Auction Stores Do EBay Selling for You

What's it worth? LCD screens at an AuctionDrop storefront show you what items comparable to yours have sold for on EBay.
Photograph: Robert Holmgren
Your back room is bursting and your closets are crammed with last century's laptops, predigital camera equipment, or printers past their prime. In the back of your mind, you see yourself selling it all on EBay to get some coin back while clearing the clutter. But it takes so much effort to gather the stuff, photograph it, write descriptions, and ship it off. Why not let someone else do everything for you?

Enter drop-off stores, a fast-expanding specialty in the EBay economy. Their premise: Make EBay selling ultra-easy for busy people.

You simply drive your goods over and fill out a form; then at the end of the auction, you get a check if your item sells or the item returned to you if it doesn't. At your request some stores will even donate a nonselling item to charity for you or donate the proceeds of a sale. However, the ease of a drop-off store will definitely cost you: Most stores charge a hefty 35 to 40 percent of the eventual selling price of your goods, plus up-front fees for listing and handling. For a list of such stores around the country, go here.

Going National

Most stores are local, but several companies are now making a national push. AuctionDrop, which started with a few storefronts last year, recently made a deal with United Parcel Service, so you can now take items you want to sell to any of over 3400 UPS Stores. PostNet, which has 500 national franchises that provide copying and shipping services, has just added auction services; it expects 100 of its stores to be selling on EBay by year's end. And Circuit City is testing drop-offs in Atlanta and Pittsburgh with eight stores called Trading Circuit.

Do these services live up to their pain-free-selling promise? PC World put three to the test. We used an AuctionDrop storefront in California; a PostNet franchise in Georgia; and Sellers' Market, an independently owned store in Connecticut. We brought to each store a new, unopened $100 GoVideo DVD+VCR Dual Deck and a $60 Strait-Line Laser Tool System--all purchased at Costco. We also put the same items up on EBay ourselves (see the chart for our results, and read our selling tips).

Testing, Testing

Best face forward: One of a team of photographers at AuctionDrop captures your items to enhance their sale on EBay.
Photograph: Robert Holmgren
We were impressed with our experiences at all three. Not counting drive time, we spent less than 15 minutes at each store. We lugged in our booty, and filled out a short form after staffers explained the process. That was it.

The stores showed us online how comparable items had sold recently on EBay. Along with commission, our stores also charged up-front fees per item: nothing to $8 for basic service, and up to $20 for premium service if we wanted control over the starting price of our goods (the default is $1 minimum). We chose premium service at AuctionDrop ($20) and PostNet ($15)--but at the latter, it backfired when we priced the player at $75 and the item became the only one that didn't sell. EBay analysts and users later told us that bidders hate auctions with high starting prices.

Our auctions began about a week after we delivered the items; two stores e-mailed us when the items went up and again when the auctions concluded successfully. But for Sellers' Market, we had to regularly check the site to know our auctions' status; we had to follow up with PostNet regarding our unsold item, too.

We found AuctionDrop, the big kahuna in this arena, to be the most efficient store. At its new warehouse in Fremont, California, people's precious ex-possessions--from PCs to china to items as unusual as mounted deer heads--move on a giant conveyor system. They're scanned and tracked as they're checked in, tested (electrical goods only), photographed, evaluated by a lister who writes up auction text, and boxed for final shipment.

However, AuctionDrop asks that your goods be expected to sell for at least $75, and it has size limits. The people at Sellers' Market who left a full-size glass-walled phone booth and a porcelain piggy bank as big as a real pig likely would have been rejected at AuctionDrop. Both Sellers' Market, founded as a drop-off store, and PostNet, for which auctions are a side business that's funneled through its Nevada headquarters, ask only that items be in good, salable condition.

DIY Drudgery

Our own auctions on EBay were far more cumbersome: They took us over 8 hours of work, from photographing to boxing and mailing the items.

Of course, we pocketed all the proceeds from our own auctions, minus only the EBay and PayPal fees (about 10 percent). In contrast, we ended up with less than half of the money from the stores' auctions after the initial fee, sales tax, and commission were taken out. If all you want is a more lucrative alternative to Goodwill, give these services a shot; if you want to maximize your profit, do it yourself.

Remember, though: However useful these drop-off stores are, EBay has no ownership of them, explains Hani Durzy, EBay spokesperson. That doesn't mean EBay isn't happy to have the stores in action (more auctions ultimately mean more fees for the company). But if you have a dispute with a particular store, it's between you and them. EBay is not involved. Also, you can't sell just anything on EBay. Go here for the company's list of restricted and prohibited items.

Stores Are Convenient but Costly (chart)

As expected, we made the most money from the pair of items we sold ourselves, but we also spent 8 hours on our auctions as opposed to 15 minutes at each drop-off store. AuctionDrop was most efficient, while Sellers' Market yielded the best return. (Because we auctioned new items, we ended up buying high and selling low; you'll probably get a better return on items you already own.)

A Survival Guide to Drop-Off Selling

Ina Steiner, editor of auction news site AuctionBytes.com, offers a few guidelines to keep in mind when choosing a drop-off store.

Check feedback ratings: Get the store's EBay user ID, which may not be the same as the store's name. Then, look at its rating, a sign of how buyers have liked that store's service. Also note how long it has been an EBay seller.

Look at the store's auctions: Do you like the presentation? Are the descriptions informative and persuasive? How good are the photos?

Research collectibles: If you know or suspect your item is rare or valuable, ask if the store has particular expertise in the subject--most won't. You will probably have to do a little legwork to get a good idea of a fair minimum selling price.

Get references: Follow up with a store's prior customers to learn about their experiences.

Hayden Spring and Arthur D. Thorsberg Jr. contributed to this report.

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