To eBay or not to eBay. . .

By Mir
August 15, 2006

… that is the question.

While I will readily hail eBay as one of the greatest advances of the modern world, it can be confusing and/or costly, as a seller, if you don’t know what you’re doing.

I’m not talking today about buying on eBay. Buyer beware, but that’s fairly easy to calculate on your own, I think. Today I want to talk about selling on eBay, and how to figure out if it’s for you.

Nevermind that by the time I finish this post, the fee structure and rules will probably change again….

Once upon a time, if you had something to sell, you could throw it up on eBay and sell it for a tidy profit. And it was good. And then the changes started happening.

Then the shipping costs started going up, both at the USPS and with major carriers like FedEx and UPS.

Then the rules about what you could sell and how started changing.

Then the fees for selling went up and up and up.

Then Paypal partnered with eBay and my least favorite rule in the history of ecommerce came into being (the “you cannot advertise you take Paypal unless you accept credit card payments—of which we get to take a cut—ha ha ha ha” rule).

This is no longer your grandmother’s eBay, in other words. So how does an average person figure out whether it’s “worth it” to sell on eBay?

There are a number of factors to consider.

How much time will this take, and what will the payoff be? If you’re a stay-at-home mom, maybe you feel like any profit (eBay or otherwise) is worth the time spent. Or maybe not. Me, I have an hourly rate I charge my clients, so it makes perfect sense to me to compare my eBay selling to that model. Am I going to make a profit that at least approximates my typical wage? Or am I going to spend half an hour writing up and posting my auction, field a dozen stupid questions via email for another hour of time, another half an hour packaging and mailing (and driving to the post office), for a net total of $5? I do a quick analysis before I list anything, to see if I anticipate clearing enough money to make it worth the time and aggravation.

Will the costs be worth it? eBay fees are higher than they used to be, and the new Paypal rules—although they drive me insane—do tend to make for more foolproof payments. However, taking all of these things into account means that a relatively low-cost item may net you considerably less than you might think. Be sure to figure in the fees when deciding how to price your item, and consider combining smaller items (like children’s clothing) into larger lots to maximize your profit. Other hidden costs: Packaging materials (you can get USPS boxes/tape for free, but they may be more expensive than FedEx Ground or UPS for the actual shipping, depending on the size of your item), transportation involved in shipping, and any special cleaning required before item is sellable.

Will shipping kill the deal? Are you selling a rare antique that’s in high demand? Your buyers may not blink at paying $30 in shipping (if, indeed, that’s what it costs to ship). Are you selling dishes? Dishes are heavy, and you neither want to end up eating the shipping cost (by underestimating) or with no bidders (because no one wants to pay more for shipping than for the item itself). Don’t auction heavy items unless they’re in demand and/or so expensive that shipping will seem doable in comparison.

Do you have lots of stuff to sell? It takes the same amount of gas to take 20 packages to the post office as it takes to take 1 package to the post office. Your net profits will always be higher if you sell a bunch of stuff at once than if you sell one item one week and another item another week.

Does the season matter? Pay attention to selling trends on eBay. Back-to-school clothing sells best in July and August. Christmas items sell best in October/November. Don’t auction a Halloween costume in June and then wonder why no one bids. Pay attention. Generally speaking, selling is hottest in October and November—people are doing their holiday shopping and buying more.

What are your other selling options? In general, you’ll make more money running your own auction on eBay than you’ll make, say, taking your items to a consignment shop. However, that’s not always true. Heavy items (see above) may sell for more, locally, because shipping isn’t an issue. In that case, although you may be giving 50% of the profit to your local shop, you’re also saving a ton of time and perhaps selling at a higher price point—resulting in a higher net, overall. Think about it.

There are also local one-to-one selling options like having a garage sale (gigantic hassle, in my opinion, and people will expect low prices) or utilizing Craig’s List (which allows potential crazies to come directly to your house!). I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with these things, I’m just saying that they have their own set of hassles to keep in mind.

I take most of my children’s outgrown clothing to a local consignment store where I tend to buy most of their wardrobes. It’s more convenient for me to have credit at the store (and save myself the selling hassles) than cash in my pocket. I only eBay their designer duds which I know will fetch top dollar from people who don’t know any better.

What did you pay for the item, originally? If I paid $30 for a dress and I’m only able to sell it for $20, plus I’ve invested time and hassle in doing so, I’m not likely to jump for joy. But if I happen to pick up a designer children’s item at a yard sale or Goodwill for under a buck and I’m able to net $20 from a quick auction, that’s pretty good. It’s all relative.

You cannot put a price on aggravation. You don’t have to pass an IQ test to get on the internet. People will email you all manner of stupid comments and questions. Is this going to whip you into a froth of frustration, or can you let it roll off your back? Sometimes people will win an auction and immediately fall off the face of the earth. Sometimes people will win an auction and promise to pay as soon as Great-Aunt Bertha gets out of the hospital but then their dog dies and the twister takes its toll on their trailer park and before you know it, a month has passed and you still don’t have your money. Sometimes things go off without a hitch, but you can’t count on it. Unless you’re selling Faberge eggs, over there, you have to decide if it’s worth it to you to deal with the dregs of humanity to make a few bucks. It may be. But if it isn’t, don’t do it. And applaud yourself for knowing your limits.

Best of luck to you in deciding whether or not to swim in the eBay pool. Don’t forget your floaties.


  1. I have a box of stuff that I plan to put up on eBay soon but I haven’t sold anything in a few years. Thanks for the advance warning on the increased fees! (I’m a little afraid to go look now.)

  2. A couple of thoughts:
    1. On the shipping thing, get a scale capable of weighing most of what you sell. (My kitchen scale, which goes to 2 or 3 pounds, can do most of it.) Then, get a box, weigh the item and box and packing, and add 6 ounces or so to the result.
    2. Calculate the Priority Mail cost at Compare that to eBay’s shipping calculator and adjust the eBay weight so that the shipping cost ends up at what it’s really going to cost you to ship the thing. Why Priority Mail? You can print labels with postage and insurance at home, and arrange for a pickup as well, at no additional charge. (Try THAT with UPS or FedEx.) You’ll eliminate the gas and time involved in going to a post office.
    3. Shipping via FedEx Ground tends to be cheaper than UPS these days. I have a FedEx account (which gets you 10% off the counter rate), and prepare all labels at home. You can then drop them off at a FedEx drop point (including all Kinko’s locations). BE SURE TO GET YOUR DROPOFF RECEIPT. Security at Kinko’s locations isn’t always great, so you want to know that FedEx is on the hook for the insured value.
    4. Save boxes, packing material, and padded envelopes to keep shipping under control.
    5. Why worry about keeping shipping costs under control? There’s nothing like outrageous shipping charges to turn people off on your auction.

  3. I used to be a reseller of tents & tipis on Ebay. It was all drop-shipped, which was nice. However I found several things: Ebay changed their pricing, so it made the profit margin much too low to be profitable. So it’s also the high-end items that aren’t profitable on Ebay, either. The auctions became too expensive, and having a “store” meant my items had very low visibility (the store items visibility thing is a little better now). Those two things just killed it off. If you have an item that you can regularly resell and (even better) have drop-shipped, I recommend having your own website, with an online storefront. Use Ebay for visibility only, have a few auctions running all the time. You aren’t allowed to link back to your website, but it will hopefully generate emails from people wanting more information, and *then* you can link to your nifty website. Your nifty website with your own online store that avoids all the Ebay/Paypal fees! One other thought: having a nice Ebay ad really helps. There’s a book called “Ebay Hacks” that is very helpful for this kind of thing.

  4. BTW Mir that was a really great article here- you’re so smart & pretty!!!

  5. Always try Craigslist or local (free) online classifieds first, if you can. There, you’ll get the benefit of a local pickup (no shipping) and no fees. eBay is definitely not the bargain it used to be.

  6. My husband just bought a plot of land in Florida on EBay. I wonder what the shipping for something like that goes for? Hrmm…

  7. Holy smokes! This is perfect timing! I just posted about how I had to sell all our crap with no clue how to do it.


    I am seriously ebay challenged.

  8. The “dealing with crazies” thing is currently what’s turning me off to Ebay. Almost everything I sell is cloth diaper related and I only sell them because there is still a lot of life/use left out of the items and I feel bad throwing that stuff away. I don’t do it to make a profit or any such thing – just a reduce, reuse, recycle type of thing. The items are fairly inexpensive ($10.00 per item or so) and shipping is relatively low (usually $4 or less) but people expect brand new items that are shipped for $1. My last round of selling I got slapped with a crazy who thought I had misrepresented my sale. Even when presented with the original receipt for the items (which listed their size), she insisted that I had sold her medium sized diapers instead of large. She wanted a refund, and gave me a negative review when I refused.

    Now I have more diapers that need to be sold and I am faced, yet again, with the “To Ebay or not to Ebay” question. You make a lot of good points in your post.

  9. Awesome post, Mir. I am debating what to do with a whole bunch of my daughter’s clothes. Ebay is just so time consuming.

  10. Just wanted to mention that if you simply want to reduce, reuse and recycle an item because you feel bad throwing it away, that you could simply give it away to someone in your local Freecyle community. Almost every city/town in North America has a Freecyle web. I just signed up about a month ago and I’ve already seen some pretty major items given away for free in my community (brand new bike rack, boxes of novels, barely used baby items, etc.). You could always try that to avoid the hassles of ebay.

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