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Selling on eBay

How to Revive Your Business?

by Craig Stark

#132, 2 February 2009

Don't know about you, but my December sales were nothing to write home about - nor write about here. For the first time ever, my total sales for December were down from a previous year. Growth had not only stopped; it had declined as well. Even though it would've been easy to point my finger at a troubled economy, it wouldn't have helped matters. Something needed to be done to turn things around. I needed to increase my sales.

Looking back, there have been plenty of times when I've changed both strategies and tactics in my bookselling business, but by and large this was done in response to venue changes - fee increases being the usual suspect - not to an overall decline in sales. So, toward the end of December, when it was clear how bad the outcome was going to be, I did something that I've been doing a lot lately. Instead of brainstorming, or trying to think my way to a solution - or, more alarmingly, going into panic mode - I simply asked the question, "How can I increase sales?" and then left it as a question in a kind of background place, trusting that this would allow me to tap into my more creative right-brain, which would then, hopefully, suggest something brilliant.

Aha. Nothing brilliant came, but a few unlikely answers did. Those of you who don't know me well have no idea how freaking stubborn I can be about pricing books. It truly, truly pains me to lower my prices. One of the reasons for this is that I take great care to select inventory where my competition will be either irrelevant or negligible.

By "irrelevant," I mean that in some cases I select common, higher-dollar books that sell quickly and in significant numbers; sure, there's plenty of competition in these cases, but if the book is in heavy demand, it's irrelevant. It will sell quickly at a competitive price anyway.

But in most cases my inventory consists of another type of book - higher-dollar books for which there is negligible, if any, competition. I haven't investigated this recently, but at one time well over half of my listed books were the only copies available online. I suspect that this is still the case. When you've had years of experience selling in a handful of niches and know what kinds of prices you can realize if you're patient, then you stay patient - don't come down off your prices. Eventually, everything sells, and as long as you've got a fairly sizable inventory without too much capital involved, you can well afford to live with a lower sales velocity.

One of the neat things about leaving questions as questions is that it seems to shut one’s down thinking and increase one’s awareness of what’s happening around you - and sometimes what's happening around you can be pretty enlightening. One of the first things I noticed after posing my question was that almost everybody lowered prices in December, not just booksellers but everybody. Then, I felt something relax in me.

Another thing I noticed (or, rather, had been noticing for some months): eBay auctions were in decline. I had personally cut back my auction activity severely in the previous year, and when I did auction books, it was stubbornly - starting them at fairly ambitious opens. For years, eBay auctions had been my bread-and-butter, but no more. I had come to rely heavily on fixed-price sales on multiple venues.

Well, the next time I sat down to put together some auction listings, I was still in this relaxed state of mind (about pricing), and, instead of putting in high opens, I started almost everything at under $10 and let 'em rip - oh, and in about half the cases, I also included an ambitious BIN.

Two things happened almost immediately. The first was that two of this group of books sold quickly at my BIN prices. And the second (and more important) thing that happened: For the first time since I could remember I actually watched my auctions, daily - and it was fun! I'd forgotten how much fun it was to watch things get bid up. This had the additional effect of inspiring me to put even more auctions up, and before I knew it, I had more active eBay auctions running than I'd had in years. I not only felt revived but fully engaged in my business again, and stuff that had been collecting dust on my shelves because I'd sort of written it off as not quite worth bothering with was now, once again, starting to look as though it had value.

Something else. A few of my items did close out at mildly disappointing prices, but the majority of them exceeded my expectations. One particular auction closed at over $500 more than I thought it would! It's always difficult to explain these things, but in tough economic times buyers do look for bargains, and auctions with low starting bids very much are bargains - until they get bid up, that is. But even when they get bid up, the bidder's sense of getting a bargain often remains because it's the bidders who are setting the price, dictating the outcome, not the seller.

Whatever the reason, my question was answered. At the end of the first three weeks in January, I'd already doubled what I made in December, and it hasn't slowed down in the week since. Even my fixed-price sales are up some. Of course, everybody's situation is different, but I thought it might be useful to share my experience with you. If you've written off eBay auctions, they might be worth a second look now.

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