Running the Perfect E-Sale

Tips and Suggestions for Unloading Your Unwanted Collectibles via the Internet

by Matthew McKeon

Trying to rid yourself of that box of old comics? Sick of all the CDs cluttering up your shelf space? While secondhand stores will do for some people, finding one that'll give you a good deal is next to impossible. If you need to unload what your particular hobby produces, whether it be rare books, old records, or baseball cards, the Internet provides the best opportunity for you to reach your market. Granted, selling a large volume of material yourself isn't easy: I discovered this the hard way when I first put my large collection of old CDs up for sale. But with the right preparations, running an e-sale is profitable, fun, and can provide you with contacts that prove useful for future sales.


Step 1: The Sale Setup

Your first concern should be cataloguing your collection. Make a note of each item you want to sell, as well as the price. It'd be a good idea to visit a shop that specializes in selling the collectible secondhand, such as a used bookstore or music store. Since buyers on the Internet usually expect to find a deal better than they could get otherwise, setting the item price slightly (around %10 or so) lower than a thrift shop will prevent them from clicking past you.

Find a notebook, one that pages won't rip out of; this is your sale ledger. Keeping a tangible record of each item, price, buyer, buyer's mailing address, and shipping number in your ledger will prevent mistakes before they start. Believe me, dealing with an irate customer who claims you've mailed her the wrong CDs is much easier when you can prove the opposite.

Finding an appropriate forum for your advertisement is probably the most important part of your setup. Usenet, a distributed bulletin board system that most Internet service providers and academic institutions make available to their users, is your best bet for reaching potential buyers. Usenet is divided into several hierarchies, or groups of bulletin boards (known individually as newsgroups) that feature similar topics of discussion. For example, the alt.marketplace hierarchy contains the alt.marketplace, alt.marketplace.books, alt.marketplace.cassettes, and alt.marketplace.videotapes newsgroups. However, when staging your sale you must choose the appropriate newsgroup. Posting daily sale updates to an off-topic newsgroup can get you flamed, mailbombed, or worse. Research your options thoroughly and well; read the news.answers newsgroup or set your web browser's URL to ftp://rtfm.mit.edu/pub/usenet to find the FAQs (frequently asked questions) for individual newsgroups. These handy little text files will tell you everything you need to know about a particular newsgroup, including (most importantly) whether solicitations such as the one you're planning are welcome. The alt.marketplace, biz.marketplace, and misc.forsale hierarchies are good places to start, but, depending on what you're selling, you may need a more specific audience (see this article's sidebar for info). If you find multiple newsgroups you think will work, remember that Usenet conventions limit crossposting to no more than three groups at a time. While it's possible to simultaneously post to more than three, doing so will annoy your potential customers.

Now you need to set the running dates of your sale along with your posting frequency. Depending on the size of your inventory, running an e-sale can be time-consuming, so make sure you'll have a reasonable amount of free time while running the sale. As for a time limit, the sale can drag on as long as you'd like, but three weeks ought to be your upper bound. More than that usually turns out to be a waste of your time.

Posting frequency is determined by the individual newsgroup: while some are crowded with daily sale updates, others consider it obnoxious to post more often than once a week. Again, read the FAQ. If your Usenet forum limits sale postings such that daily updates are not allowed, you'll want to set up a WWW page that will allow customers to check on the current status of the sale. Append the page's URL to every sale you post, and update its contents each day as items are sold.


Step 2: Shipping Preparations and Financial Stuff

The one area in which running an e-sale can get extremely hairy is shipping. Determining costs for shipping beforehand is not always possible, but for some items (such as CDs or trading cards) going down to the post office and having the fees pre-calculated is well worth the effort. Even for books and other goods that aren't of uniform size, giving out a per-item price range for mailing will let your customers breathe easier when deciding on a purchase. Also, don't be afraid to round off. Charging $2.50 instead of $2.38 is perfectly acceptable and may go towards covering incidental expenses.

You'll also want to provide options for the buyer with respect to delivery. I usually ask them to specify USPS first class certified mail ($1.10 extra for each package; check http://www.usps.gov/consumer/contents.htm for additional rate information) or Federal Express Overnight (prices vary: call 1-800-GO-FEDEX or jump to http://www.fedex.com) in their order. Either option will provide you with a tracking number for each shipment. Record it in your ledger next to each item in the package, in case the shipment gets misplaced. If the buyer elects to use the USPS, offering the option to purchase package insurance is a good idea as well: it's only $0.75 for up to $50 recompense if the package is lost or damaged during transit, and you can purchase up to $600 worth of insurance for each shipment.

You may want to offer some sort of hook or special deal in your sale, such as 'buy 4, get one free' or something similar. My favorite, especially when selling CDs I really want to get rid of, is to offer an 'escalating discount': 1 CD: $8 2 CDs: $16 3 CDs: $22 4 CDs: $28 5 CDs: $34

..and so on.

Finally, there's the method of payment. While checks are convenient for the customer, money orders are much less of a hassle for you. If you want to accept checks, remember to wait until a payment has cleared before you send off the purchase. Bank policy regarding notification of clearance varies from institution to institution, so check with a representative from your bank on the time they require to clear a check, and include that info in your sale posting. Even better, emphasize in your posting that while sending a check will delay the shipment, sending out a money order will ensure that the package gets in the mail ASAP.


Step 3: Running the Sale

Now that you've made all the necessary preparations, you're ready to begin. In a text editor, list each item with its price next to it, prefaced by a short introduction, relevant contact info, instructions for placing the order, shipping options, and any sales or special deals you wish to offer. Leave space on each item line, so you can mark items as they are sold. Now save the file, open up your newsreader, set the headers to post to your chosen newsgroups, append the file to the message, and begin. During the sale itself, you'll have certain responsibilities as a merchant. You're expected to be fastidious about your bookkeeping, punctual in making sale updates available, and prompt when sending out purchases to your buyers. Being courteous, efficient, and accommodating can get you even better business next time.

If you're reaching the end of your sale period and still have more than a few items left, go for the 11th hour deal. Keep your list prices the same, but start offering even better bargains on multiple purchases. In the end, it's better to be rid of the stuff than to waste time and money trying to get the best price.


Step 4: The Aftermath

Inevitably, you're going to get a customer complaint. Whether it has to do with the quality of the merchandise or the shipping time, you'll need to tread carefully. Since Usenet is a public forum, a disgruntled buyer can ruin your reputation with a few well-placed posts. The key here is the question of misrepresentation: if any of the deal's actual conditions don't jibe with the terms you set in the original posting (discounting the complainer's interpretation of those terms), then you are in the wrong. Otherwise, politely explain to the customer the terms of your agreement and brush him off. If he nevertheless starts flooding all of Usenet with accusations against you, make sure you defend yourself calmly and rationally. If you've acted in a professional manner with your other customers, at least a few of them will probably rise to your defense. There are benefits to running a smooth outfit.

If you're told by a buyer that a purchase got lost in the mail, don't panic. Just look up the package's tracking number, visit your local post office, and check. The few times this situation has occurred in my experience, the package was located and delivered within days.

As for unsold items: don't worry about it. You can always hold another sale, or, if you've only got a few unsold items left, go down to the secondhand store and dump the dregs in the lap of the proprietor. If you go for the latter, don't forget the smug smile and the cackles on your way to the bank.

An e-sale is the ultimate in amateur entrepreneurial adventures. It takes full advantage of the Internet as a medium, allowing anyone to become a collectibles dealer overnight, if they make the right preparations. It is, without a doubt, the best way to clear out your attic while making a little moolah in the bargain.


Finding the Right Newsgroup

Figuring out which newsgroups are amenable to advertising can be difficult, especially since many of the market newsgroups that cater to a specific audience are simply branches of the newsgroup that deals with that particular special-interest. If you feel you need more information about Usenet in general, check out http://alphaweb.com/usenet/ for an introduction. Meanwhile, listed below are some popular e-sale friendly newsgroups to get you started.

alt.marketplace.* (From books to videotapes to CDs) biz.marketplace.computers rec.antiques.marketplace rec.arts.books.marketplace rec.arts.anime.marketplace rec.arts.comics.marketplace rec.audio.marketplace rec.crafts.marketplace rec.games.trading-cards.marketplace rec.music.marketplace.* (Includes CDs, vinyl, etc.) rec.photo.marketplace