Selling Thrift on eBay

Make money on eBay as a compulsive shopper

Mid adult woman searching clothes rail in vintage boutique
••• David Prinz / Getty Images

For many top   sellers eBay behaves in many ways like a traditional brick-and-mortar business. Though there might not be any storefront per se, the rest of the model is familiar: sourcing products carefully, managing inventories, maintaining turnover, and charting numbers. I'm often asked, however, if there are ways for smaller sellers—hobbyists and individuals in particular—to make a splash on eBay without having to invest large amounts of money in inventory or maintain relationships with wholesalers.

There is. One of the most common small business models on eBay is that of the thrift store sourcer—someone who spends half of their time shopping for quality used goods of one type or another at exceptional prices, and the other half of their time selling those goods on eBay at a profit. There are sellers like this working in collectibles, books, technology, cameras and photography, and even in fashion and clothing. If you have the right personality type, you might succeed at this game, too.

What it Takes to Be an eBay Thrift Seller

There are several personality traits and habits that eBay thrift sellers use to maintain their edge in the business. If you have all of them, you're likely to do well in this niche. If you lack one or several of them, you might still be able to make it pay, but you might not have as much fun as others in the process.

In no particular order, the characteristics in question are:


  • An unfailing love of shopping. This is, first and foremost, a job for compulsive, savvy, dogged shoppers who aren't merely okay with treading the aisles of stores and the front yards of yard sellers all day, but who absolutely live for it.
  • Knowledge of a distinct niche. This type of eBay seller generally knows one type of customer and knows them well. Whether this customer is the ladies' vintage dance shoes aficionado or the 35mm manual camera aficionado, these sellers know what buyers in a specific niche market want.
  • A good set of potential sources. For the most part, this means residence in a metropolitan area of some kind, though there are some exceptions (for example, when dealing in regional craft goods of some kind for which a national or international demand exists). The key here is to have available to you a large selection of thrift stores, antique stores, consignment stores, yard sales, or other types of used-item sales venues. One or two is not enough; an eBay used-shoe seller I know visits literally dozens of thrift stores during every outing and invariably comes back with a car full of sale items.
  • A nose that can smell a bargain a mile away. To succeed in this type of niche, you need not only to be in love with the goods, but to be able to maintain enough distance from your love of the goods to know when to buy and when not to buy. The goal, after all, is to make a profit, not just to stock goods you like.

All of the factors above are important to your success as an eBay thrift seller, but there are other sets of skills that most eBay sellers (even small sellers) must have before they begin to see a livable profit on eBay: business skills and eBay skills.

Read on to find out more about the unique set of skills and practices that must be employed if an eBay thrift seller is to become successful.

As a thrift seller, there are a few basic skills and practices that you will need to master in order to become successful at what you do.

Maintain Inventory Meticulously

  • Log your purchases. Log every purchase you make along with the amount paid and a brief description that differentiates it from the rest of your stock.
  • Attach item numbers to items. The moment you list an item, affix a sticker or post-it note to it with the listing number in question.
  • Keep your inventory tidy and organized. Have a good system for arranging already-listed items in your inventory space so that you can easily find them when needed.
  • Be your own detailed bookkeeper. Maintain a ledger or spreadsheet that lists at the very least an item number, brief description, what you paid, what it sells for, whether or not you've shipped it yet, whether you received feedback yet, and whether you've left feedback yet.
  • Run the numbers. Tally this ledger or spreadsheet often and use it to track net profits and the success (or failure) of different types of goods.

As you can see, in a business like this one, bookkeeping is everything. Without good bookkeeping, sellers commit cardinal sins like listing the same item twice, shipping the wrong item to a winning bidder, losing the item in question and being unable to ship it, or other problems that are often symptomatic of very disorganized sellers.

Make It Easy on Your Buyers

  1. Good feedback.
  2. A concise, reliable system for rating item condition.
  3. A good photo for each item.

Be sure to post the details about your ratings system in the description of your item. If it won't easily fit in an item description, or you feel that it will unnecessarily detract from the listing, that's a good sign that your ratings system is too complex or ungainly.

Make It Easy on Yourself

  • Use a bulk lister. First, use one of eBay's bulk listing systems, one of the most popular of which is Turbo Lister. When you have 200 unique items with unique photos and unique descriptions to list, the last thing you want to do is click-click-click through a web form designed for listing single items at a time.
  • Create a great disclaimer. Remember, the used item seller is buying and selling goods with a history about which he or she isn't aware. Issues related to liability and refund/exchange are not to be taken lightly—imagine, if you will, a used shoe seller who sells another eBayer a pair of shoes that causes its wearer to develop a contagious foot ailment, or an expensive vintage mechanical item that sells for a high price only to break down the day after it is received. In general, for used goods, sell "AS-IS" or with a very draconian return policy, and don't forget to disclaim any responsibility for any failing the item may have.
  • Use a listing template. Whether using a bulk lister or just the eBay web form, use an item description template whenever possible for items of similar kinds. Don't re-type your entire description each time you want to post a single new listing.
  • Request (or demand) PayPal payments. Though some people don't like online for various reasons, often related to privacy, the fact is that PayPal remains the easiest way to automate your payment processing and record keeping on eBay. In contrast, dealing with checks and money orders is beyond cumbersome.
  • Streamline your shipping. Choose a shipper, get a scale and a label system, and buy boxes, tape, and whatever packaging material you need in quantity. Many try to save a little money here by looking for free boxes one box at a time, using newspaper or shredded documents as packing material, or making a separate trip to the shipper each time a package needs to go out. In the end, the time and energy you save by streamlining your shipping will easily pay for any costs associated to actually having to buy shipping materials out of pocket.

    Can It Be Successful?

    The answer to this question, of course, is "yes." I've known eBay thrift sellers that made partial or full livings in several areas of eBay trading, from computers and technology to fashion and shoes to used books and videos. The keys are to have great sources for used goods, a great eye for cheap deals that are nonetheless highly desirable, and a dogged determination to maintain best records and selling practices as you trade online. Happy eBaying!