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Avoiding the Pitfalls of One-of-a-Kind Selling

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Last Edited , 01:14:57 PM

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You don’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what? I’m going to start selling used tractor parts for a living.”

 

For that idea to take shape, you’d need to know a little something about tractors. You’d need to understand the pesky economics regarding supply and demand in the used-tractor market. You’d need to know where to find your inventory and – more importantly – your customers. It takes time and a lot of work.

 

So how did David Shea of Vermont Tractor Parts LLC come to dominate the used tractor parts space on eBay? Lucky for us, he took a break from his fourteen-hour work day to tell us how he got there and what he wishes he’d have done differently.

 

David, tractor parts? How did you settle on such a narrow sales niche?

 

By accident. I bought a used tractor locally. I used it on my property until the engine blew up. Then I decided that I’d try to recoup my investment by selling the working parts on eBay. I went into it blind. I didn’t know much about eBay or tractors. But, before long, I’d sold the entire tractor and was looking for others to piece out. That was probably seven years ago. Since then, I’ve sold enough parts to rebuild countless tractors from the ground up.

 

Do you think it’s difficult to grow when you’re entirely invested in one-of-a-kind (OOAK) items, especially of the sort that need a lot of prep?

 

I didn’t think about that at the beginning, but, yes. That’s definitely the case now. It’s been good in that I have a solid inventory source here in Vermont and a steady supply of customers, country wide. I do pretty well for myself, and I have an amazing support system in my family and business mentor, Dick. However, my work is all-consuming. Essentially, I buy huge pieces of machinery, disassemble them, clean and inspect each piece, and that’s all before I get anything listed. If I had it to do all over again, I wouldn’t focus on selling one-of-a-kind (OOAK) items like this.

 

That’s a really good point for new treasure-hunt sellers. You have to think about how you’ll grow and scale from the very beginning, right?

 

Yes. I’m so far into this now, there’s no going back. I have thousands of listings and more inventory that I need to get listed. I also have a 4000 square foot, climate-controlled storage space so that my inventory is well protected from rust and corrosion during our harsh winters.

 

You’re invested. So, even though you’re very successful in your space, if you could start over, you wouldn’t sell tractor parts?

 

Not exclusively. Going into this, I had no idea how much hard labor would be involved on a daily basis and how much of my heart and soul would go into listing and taking care of customers. And, I surely wasn’t thinking about the fact that I’d need to eventually run it like a real business.

 

Well, the good news is you’re great at what you do. Also, your story can help other sellers. If you could start over, what would you do differently?

 

I’d do a lot differently, but here’s what I’d say to my younger eBay-selling self:

 

  1. Specialize in multi-quantity items. Avoid selling one-off items that require so much attention prior to listing.
  2. Stay debt-free. Start small and pay for everything with cash. Don’t take out a loan for inventory or warehouse and office space.
  3. Hire an accountant. You might think you know your numbers, but hire a professional to keep everything in order from the beginning.
  4. Invest in an inventory management system. Excel spreadsheets work if you’re a hobby seller, but quickly fail when you have a growth spurt.
  5. Document your standard operating procedures. Put together a written overview stating how your business works, so that if you hire help, you can get them up to speed quickly.

 

Solid advice, David! We recognize how hard you work. Thanks for helping other sellers along the way.

 

 Is your niche labor-intensive? Tell us in the comments below. Also, feel free to share this article with your eBay colleagues via Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

 

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13 Comments
by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
this*and*that*2017
Adventurer

David, Good info thanks for sharing!

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
golfsnowh2ogear
Rising Star

Great info and insight David especially the part about running it like a business not a hobby!

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
its_the_cats_meow
Pathfinder

Hi, David - I can relate and feel for you. I sell dolls and their accessories - same dog, different collar. I sell few OOAK items but sell many singular items that other sellers also sell, so have to deal with competion besides coping with the same problems as selling OOAK. It takes a great deal of time and space (doll clothes wrinkle if layered on top of each other so each item needs its space) to manage inventory and to photograph each individual item properly from different angles, write up an accurate description so the buyer understands what he/she is purchasing, and then cope with eBay software glitches due to the recent updates that are causing a listing that should take only five minutes to create to now require almost an hour! Recently I sold a 1:6 scale hand held microphone for $2.00. I calculated that it took two hours to photograph, list, package it, and get it to the post office. Due to eBay seller fees (I used a free listing offer) and PayPal fees, I still made only $0.60 for all that time and effort - less than a factory worker makes per hour in China! - and the buyer never even left me feedback. Also, unlike someone who sells a large quantity of the same item so the seller knows exactly what size and weight that package will be each time, packaging different items can be a nightmare due to varying size and weight, especially if selling internationally. My house has been taken over by boxes and bubble envelopes of various sizes as a result. At least shipping in America is relatively inexpensive regardless of box size and weight until it exceeds one pound so I have some leeway and can get away with using a larger box for a small item, but that's not so for overseas shipping where every ounce counts so I hoard the smaller boxes just for them. While eBay's Global Shipping Program is truly a great help, varying package size and weight is a problem when servicing international buyers who ignore my request that they please message me prior to purchase so I can give them the accurate box size and weight. This failure of international buyers to follow directions at the top of those listings to make sure they see it has resulted in having to cancel some lucrative purchases, hurting my bottom line. I believe the eBay sellers who are the happiest and profit the most are those that sell large quantities of the same item and have little or no competition. ;-)

     I agree with almost all the points made in this article, but the one big plus to selling one-offs wasn't mentioned.  If you know your numbers and your niche well, don't incur debt, and above all don't overpay for inventory, there's almost no chance that you will ever be able to get the return on investment on multiple-quantity buys that you get when you buy one at a time.

     It should be noted too that some of the problems cited in the article are connected to the very large size of the items being sold.  Storage, for instance, wouldn't be nearly as big an issue for jewelry or buttons or fountain pens as for tractor or car parts.

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
desco1961
Adventurer

I agree wiith almost everything you said. I have been selling jewelry mostly for almost 2 years & use very little space but most our one off items new closeouts.

My big problem is buyers dont read description or look at pictures with one inch ruler for size.

I finally broke down and purchased a store last year but profits have not gotten any better.

My husband is now complaining about eBay taking up all my time.

I have good quality products with great prices and lesser quality products priced appropriately but get returns (even though few) where buyers do not tell truth and I pay for return shipping so now it makes it hard to resell because I have to raise price to break even.

I wish everybody Good Luck but I'm dropping store, selling off and getting out.

P.S. 100% Feedback, over 300 items listed, sell less than 30 a month.

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
fenixdog
Adventurer

David, I am like you but my inventory was "acquired" when my mother, who never disposed of anything from her life, her mothers, her husbands and his mother, passed away.  So I have items from the 1900's forward, nothing expensive but things that you do not want to just dispose or donate because it meant something to her and she did take care of the items.  The time you invest in these items, researching, cleaning, photographing, boxing and of course doing a good writeup, the business has taken over your life.  Thanks to my mahjongg playing friends, they have all supplied me with a healthy dose of boxes and packing supplies and to them I am now the "box lady".  And I am fortunate to have an engineer for a husband who could box a freight train safely. I could not have done it without the ladies keeping me in supply of boxes because everyone knows you have to pack in advance of putting up your item, otherwise, if you don't, you will pay extra in postage and spend time when you sell trying to find the right box/. And without my wonderful "ASSISTANT" who gives his time and energy without complaining, I could not have done the lifting, rearranging, or storing. I still make very little in my endeavor but I get so excited seeing these items head to different areas of the country where I know they will be treasured just like my mother treasured them.  And it is even better when I hear from the buyer how much they appreciate the care in packaging and how they will use the item.To a person starting out, have ample space in your home, dedicate areas for your project, learn to take good photo shots, and be willing to invest everyday into this adventure for little profit. Also, hats off to eBay, they are really a great partner, giving assistance immediately when you do something stupid or you don't understand the process, providing the space to sell and developing the new exceptional SELLER HUB.

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
d-k_treasures
Rockstar

 If this wasn't a place for OOAK and vintage/antique, and it didn't have auctions anymore(after all, why would you auction a commodity?), I wouldn't even look on here. And I would move my selling to a better, less expensive, less constrictive venue - one where you can sell higher priced antiques safely.

Also, nothing heavy(unless it fits in a FR box) gets listed here anymore - it's elsewhere.

 

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
Rockstar

wrong thread

 

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
ebeth2737
Rising Star

I sell used and antique books, many OOAK, and it takes so much time. This type of inventory is more profitable than mass-produced modern books, and I couldn't compete with the big boxes in that field. I do have inventory managment software, thankfully, and a smooth shipping process. I take photos in batches. eBay makes shipping easy, especially for foreign sales, but I wish they would provide a bulk lister (for Mac users) so I wouldn't spend hours uploading descriptions and photos. 

vermonttractorpartsllc
Thrill-Seeker

Thanks so much for all of the wonderful comments.  I appreciate that you've all taken the time to read my story.

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
hounddogshouse
Adventurer

Thank you for your insights and time .😉

by | Updated by kimberlys-precious-treasures
manodesigns
Adventurer

Very helpful article.  It seems almost fun to find that one of a kind item that has value, but you quickly realize that the labor invested in taking photos writing descriptions and packing and shipping that quirky item takes so much time and effort that it almost negates your profit when you consider what you are making per hour.  The most successful sellers it seems to me sell a lot of inventory cheaply.  If you can sell a lot of expensive inventory obviously you would be doing even better. 

 I enjoy selling OOAK items but the problem I often run into should I list it as an auction or buy it now..

I have done much research through the years on the OOAK items I sell & more times than not other people out there don't know the value of items or even how to find it! I really don't like listing anything unless I know as much as I can possibly find out about it in case a question arises I always like to be prepared!

Then when you do list an item as a buy it now people try to low ball ya or get upset when they see a postage they didn't expect, postal rates have risen quickly since I've been selling on eBay 4+ years ago.

I started with depression & carnival glass and breakage is a problem so I try to stay away from it now but when you love something you want to share with others it is irresistible at times! 

I will probably always sell OOAK items to some extent because they're interesting to me, as your love of tractors which I'm sure you have is understandable! Any kind of work is hard if you want to be successful, if it sounds to good to be true it probably isn't!

Your niche sounds like a lot of heavy duty clean up & testing each part is all time consuming but sounds to me like you got it down to a science. Best of luck to you and thanks for sharing your story & letting me share mine!