Wheeling and dealing online

Taken From The Star Lifestyle

Monday April 7, 2008
Wheeling and dealing online
By ALLAN KOAY

A sizable number of Malaysian eBay vendors are serious traders who find there’s good money to be made in the virtual market.


THE next time you’re thinking of throwing away your platform shoes from the 1970s or your old collection of bus tickets, you might want to reconsider and put them up for auction on eBay.

You might be surprised to find someone out there who wants the things you regard as useless. And you could even make a living off selling items on that auction site.

Dan Neary: ‘A January 2008 survey by AC Nielsen revealed that 41% of all eBay sellers in Malaysia consider themselves serious sellers.’

What’s that? You don’t think it will work in Malaysia?

According to eBay’s statistics, on any given day, a Malaysian seller sells to the world 460 toys or hobby items and an item of clothing or accessory every six minutes. Impressive or what?

Some of the items exported by Malaysian eBay sellers include clothing and accessories, books, consumer electronics, toys and collectibles. Why should these items be attractive to buyers overseas when such things like electronics could be purchased anywhere?

Says eBay vice-president Dan Neary: “The consumer behaviour varies in different markets and the beauty of eBay is that there is such abundance and variety – 50,000 categories, 113 million listings worldwide at any given time – that there is a demand for practically anything.”

And of course, “one man’s trash could be another’s treasure,” says Neary.

While declining to disclose the exact number of Malaysian users on eBay, Neary does, however, reveal that there are 1.3 million unique visitors per month on ebay.com.my. The Malaysian site was upgraded in November last year and by the end of February, there were 30,000 new registered users. (There are currently over 16 million Internet users in the country.)

“A January 2008 survey by AC Nielsen revealed that 41% of all eBay sellers in Malaysia consider themselves serious sellers, either actively sourcing for products to sell on eBay or using eBay as a primary source of income,” says Neary.

The study found that local shoppers spent approximately RM411 per month on eBay.com.my, of the total RM542 per month they spent on online purchases.

Sam Lum (left) and Mike Wong of Toy Workers of Subang Square in Subang Jaya, Selangor, check out eBay almost daily to look for new items and compare prices.

Clothing, shoes and accessories were the most frequently purchased items on eBay.com.my at 38%, followed by books at 36%, and computers and networking services at 34%.

Toys will be toys

eBay, of course, started out as a place for collectors to buy and sell all kinds of rare stuff. When the Transformers movie came out last year, one of the fastest merchandise items off the shelves was the Bumblebee model. It reached a point where it was easier to spot Bigfoot in Johor than finding the action figure.

But the one reliable place that you could still find it was, well, on eBay – if one was prepared to pay an exorbitant price.

Just talk to the guys at Toy Workers of Subang Square in Subang Jaya, Selangor. You’ll find the same bunch of guys there almost every day, talking toys and hanging out. When asked how often they log onto eBay, all of them enthusiastically exclaim: “Every day!”

Sam Lum, 32, one of the guys who help out at the shop, says 30% of what’s available in the store is also up for bidding on eBay. And according to store owner James Loh, 35, the items on eBay move fast. And I’m told online sales can account for up to 50% of total sales.

“The business there can be considered good. Before I started a shop, I was already selling on eBay,” says Loh.

The main reason for getting on eBay every day is to check out the latest prices and items available.

“For me, eBay is like the stock market,” says Lum. Or more correctly, an online catalogue.

Buying and selling can be fun, but Mike Wong, 27, an insurance case management officer and toy collector, says it can be dangerous too.

A supposedly haunted painting once made waves on eBay. It was allaged that the figures in the painting moved at night.

“eBay can be very addictive,” he warns. “Especially for buyers like me who try to find whatever items we can think of. But once you start getting addicted and buying on impulse, it might become a problem for your pocket!”

It’s true that you can find just about anything on eBay. After talking about the Pacman Advanced Gameboy, it took only seconds for my friend to find one on the site. Stuff traded there included a jar of Brad Pitt’s and Angelina Jolie’s breaths, ghosts (you’ll find one on auction every now and again), a toasted cheese sandwich with a religious image on it, a submarine, and a private jet (which, at US$4.9mil still stands as the most expensive item ever sold on eBay).

While Loh says one can earn enough just buying and selling online, Wong adds that having a physical business like a store boosts credibility and earns more trust than simply being an anonymous online seller.

However, Carol Fung and Chris Chan would beg to differ.

Fung’s and Chan’s businesses on eBay are their primary source of income. They don’t have physical stores in the real world, just virtual ones in virtual reality. Chan doesn’t feel a physical store would, in any way, add credibility to a seller.

“An online store opens 24 hours,” says Chan. “Going online without a physical store means you don’t have to invest all your money into a physical store. You just need a minimal start-up cost for your online store. There’s only minimal rental and no overheads.”

How true. And coming from someone who’s making a living entirely from selling online, there’s huge credibility to that.

Chris Chan (right) and Carol Fung make a living trading on eBay. Fung sells mainly ribbons and stickers, plus stationery. ‘You must find the relevant products that today’s market wants,’ says Chan.

Chan and Fung met on eBay two years ago and became fast friends. Fung started on eBay in 2003 while in the UK. She saw the potential and started building up the business seriously in 2005, when she returned home and sourced for suppliers. She sells mainly ribbons and stickers, along with stationery like cards and envelopes. She focuses on the European market because she says the crafts market there is “very big”.

Chan started selling her old belongings from her university days, such as handbags, belts and other accessories as well as stationery. She returned home in 2006 and saw the business grow into a sustainable one. She sold about 10 to 20 items a week and made about US$1,000 a month. Nowadays she focuses on things she likes, namely toys and collectibles.

While Chan whiles away the wee hours surfing the Net and spends the day driving around town looking for goods that could be sold, Fung has a day job, but she says it’s to “kill time”. They won’t divulge exactly how much they earn each month but say it’s in the four-figure bracket.

A ‘giant foil ball’ allegedly originating from the planet Mercury is being auctioned on eBay.

Chan says her most astonishing sale was some Andy Warhol collectibles that
she stumbled upon in a warehouse sale where they were going for about RM5 each. She managed to sell them on eBay for about US$40 (RM130).

But making a living from selling on eBay and not really needing a day job to supplement that – it all just sounds too good. So what’s the catch? I was expecting some big revelation, but the ladies say: “The key is knowing what sells.”

“You must find the relevant product that today’s market wants,” says Chan. “Sometimes it takes a bit of trial and error to get the right product that works.”

But when you’re trading online, there’s always one worry.

Scam alert

Some years ago, there was a well-publicised case of an eBay scam-gone-wrong. A seller put up a PowerBook G4 for bidding, and received an offer that he knew was an obvious scam. Through an international network of friends, and with the help of technology like webcams, the seller devised an elaborate “return-scam” to teach the scammer a lesson, after he reported the case to eBay, of course.

The scammer, having been made to pay a hefty shipping sum, received a fake PowerBook made of a three-ring binder, marker-drawn screen, and discarded keys. It all made for a hilarious and entertaining story, but scams are serious business, and often fraudsters and scammers are a real concern to anyone who has ever done an online monetary transaction.

So how does trust work then?

Transparency helps, says eBay’s Neary. There are buyer and seller ratings and transaction histories to help one make an informed decision.

“I wish I could go to a hawker stall, and get a readout of the last 50 people who ate there,” says Neary. “So the feedback system is an important part of transparency and developing trust between complete strangers.”

Some of the weird stuff auctioned on eBay include this ‘ghost in a jar’. The auction was reportedly taken off eBay after it went out of control

There are also anti-fraud tools in place, with 2,000 staff (made up of former prosecutors, the FBI, Scotland Yard, and the like) whose sole purpose is to research and prevent fraud.

In Malaysia, buyers are covered up to RM750. In countries where PayPal is available, buyers are covered up to US$2,000 (RM6,379). Neary says the general philosophy is that when things go wrong, people are protected. He gives no exact detail on whether fraud or dishonourable transactions occur in Malaysia, but the local buyers and sellers I spoke to all say they’ve not had any problems so far.

Neary says 99.999% of all transactions on eBay are done without hitches, but he warns that one should never, ever take a transaction off eBay.

“That’s like going down a dark alley,” he says. “The second you go outside of the eBay ecosystem, you’re taking a big risk.”

Neary says the fastest growing region for eBay is the Asia Pacific and some of the most prolific buyers and sellers are in South-East Asia. The first Malaysian seller appeared a year after eBay was launched in 1995.

I tell Neary I’m still trying to sell that Spider-Man teaser poster from 2001, featuring the Twin Towers and recalled by Sony Pictures after 9-11. It was subsequently pulled from eBay.

“We reserve the right to do what we think is best for the overall community and in good taste,” says Neary.

Of course, fake goods and anything illegal are not allowed, but legal stuff deemed inappropriate by the eBay community is also a no-go.

“You get people saying ‘That’s in bad taste.’ So every once in a while, we’ll make a very difficult judgment call,” says Neary.

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