Making the Grade

Learn the keys to accurately representing the condition of your goods.

by Dennis L. Prince
- May 21, 2009

Experienced sellers know how important accurate item representation can be, not only for the sake of an immediate sale but also for establishing and maintaining their reputation within the marketplace. Item grading, however, remains a gray area in online selling—a subjective assessment that, if not properly applied and communicated, could lead to a contentious disagreement between buyer and seller.

In the online marketplace, bidders and buyers are looking for high-quality items. This is especially true for collectibles and vintage goods. Because they're still willing to pay top dollar for top-quality merchandise, buyers are looking for sellers who are accurate and dependable in their grading techniques. So when it comes time to advertise your goods—and further establish your good reputation—consider these guidelines for communicating the condition.

Understanding the problem

There are no universally accepted grading definitions for all items. Different terms are used to describe the condition of different goods (such as furniture, stamps, glassware or trading cards). There is a multitude of terms to be applied and as many situations for when to use them.

If that isn't enough to cause sellers some concern (and it is), understand that some of the same terms are used across a variety of commodities, yet they represent different "states of being" in each item category. Whereas "very good" condition sounds desirable for one sort of item, it can mean just "so-so" for another. That's why sellers must understand the proper terms and their proper applications. Accurate and responsible use of grading terms is truly a learned discipline with application of a stated grade often depending upon the experience of the seller. Don't worry if you feel less than experienced at this juncture; follow along to discover how you too can hone the skill of item grading.

So what is the terminology?

Again, although they're not universally used among all sellers, here are the generally accepted terms you should be familiar with for most items being sold:

  • Mint: It's "as new," without any damage or defects, as if it just rolled off the factory conveyer belt. Abbreviated as MT. Also look for Mint In Box (MIB), Mint In Sealed Box (MISB), Mint On Card (MOC), Mint In Package (MIP) and other such application.
  • Near Mint: "Like new" with perhaps a single (or relative few) minor defects or light imperfections. Abbreviated as NM and possibly in conjunction with other abbreviations used for Mint (for example, NMIB).
  • Very Fine: A few more small drawbacks or just one significant enough to prevent it from being termed at a higher grade. Abbreviated as VF.
  • Fine: A desirable condition but with more noticeable shortcomings. Often sought out by buyers/collectors seeking suitable quality, yet at an expected reduced collector's price. Abbreviated as FN.
  • Very Good: A decent piece, but one that shows more visible wear or handling, or suffers from minor incompleteness. Abbreviated as VG.
  • Good: It clearly shows wear, use or some damage. It's OK to own but probably not the end-all piece in terms of condition. Abbreviated as GD.
  • Fair: Probably suffering from more significant damage or use. Most likely has unsightly visible defects and is incomplete. Rarely abbreviated.
  • Poor: It's trash, period. Anybody want it—for free perhaps? Rarely abbreviated; hardly worth the trouble.

Establishing the grade

Of course, here's where you need to develop the expertise in the items you sell to determine if the grading you'll apply is acceptable within the circle of purveyors and enthusiasts. In addition, when deciding on an accurate grade for your goods, use these guiding points to select the fairest assessment:

  • Be objective: For the moment, forget what you have invested in the item.
  • Be fair: If it's only in good condition, say so. Avoid "prettying up" or selectively overlooking an imperfection to improve the grade.
  • Beware: Buyers are quite particular and any overzealous grading might result in returns from dissatisfied customers. If your grading is consistently over-stated, you'll develop an undesirable reputation that will precede you in every potential sale.

Keys to communicating grade

When it comes time to advertise your goods, consider these guidelines when communicating the condition:

  • Use the recognized grading terms for the item. Steer clear of off-the-cuff terms such as "super condition," "really nice" and "great specimen." Not using accepted terms will make you appear inexperienced or potentially dishonest.
  • Accompany the grade with a full disclosure of the item's details. Help the customer decide if your assessment of the item seems reasonable.
  • Consider using "half-grades" (Very Fine +, Near Mint -) if you're on the fence about where the item truly come in.
  • Consider carefully under grading your item. Without taking too much away from the product, let buyers know you're using a strict grading system, then grade down a half step. This usually results in feedback from buyers proclaiming your items arrive "better than described," which is the kind of good PR you want.
  • Be sure you match your offering price to the grade you select. A noticeable mismatch will not sit well with shoppers.

As mentioned before, these are guidelines to help you properly grade your items. When in doubt, seek out an expert or other respected merchant for some advice. Make it your goal to learn as much a possible about how items like yours are graded and accepted, then put those principles into use. And always invite customers' questions about your grading methods and provide any additional details a potential buyer may need to feel confident in a bid or purchase.

Bidders are seeking out sellers of desirable goods. They will make note of those sellers who seem to be most dependable, trustworthy and responsive in terms of item grading. By properly representing your items, you'll develop a reputation for being honest and reliable in all of your sales.

About the Author

Dennis L. Prince has been analyzing and advocating the e-commerce sector since 1996. He has published more than 12 books on the subject, including How to Sell Anything on eBay…and Make a Fortune, second edition (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and How to Make Money with MySpace (McGraw-Hill, 2008). His insight is actively sought within online, magazine, television and radio venues.

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

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