What I Know Now: What Sells Best on eBay

Trend watcher offers tips for researching products to sell.

by Brad and Debra Schepp
- Sep 30, 2013

What will be a hot seller on eBay at any given time is, of course, a moving target. Yet eBay's been around long enough that a keen observer of the site can spot patterns about what's likely to sell and why.

One of the keenest eBay observers we know is James Massey, founder of the site WhatSellsBest.com. Here, Massey shares some insights about what he's observed.

Schepp: How has the eBay marketplace changed over the years and what does this mean for sellers?

Massey: In the past, I primarily thought of eBay as an auction site. Today, most eBay items are offered by sellers using Buy It Now. Reportedly, only about 15 percent of listings are categorized as auction-only.

I think Buy It Now can be a great way to sell more common items, quickly. But when it comes to particularly rare items with the potential for a lot of buyer interest, I think auctions still have a substantial advantage for eBay sellers. I've witnessed too many auctions where a bidding war has pushed an item's price well beyond what was expected, with the winning bid prices doubling or tripling an item's estimated auction value.

When it comes to particularly rare items with the potential for a lot of buyer interest, auctions still have a substantial advantage for eBay sellers

In those cases, even if the seller had set a Buy It Now price on the high side of their estimate, they would have missed out on a substantial windfall profit.

And, as protection on the downside [if the auction item underperforms], sellers can still place a reserve price.

The marks of a successful seller

Schepp: What have you learned about what makes sellers successful?

Massey: In a nutshell, I've noticed that a great reputation, experience, product knowledge and removal-of-risk [for both themselves and buyers] all appear to be common traits among successful sellers.

Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • Reputation — Top eBay sellers often have a strong record of positive feedback going back years. Generally, this is a result of their consistently standing behind their items. It may mean guaranteeing authenticity, but it always means delivering exactly what was described and shown in their listing—then working to make things right if anything goes wrong.

  • Product knowledge — Top sellers appear to be very knowledgeable about the items they're selling. That's either because they've focused within a niche for years, or because they've sought advice from experts for items outside their area of expertise. They can then provide proper documentation (certified grading and/or letters of authenticity, from recognized reputable sources) when necessary.

  • Removal of risk (for themselves) — Successful sellers I've spoken with don't like to speculate on items they buy for resale. They usually have a good idea of an item's value based on experience and/or research of sold prices. And they typically only buy items based on what they could expect to sell them for profitably in today's market.

  • Removal of risk (for buyers) — Top sellers know how to properly package and ship their items safely. They insure high-value items and require signature delivery when warranted. They also tend to have a solid return policy, which lets buyers know they're going to stand behind the items they sell.

These attributes can translate into higher profits for a seller. Because if two sellers are selling a similar item, I've noticed it's often the seller with the best reputation who gets the highest bids.

It's fairly easy to find out which items are hot, when they're hot, because they show up repeatedly at the top of the auction lists we're tracking

Determining what sells best

Schepp: You've been tracking what sells best on eBay for years. Are there any discernible patterns that have stood the test of time?

Massey: Yes. For auctions, a low opening-bid price still appears to be one of the best ways to draw bidder interest. I've seen this happen for years, and it still seems to be a popular strategy of top sellers of rare items.

They may have a high reserve price in place, but I've often seen sellers of very rare and valuable items starting their bidding at 99 cents or less.

It does seem like the initial bidding frenzy they generate draws more interest to their items.

Schepp: What are the best ways for new(er) sellers to determine not only what's selling well on eBay now, but what may be hot in the next few months? Can you list some of the steps sellers should take?

Massey: It's fairly easy to find out which items are hot, when they're hot, because they are usually showing up repeatedly at the top of the auction lists and/or news that we're tracking at any given time.

An easy way to do this is:

  1. Go to WhatSellsBest.com.

  2. Click any category (e.g., antiques) on the left side of the page.

  3. From there, you can view the best-selling items on eBay within that category. Or you can dig deeper by exploring the subcategory niches listed on the right side of the page.

  4. To monitor the latest auction news worldwide, click the "Auction News" link at the top of the page.

Regarding predictions about what may be hot in the future: Unfortunately, outside of the normal seasonal bumps items receive, such as selling holiday items, I haven't yet figured out a way to reliably predict when or where a hot item or trend's going to appear. I really wish I could!

Finding those product niches

Schepp: How about determining market niches that may be less competitive for sellers? What have you learned about tracking those down?

I've found it helpful to first view the top items being sold within a niche, then gather information about the sellers of the top items within that niche

Massey: Researching smaller subcategories can be a way to get a measure of the competition level within a niche category. (On WhatSellsBest.com, subcategories are listed on the right side of the page when you click on a category, such as antiques.)

For research, I've found it helpful to first view the top items being sold within a niche, then digging deeper by gathering information about the sellers of the top auction items within that niche.

Gathering seller information means visiting their About Me pages on eBay, their eBay Store, websites and any social media sites they may use.

Often this type of research can help gauge the level of competition and professionalism among the sellers operating within a niche. And it can also provide valuable ideas for running a business within that niche.

Mobile matters

Schepp: How has mobile affected what's selling well on eBay at any given time?

Massey: It's definitely one of the fastest growing areas. And because it's still a relatively new shift, I don't personally have a lot of factual data regarding how it's affecting what's selling well on eBay.

But I can speculate. I believe it's going to speed things up because more people will be able to access more items, from more places. Having more people competing for the rarer items could be very good for the sellers who've focused in those niches.

Research top-selling items

Schepp: What else have you learned about what sells best on eBay?

Massey: Researching top-selling items can help reveal how and where sellers are finding those items.

Years ago, I noticed that often the same sellers were rising to the top, with the highest-bid items in their niche. This told me that it was likely they had developed systems to consistently locate those high-value items.

So I started taking a look at their websites, blogs, etc., and I did find examples of the ways they were soliciting the public directly, to either consign or sell products to them.

I believe this type of research can be extremely valuable for sellers, because it provides examples used by top-sellers of how to solicit the public to bring you certain items, either to buy or consign.

Taken a step further, there may be some real opportunities for sellers who research the top sellers in the highest priced/most competitive niches and then apply the strategy examples they've found to less competitive niches.

Staying current with what sells best on eBay can also provide a way for consignment sellers to incentivize potential consignors to bring items in.

I've seen a number of consignment sellers link to our top-seller lists and/or share our stories about top-sold items. They do this as a way to get their customers to take a second look around their attics and/or bring items in for free estimates.

Schepp: Thank you, James!

About the Author

Brad and Debra Schepp are the authors of 20 books, including eBay PowerSeller Secrets and The Official Alibaba.com Success Guide: Insider Tips and Strategies for Sourcing Products from the World's Largest B2B Marketplace. Their most recent book, which Deb co-authored with John Lawson, Kick Ass Social Commerce for E-preneurs: It's Not About Likes—It's About Sales, was recently named the 2015 Small Business Book of the Year in the social media category.

For further information, visit Brad and Deb's website, bradanddeb.com.

Opinions expressed here may not be shared by Auctiva Corp. and/or its principals.

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