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eBay for hire - It's what's in store

December 11, 2005|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

andrews@herald-mail.com

The enormous rise of eBay, the online auction business, in the 1990s was part of a substantial shift in commerce from the storefront to the home desktop computer.

Now, another incarnation of eBay-centric business has emerged, turning online auction sales into a bricks-and-mortar enterprise.

To see for yourself, drive up Wesel Boulevard in Halfway and look for the shop with the "eCity Auctions" sign, done up in the same rainbow palette for which eBay is known.

Michael Lewis opened the office two months ago. People bring him things to sell. He researches and photographs items, then posts listings on eBay.

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His cut is 30 percent of winning bids that are $300 or less. As the selling price rises, his percentage goes down - from 30 to 25 to 20.

In the Tri-State area, Lewis joins at least two similar storefront shops: Greencastle Online Auctions in Greencastle, Pa., and Tannerman's Trading Co. near Martinsburg, W.Va.

Kim Hines said she opened the Greencastle Online Auctions shop in April after about five years of eBay selling out of her home.

At first, eBay was part time. Then, after she quit a marketing job to stay home and have a baby, she stuck with eBay for her income.

With her shop, she switched to selling merchandise for others. Her husband, Peter Hines, left his job to work with her.

Mike Shingler, who owns Remember When Antiques & Collectibles in Hagerstown and runs an eBay business on the side, said it's common for shops like his to list auction items for people as a supplemental venture.

But making a living exclusively as an eBay listing agent is trickier, he said, especially with rent and other overhead costs.

Since eBay started in 1995, users have sold merchandise for others, eBay spokesman Hani Durzy said. eBay welcomes those businesses, which draw more sellers, increasing the choices in merchandise.

He said an auction listing business is a good service for people with no technical savvy or no inclination to get involved on their own.

"We try to take the headache out of selling on eBay," said Lewis, whose leap from part-time seller to full-time seller was one of necessity.

He was an information technology manager for a biotechnology firm in Columbia, Md., until a competitor bought the company and moved it to the other side of Baltimore.

Lewis said the 95-mile commute from Hagerstown would have been too long, so he looked for another job. After three months, he decided to open eCity Auctions, expanding on the online selling he had done for six years.

Lewis is the only employee, but his parents, his wife, Laura and friends help. He said he's forcing himself to work alone for six months to gauge if his business can grow.

Since selling a pair of his own Ralph Lauren corduroys, for a profit on eBay in 1999 he's sold everything from trucks to toys.

A 400-pound dome-style pool cover was one of the oddest items. A concession truck, which sold for $10,000, was the biggest.

Travis Bishop's path to an eBay listing business was through the silica gel packets that absorb moisture and come with new pairs of shoes.

Bishop, who owns Tannerman's Trading Co., said he gathered thousands of packets while working for a distribution center that threw them out.

They came in handy when he had to leave his job to be with his son, Tanner, who had three open-heart surgeries.

Wondering what he could sell to make money from home, Bishop said he sold the gel packets on eBay - and made more than $10,000.

Bishop later beat local eBay storefronts to the market, opening three years ago.

His is a hybrid. He said he buys and sells and has a pawn shop, but 75 percent of his business is selling for others on eBay.

Shingler, from Remember When Antiques & Collectibles, said that paying a listing fee of 25 percent or more of the selling price - about the going rate - might put off customers. Businesses may tack on the fees of eBay and PayPal, the electronic credit system.

Still, Shingler said there's growth potential in the eBay listing business as more customers catch on.

For example, people don't realize the time it takes to nurture a listing from posting to final sale.

Over the course of one 10-day eBay auction for a yacht, Shingler answered about 30 detailed e-mailed questions per day.

The yacht sold for $133,000. Shingler said a Florida couple in their 70s then paid $8,100 to have the yacht shrink-wrapped and delivered to their home.

Dee Holler of Hagerstown was one of eCity Auctions' first customers. She recently gave Lewis some silver items to sell. No one bought them.

Stopping back to pick up the items, she said she wasn't discouraged. She promised to try again with antiques, jewelry and maybe an Oriental rug.

Asked if she'd be able to list on eBay without eCity Auctions, Holler said, "I suppose I could, but I don't want to."

"It's like changing oil," Lewis said - many car owners can do it, but not many want to, so they pay someone else.

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