point where she now covers our mortgage entirely from her online auctions.

And all she needs is a laptop and a few comfortable pillows.

An ACNielsen study a few years back found that 1.3 million people made a living off eBay, or, at the very least, derived a substantial portion of their income from it. And what was even more amazing, 630,000 Americans were dependent on eBay for their crust of bread, which means the rest of the eBay earners were living elsewhere in the world.

There's no reason why it should not form part of your monthly income either. It's pretty simple, although it does require some discipline and adherence to a few basic rules.

The first rule, after setting up an eBay account, is to build up "Feedback" ratings. To buyers, the ratings indicate that you are a reliable seller and not a scam artist sitting in Nigeria.

The quickest way to obtain positive Feedback ratings is to buy. With each purchase you make, and conclude by paying the seller quickly, you will be rewarded with a positive Feedback rating. This, in the world of eBay, is gold.

Treat online auctions like you would any other money-making endeavour - with professionalism. Respond rapidly to e-mailed queries and, once an auction has closed, package and post your item as soon as possible. Happy customers respond by giving you a positive Feedback rating.

Eventually, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as potential customers feel at ease ordering from you.

Good photographs are a vital part of your sales pitch. It's the substitute for a store window and the only way potential clients can physically inspect your goods. I would suggest an investment in a decent camera and tripod. Your Nokia might be good enough for Facebook snaps, but it fails when photographs must bear close scrutiny.

Describe your goods honestly. EBay's zoom function allows potential bidders to blow up pictures, which highlights every flaw, the way tabloid photographers seem to unerringly capture an ageing starlet's latest cosmetic surgery scars. Poor description leads to disappointed customers, who will zap you with a bad Feedback rating. If that happens, you might as well fold up your tent and go home.

As much as possible, find items that are unique. EBay claims about 100 million users. Chances are, whatever you have, a whole lot of other sellers will, too. And many of them will be in China, which means they have an edge on price. My dolls, for example, were among 4,252 listed under "Russian dolls".

But they were unique in that instead of babushkas, they depicted ladies in burqas. This made them relatively unusual, enough to attract the attention of a collector.

Be realistic about what you have. Everyone has trinkets sitting in cupboards that they believe are valuable.

And maybe they were to your granny, but to a dispassionate buyer out there, your set of flying ducks or fondue set may not set their heart on fire. So do the research and see what similar goods have sold for.

A quick way to do this is to run a search for similar items on eBay, using the "Buy Now" function. It will instantly display everything similar and the price sellers want for them. Use this facility to figure out whether you can compete on price and quality.

Finally, online auctioning should be fun. Our family now spends a lot of weekends at car-boot sales and similar events where bargains can be found. You need sharp elbows to ward off other dealers, but this is simply part of it.

We also use our kids to shamelessly mill in front of a likely looking stall. Even the most rapacious dealer will think twice before shoving aside a nine-year-old boy to get to an interesting looking piece of silver.

One dealer I see regularly at these events brings along his mother, who uses a walker to get around. The old girl is adept at taking up as much real estate in front of a stall as possible by using her walker like an iron fence to block it off. Even my kids are no match for her.

Gavin du Venage is a business writer and entrepreneur based in South Africa. Reach him at