eBay Primer for Buyers and Sellers (especially philatelists)

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eBay – a primer for the novice to intermediate buyer and seller

Part I – Introduction

eBay is a marketplace for many, and a mystery to more than a few. Already a Web institution, eBay was invented back in 1995 in a California living room. But it was never – then or now – amateurish, or run by amateurs.

The brains behind eBay were from Harvard University and major corporations. They founded an enterprise that was a meeting place for individuals. And they themselves found challenges galore – in everything from designing and maintaining their new technologies – to the intricies of inter-provincial, inter-state and international trading – to dealing with a vast global community of small entrepreneurs.

As eBay might tell you, every day is sort of like an annual meeting of a company’s shareholders: except that everyone involved has an opinion. And most of them are not shy about expressing it.

eBay, of necessity, has rules and standards and a rigidly regulated code for both buyers and sellers. It also has vast reams of instruction and help pages and a sophisticated suite of multi-channel problem-solving and arbitration processes.

As eBay evolved, it also made itself an integrated enterprise, linking to the financial services system, PayPal being the most significant in terms of bottom line and user impact. Recently, eBay has extended its vertical reach by engaging in partnerships with shipping organizations.

So if you are going to eBay – whether as a buyer or seller – you are going to find yourself in a whole new world where there’s lots to do and choose from, not all of which will cost you anything.

For philatelists – whether buyers or sellers – this dynamic, fast-paced and almost completely virtual experience is invariably daunting when first encountered. Most are perhaps used to a more measured pace, with the opportunity to both show and study individual stamps or bits of postal history, usually within a known and friendly environment.

Think about the stamp shop or convention experience, magnifying glass and stamp tongs in hand, seller right there to answer your most esoteric questions. Provenance? Taxes? Shipping? Not a problem. Negotiation? Of course. eBay is something quite different.

And if you bought something at a store or convention and discovered to your horror that you already had it at home, well, just ring up the seller and take it back, or make an exchange. Not on eBay. When you buy it, it stays bought unless the item has been misrepresented, damaged in transit or for similar failures.

But despite this very new culture, those who decided to give it a whirl found themselves able to navigate around it, and in the process learned a whole new way of communicating. On eBay you learn to write a one-line product description that is short, succinct and punchy – or your product does not sell. As a buyer, you learn  to look for the information that needs to be there, and what is not there.

The first novice, non-geek hurdle is appreciating what a “trusted service” means. If you want to do business via eBay, the folks there will want you to register your personal data and credit card information. And they may want to establish a secure link between you, them and PayPal. When all that is in place, you’ll find that under some circumstances, such as when you lose a transaction dispute, PayPal can actually make a charge against your credit card – without your specific approval.

So given that sort of threat, why would you want to venture into this strange new world?

Every stamp collector that ever lived has a stock page of spares and traders. Oftentimes, that stock page becomes a stock book, and then that book evolves into a large cardboard box in the closet. Hauling that lot to your local club has worked to some degree. But there are usually not enough people there who are interested in what you have, or willing to pay the price that you simply have to realize. In such circumstances, you might consider eBay selling.

Stamps are big business at eBay.

In 2008, 241,863 stamp-related sales transactions worth $2,638,725 too place on eBay.ca Stamp listings last year were 30% over 2007.

Most of the activity – we assume – involves small-time sellers and individual collectors. The average value of a stamp-related transaction last year was $10.91. Given listing fees, PayPal charges and shipping / handling costs, vendors must keep a tight lid on overhead costs or they’ll lose their shirts. Buyers need to keep in mind that those input costs (as well as the cost of procurement of the sale item) all go into how and where an item is listed, and the conditions (including opening price) that are set by vendors.

eBay is a business and it is a business that intends to make a profit. But along the way eBay also – intentionally and unintentionally – supports the world of stamp collecting. Its biggest contribution is in providing information to buyers and sellers. If you want to find info about an obscure Egyptian semi-postal, just do an eBay search.  If you want an idea of what Uncle Harry’s stamp collection might be worth, have a look at what’s selling under “stamp collections.” eBay is a very fast catalogue that offers you probably more fact, opinion and sheer fantasy on this subject than you can find anywhere else. One of your first skills is learning how to sift through the knowledge and the nonsense.

The second real gain for users is information about the stamp vendor and user communities. There are something called eBay Stores that you can monitor (as one of your “favourites”) and I should mention that you can designate “favourite sellers” too, if you want to be kept informed about new listings by a trusted seller.

And yes, you can ask the store owners and sellers questions that may relate – directly or not – with a product being offered. Most, you will find, are helpful to actual and potential customers.

Part II: Ebay – The Seller’s View

Ebay is a marketplace where “buyers and sellers meet” – so they say. Well they don’t actually ever meet. It’s a virtual world, and it has characteristics that are quite unique. There are player behaviours and expectations that may befuddle and frustrate you. There are proxies for the trust you experience and develop when dealing in a face-to-face environment.

Ebay is not a catalogue offering standard product at fixed prices with guaranteed condition and delivery. All its product is pre-owned, and the owners of that pre-owned product need to convince you that you need to be its new owner.

To attract buyers, bids and sales, sellers need to be creative, communicative, promotional and most of all, brave.  They need to have a finely tuned sense about gauging their costs and expectations (as in sales and shipping revenues). They need to know what to sell, how to list it and how to achieve good responses from buyers. They need to have watched and learned how eBay listings work best. And they need to shape their strategies and tactics as time moves on.  That’s quite a load.

If all that were not enough to make you nervous, consider also that essentially, the card deck is stacked against sellers on eBay. Sellers have to lay it all out in their listing while buyers can challenge, interact and use various ploys, all guided by information the seller him / herself has provided. Buyers remain anonymous up to the closing of the deal, flitting in and out like mosquitoes.

Why do sellers have to be brave? Consider this scenario. You have accumulated a lot of excess mint over the last 25 years. You need to clean up some space in your stock book. It amounts to $300 face. You paid taxes on much of that $300 face, and some of it likely was bought with pre-inflationary dollars. So you are looking at a hard earned “investment.” Your catalogue tells you the lot is “worth” almost a thousand dollars.

You decide to sell the lot on eBay. You’ve looked at what sellers of large lots do and some of what you see makes your knees quiver. They start listing at a penny!!?? No way, you say. What if it sells for ten cents?

You decide to list it at face. You get no bids, and nobody even puts the item on their watch list. Now you are out the listing fee. You drop the start price to $100, offer free shipping and once again you generate no interest whatsoever. In desperation, and with not a little anxiety, you finally bite the bullet and list it at one cent, load several nice scans and write a brilliant title and description. For the next several days, you’re like the ailing hospital patient waiting for his lab results. “So, doctor, what’s the good news and the bad news?”

“The good news is your $300 lot of stamps sold. The bad news is that after all revenues and costs are accounted for, you’ll net $200. in 2009 dollars. And we’re not even going to think about the time you put into this.”

It does not always go this way. There have been some truly surprising sales on eBay where collections and accumulations have generated high interest and excellent prices.   But to get there, you need to avoid doing some things, and focusing on doing some right things.

The first seller challenge is title. Sellers have 55 characters available that will, or will not cause that potential buyer to move his or her finger to the keyboard to enter either “watch” or “bid.”

You are cleaning up and found a bunch of dad’s old letters. You list it for sale in collectibles as: “Interesting collection old letters from my dad’s attic.”  To your chagrin you discover that doesn’t generate any interest. Why is that? First of all there may be no keywords there that buyers are watching for. Secondly, there may be ancillary factors, such as context or relationships between the items that are of far greater importance.

Good sellers extract every bit of attraction they can from that 55 character title space, paying careful attention to specific target audiences. Our proposal then is to go with “VF vintage old Canadian Canada postal history genealogy.” Combined with a clever choice of category, that title may raise your sale performance considerably.

Here’s a hypothetical scenario on “category.” I have a 19th century metal stamp box. I decide to sell this on eBay and al things considered, decide the philatelic aspect outweighs all others. So I put it into Stamps – publications and supplies-other. I may have considered, but discarded, questions about its provenance, possible relation to important people or major events. I focus on the object itself and concern myself only with its dimensions and condition.

[Just for fun, I did a quick search on “stamp box” and got 258 responses. The first “legitimate” one is for a “1924 Birmingham silver footed stamp box.” It is listed under Antiques-silver-sterling-other. It is two days away from closing and already has a C$19.52 bid. Now the question is: would that item have done better with a philatelic title? Maybe not.]

My error in listing this stamp box is that I thought only of what the object meant to me. I rated its function most important, giving little or no thought to its context, or potential audiences of interest. The fact is, there are very few people today who use stamp boxes, and many who have no idea even what they are. To make that item attractive, it needs to be positioned in a way that it can be seen, and appreciated.

The intrepid global seller is now faced with the biggest challenge of all. The description. Description includes picture(s) and text, and is likely the buyer’s key deciding factor.

On the picture side, sellers need to get very high quality scans that show the key element or elements of what they are selling. Amateurs like me load up one, and very rarely, two scans. The advanced “commercial” guys use their own, or commercially available scan shops that allow them to load up 150 scans that buyers can scroll through. I am unaware of whether there are good data on the relationship between scan quality / quantity and sales volumes / prices realized. But anecdotal observation suggests the guys that load up 150 scans seem to do very well.

Can small time eBay sellers compete with that? Of course they can. Pictures aren’t everything.  You can match quantity. With quality.

You’re going to pay very close attention to the way you cast your title and choose your category. You’re going to be very clear in your description. And most importantly, you’re going to answer any and all questions that come to you after you list. And unless there are good reasons for not doing so, you are going to post those questions and your responses right on the listing.

There are some other tricks to Seller Success. Don’t abuse the shipping allowance to cover losses that you experience on sales. Personally, I ask for shipping that is exactly equal to my out of pocket costs. Sometimes I offer no cost or low cost shipping as an inducement; however I feel such inducements do not contribute meaningfully to prices realized.

It would be interesting to know just how carefully buyers weight the feedback ratings of sellers. There must be some that scroll through the comments that buyers have left and assess the integrity and reliability of sellers based on their published feedback and rating. But my sense is that buyers pay more attention to product, price and shipping than they do to seller. I could be wrong.

You’ll want to think carefully about how you set the start price. eBay buyers will dive like pirañas for a .01 start price but balk at a $20.00 start, even if that $20 start is a mere fraction of the evident worth of the item offered. A high start price might offer some comfort as a sort of minimum price guarantee, is usually counter-productive in eBay selling.

As to length of sale, there are pros and cons as to whether you want a one day sale, or even pay the premium and go for ten days. A minority of eBay buyers watch ALL the listings under their favourite categories. When something new appears in their special categories, they are onto it. Some offer a start bid right away, using that device perhaps as a way of keeping informed of developments. In my experience the very large majority of buyers watch only “ending soon.”  If your interest is moving product fast, you may be surprised at what a 24 hour listing generates. But if you are using the worldwide availability function and actively seeking global bids, you will want to list for the full seven days.

Scheduling your sale is a complex matter. You should do some trial and error testing and watch your own results. One suggestion: try a three day listing that starts at 4PM Friday and ends at 4PM Monday. That way you capture buyer home time and work time. Some have home Internet access, some access at work. Avoid scheduling a listing to end at dinner time in Ontario and Quebec, or bed time in B.C. or Newfoundland. Ending a listing between 8AM and 10AM is likely a bad idea. People are getting up, travelling, arriving at work, getting their day under way.

My last thought concerns the personal touch. VERY successful eBay sellers talk to their potential and actual customers. They overcome the deficiencies of selling in the virtual world by taking extra pains to connect and solve questions and problems. When successful eBayers get a query they respond – immediately! When someone points out an error or inadequacy in a listing, they fix it – immediately! The payoff here is that buyers can designate you a favourite seller and they will wait for your new listings. You – along with your product – have become attractive.

Part III: Ebay: Let the buyer be there!

If sellers are faced with trials and trepidation as they launch their precious goods into the Great Internet Unknown, buyers instead wander freely down the virtual corridors of eBay, kicking tires as they go and having a lot of fun  doing it. If there’s stress involved for them, it’s the stress of missing that obscure DLO cover that will perfectly round out that section of your collections, and that appears headed for a $5.00 land sale price.

The ability to wander freely on eBay is possibly eBay’s  biggest attraction and benefit to the collector. It is a marvellous research tool. It offers up fact (and sometimes fiction as well) on the stamps and postal history of the world. It offers quick valuations not based on “catalogue,” but on seller’s sense of what the market will bear against their own expectations. Nevertheless, many sellers will also include catalogue prices in their descriptions.

Ebay may be a general store and auction rolled up into one, but thanks to its search tools it is also a speciality shop of the first order. It carries a wide range of choices for specific goods.

Suppose you are looking for a first flight cover for Toronto – Windsor. A search on eBay today gave ten choices! And of those choices – which were all “Buy It Now” (meaning they were not being auctioned) – buyers could pay from C$6.22 to C$12.42.

But searching on eBay can sometimes be challenging, as sellers “call them as they see them.” Looking for CPC Annual Collections turned up offerings that were described as “Annual Collection,” “Annual Souvenir Collection,” “Souvenir Collection,” and “ Canada Post Stamp Collection.” We also see, “Canada History in Postage Stamps,” and “Souvenir Card.”

You can make eBay watch for your interests by carefully setting up “Favourite Searches.” Choose the category first, then your key words and then, importantly, delete all those words that serve only to widen the search. Suppose your interest is Nova Scotia covers. You may have to do some experimentation setting up the search string. Today, “Scotia cover” brings me 11 hits. I try “Scotia letter” and that gives me eight. When you write your string, note that a philatelist’s vocabulary may be unknown to others. They could be selling Uncle Harry’s correspondence trove from the attic and have no sense of “cover.”

I then tried “Scotia Postal” and got 4 hits. There was minimal duplication in these three sets of hits. You’ll be surprised what you find when you use creative searching. “Scotia postal” brought up an interesting cover listed as “postal stationary 1900” (sic). That would never have appeared on a normal philatelic search.

I next tried – in Advanced Search, Any Words, Any Order: “Scotia cover letter postal,” in all categories. That gave me 428,331 hits. Yikes. So I change category to “Stamps” and the hits come down to 22,037.  The problem in both strings is that “Scotia” is not deemed mandatory in either.  So I go to Exact Words, Any Order, and search “Scotia.” Up comes 85 hits, but there’s a lot of stamps in there. So I search “Scotia -stamp” in category “stamps.”  I’m still getting mainly stamps. What to do about the stamp factor? Think! Ah Ha!

Stamps are usually listed by M or U. So I try searching “Scotia -mint -used” in “stamps.” What appears is a list of 51 items. I get a very rich listing of covers with yes, some stamps. But there are items here that would not appear in a “normal” search for Nova Scotia covers.

Consider “Newfoundland 1958 paquebot R.M.S. Nova Scotia env.” And then there is “Newfoundland:Bluenose 1929 flt to Nova Scotia, signed.” Then, “Canada Nova Scotia NS Paradise Lane DPO cancel 1900.” And finally, “1947 foreign postl covrs [2] Boston Nova Scotia~#31.”

These four covers are very interesting. But I suspect they will garner a much lower price than if they were more easily found, whether by manual or automatic searching. At this moment, only one of those covers has a bid, and it’s the one that mentions “bluenose.”

The message here is Experiment! Look around. Try different approaches. You may discover something from Uncle Harry’s trove that is not seen by anyone else.

When you set up your Favourite Searches, you need to decide whether to have eBay automatically notify you when a listing of interest appears. If you select the automatic notification choice, you may find yourself overwhelmed with email, but you will get notification even when somebody drops a treasure in for just a one day listing. If you choose to visit your saved searches from time to time you won’t get the email. In this case, configure your searches to start with “ending soonest” so that what’s winding up today is at the top.

So you’ve done your research and comparison shopping and now you are ready to buy. To do that you need to be “recognized” by eBay and PayPal. Therefore you will need an account. Yes, they will require confirmation of your identity and a credit card. No, you should not worry too much about that.

But that is not to say that you should not be careful. Identity theft does happen on eBay. It happened to me. Some n’er do well was able to get into my account and direct my receipts to him. And it took some doing to get that corrected.

Credit cards, unlike debit cards, provide some assurance of recovery should your identity be stolen. That fact, combined with eBay’s very real need to protect its customers, should keep your anxiety in check. Nevertheless, you might want to keep your balance on PayPal as low as you can – just enough to handle ongoing buys and sells. They don’t pay interest, and why leave money laying around here or anywhere?

Auctions work because buyers get caught up in the action. The secret to eBay Buyer Success is – Be Patient. Don’t rush into bidding. Consider this. The moment you bid you offer some degree of authentication to the lot. Secondly, you raise its profile because it shown a bid has been placed. As your bidding may invite others into the game, I recommend waiting. When the listing is well along and you are ready to move, pounce. A pounce can discourage some competitors.

Make use of “maximum bidding” so that the system watches the action for you, generating automatic bids against other potential buyers. And make use of “sniping tools” that will allow you to sneak in there in the last seconds and outbid everyone else. These tactics all endorsed by eBay as fair trading practices.

During the course of the auction, or Buy It Now sale, don’t be shy about asking questions of sellers. Oftentimes potential buyers identify something that sellers have forgotten to mention, and the question, and the seller’s response, can be added directly to the listing.

In time, you will learn that while many of the listings seem almost designed to be undiscovered through an odd choice of descriptive terms or even (frequently) mis-spelling, sellers are usually quite careful in the words they use to describe product condition. In the philatelic domain, assume nothing by the use of the word “mint.” That can mean MNH, MH or MNG.

Watch the shipping costs. They will range from “free” to “specified” to  “not specified.”  In the “not specified” category there have been cases where buyers felt overcharged   on the shipping. Clever buyers ask sellers to tell them what the shipping would approximate to their particular locale.

Several buying devices on eBay that offer great potential are rarely used. One is the “second chance offer.” A seller may have two or more of the same item. When one is sold, he/she can offer the same item to others on the bid list. Ebay establishes new listings and automatically emails the bidders you select. This is an opportunity for a buyer to pick up an item at the price they were prepared to pay, and at a price less than the winner paid. Few take it up. Perhaps they don’t trust the process, or assume the “second chance produce” is of inferior quality. Who knows?

Another mystery concerns the “Best Offer” of “Buy It Now.” A seller can list an item with a start price and auction it. Or the seller can list “Buy It Now” and welcome offers. There is nothing at all to prevent a buyer offering $10 for a $100 item. But it rarely happens. The Buy It Now price is not a reserve, but rather an indication of value. The seller is not wedded to that amount. I rarely use this listing form as only one listing in ten will generate offers.

“Want It Now” is a terrific, free service, where you can post your interest in just about anything. If someone has the item, they list it on eBay and tell you about it. In a way it’s close to a guaranteed sale as the buyer has identified him/herself right up front. It is hardly used on eBay.ca.

It’s assumed more experienced buyers make use of “Favourite sellers” and “Favourite Stores.” If you’ve established a trusted relationship with a particular seller then you might want to know when they list new items. The degree of utilization of these services is unknown but likely less than eBay (or the sellers) would prefer.

That having been said, there are lots of stores – 5444 as of this date. For we collectors of stamps though, we find that the scrap bookers have hijacked “stamp” and “stamping” – making it quite hard to define the shops that interest us.

My last words are directed at both buyers and sellers. Pay immediately. Ship immediately and make sure you leave feedback. These last two factors are what builds and cements the buyer-seller relationship, a very important factor in the virtual marketplace.

Part IV: Trading and Collecting in the e-Age

Every stamp collector, philatelist and vendor who has ventured onto the Internet and into eBay has an opinion on what it has done for the hobby. One hears both complaints and compliments around what the effect of electronic auctioneering and on-line services have been on product availability and variety, quality, pricing and the state of the hobby itself.

While we don’t have data yet that can put flesh on those observation bones,  we can certainly draw on experience and anecdotal evidence  to give some indication of what is happening. And we can cast caution to the wind and make a few predictions about trends and significance.

To start, it appears clear that there are more people offering more product for sale than ever has been the case before. The trading community is either getting larger, or perhaps the existing community is becoming interested and involved in a wider philatelic spectrum. Maybe the same or a smaller number of collectors are simply gathering in more material than was ever the case before. Whatever the causal factors, the level and pace of activity seems measurably higher.

So while supply appears to be growing, I’d argue that so too is demand. What we may be seeing is a new equilibrium – a new level in transactional activity. Of course the pace of activity has grown as well. Consider for instance that many eBay listings are set in the 1 to 3 day range. It would seem logical that sheer volume would have a depressing effect on prices. But we need to counter that condition with the fact of continuing evolution of both the buyer and seller communities. There are several moving pieces in this equation.

Then there is the quality factor. While the fascination with VF-MNH continues to increase, there is still a healthy demand for F-MH and even MNG. It appears though that the value / price gap between these “qualities” continues to expand, and no signs yet that this trend will stop. Consequently many new collectors are able to acquire material that would have been beyond their reach a few years ago. And better grade of material continues to rise beyond the reach of many. We can’t incidentally lay these movements totally at the e-feet of the Internet. They may be a natural progression in the same way that art collectors seek a better and better Picasso.

There is another quantity factor that we need to integrate into our analytical model. While there is more material coming onto the market from individual collectors and small vendors, we are also seeing the release of volumes of bulk material. There seems an endless supply of collections, “dealer lots,”  full sheet accumulations and boxes filled to overflowing with stock pages and bundleware. We  assume that these in part are disposals from investment hoards or personal lifelong accumulations, now being vended for reasons of cash flow or lost interest.

Happily, it seems that most hoarders are, like De Beers, releasing their holdings with restraint. Sales of full sheets for example are brisk and prices quite reliable. Overall, prices realized from large lot disposals appear somewhat constant. Lower prices are being realized where condition is a factor. Old mint hinged collections are not doing very well these days.

Taking all these (suggested) conditions and trends into account, what can we say about effects on catalogue prices? To answer that we need to know a whole lot more about how those values are set. Do they reflect upper end realized prices? Or do they reflect median prices and perhaps trading volumes? Whatever formula the cataloguers use, we should be expecting price increases in better quality and more scarce material, minor adjustments in the VFMH and VFU  range, and a significant drop in “lesser” grades. Others in the community may see this all quite differently.

So on the economic side, we are in the midst of transition, and it may be too soon to tell exactly what is happening and where this is all going. On the social side, however, things seem a little clearer.

Let’s start with the positive effects of the new technologies. The Internet and Web are perhaps the most democratic institutions the world has ever seen. Consider that on-line news services invite reader comments on news stories. And they publish (with only rare exception) all responses they receive. Anyone can set up a blog and become a commentator on world events. E-mail, a mighty powerful tool, allows people to communicate and exchange information at near light speed – right around the planet. It costs next to nothing to do any of this. For some, it costs nothing. There are, I am sure, Web mavens who work through free terminals at their public library.

Now, consider the fact that every person with a package of stamps can be an eBay seller. There is no need of a business license, no requirement for significant capitalization and no requirement for extensive training. Get your identity established, list your product and you are in business. Earn as you learn.

There are some interesting implications of this. For one, there are a whole lot more philatelic sellers out there today than ever before. And that growth has been coincidental with community stamp and coin shop closures. These are likely correlated rather than causal relationships, but who knows? Are we seeing a permanent shift away from the walk-in store to the dial-in virtual marketplace? It’s too soon to say. Remember when they said TV would kill movie theatres? Now there are more theatres than there ever were before.

Secondly, because of this great new swath of vendors ( and buyers demanding product from vendors), and because the vehicle for exchange is as near as your personal computer, there is a whole lot of stamps, covers and philatelic material coming onto the market that we would probably have never been seen otherwise.

There is trash in there, but there is also treasure to be found. Ask yourself what would a non-collector have done 20 years ago if they had discovered a stack of old letters in the attic, and they lived 100 km from the nearest town? They might well have chucked them. Now, we see material like this being put up for sale, perhaps listed under the category of “old letters”  and eagerly sought by philatelists, genealogists and others.

Yard sales, which were once a way of clearing out your basement or garage are now a semi-permanent fixture on our highways and a part time business for many. What was “junk” is now a “collectible.”  For a whole new community of players, on-line markets are really virtual yard sales. For a long time, essentially all philatelic material available in the market came from philatelists, vendors and auctioneers. Today, we see new sources adding variety and richness that might have otherwise been lost. And this previously lost or narrowly circulated philatelic product is reaching a wide collecting audience.

There are other reasons why on-line services are proving beneficial. Consider the issues of customer profile and market share. There was a time when philatelic materials were available from only three primary sources: post offices, retail vendors and stamp clubs.

Post offices of course sold everything at face, and were not known for negotiating prices. Retailers were obliged to build in a profit factor on all that they sold. Collectors could access auctions where they faced commissions, taxes and shipping. These were all “cost” and “cost plus” sources of philatelic material.

Collectors had access to lower, negotiable prices through one-on-one trading and other activities at local stamp clubs. There, stuff often trades for mere pennies. But building your collection through these more economical vehicles was more determined by what was available than what you wanted. In those pre-Internet days, the average collector did not have easy access to multiple sources of specific product, available at a range of competitive prices, all promising fast turn around and delivery to your door.

Here are some other strong points. While collectors can now bid on stamps from VF-MNH to F-NG at a remarkable range of prices, SON or variety specialists find they have a far greater chance of locating scarce pieces of their special puzzles. And diligent surfers are finding tantalizing gems in the most bizarre sorts of places. For example, I’ve personally acquired several very special covers by poking around in ephemera and collectible categories.

On the opposite side of the buy-sell equation, collectors wanting to vend surplus stock did not have ready access to and on-going market. Sales opportunities were rather limited, even if they lived in a large community.

Collectors have vastly increased opportunities today for trade involvement through Ebay and other on-line services. There is a whole lot of “trading” for cash that is not for profit but is really disposal for cash flow. In other words, collectors are now able to support their collecting interests by disposing of surplus holdings without leaving the comfort of their homes. Some of these people soon find themselves developing an interest in trading on its own merits.

Without doubt information technologies have also affected traditional vendors. There have been negative effects, as some customers eliminate the middle man from their procurement activities. The consequences for vendors could well, in some cases, have been serious enough to have contributed to the failure of their business. At the same time,  given that these vendors also have access to eBay and other on-line shops, many of them adjusted their business model to operate in both domains.

What of the traditional retailer’s market share?  I’d speculate that the proportion of buyers on-line has grown, while consequently the number patronizing traditional vendors in storefronts has dropped. But that is only one aspect of market share. I would also venture that the volume of higher end and big ticket traffic for these same vendors has increased. Vendor ties to specialists remain tight. There remains a strong vendor-customer trust relationship, but there are other clear benefits. Some vendors monitor market activity on behalf of their clients and are able to meet specific defined needs from known customers. In short, there have been dramatic changes in the retail philatelic business but some aspects of it remain solidly intact.

Have we seen anything like this phenomenon before? I think we have. Some time ago, I was General Manager of a downtown business association. 75% of the association members were retailers. One critical issue – it seemed to me – was the proliferation of chain stores on the city boundaries, which I felt were threatening the long established, usually family-run enterprises in the core.

We had a special meeting of the association to discuss this emerging trend. During the debate, the association president announced that we should not overly concern ourselves. “There will always be a place for quality, experience and service,” he said. “You will never see a shopping centre chain store that has staff with the knowledge, experience and customer connections that we downtown retailers have. What we have to do now is get that message across. We live here, we work here, and we’re staying here.”

In my view that message applies equally to what we are seeing in the stamp trade. Ebay has thousands of amateur sellers. Unless they move into part-time  status, trading volume and reputation are not key motivators. They are interested in occasional sales that support their own hobby. They are basically yard sellers, and they do not have a major impact on “legitimate” vendors.

When on-line sellers become part-time or full-time vendors, they develop a clear stake in sales, service and reputation. They want to meet or exceed customer expectations, just like dealers who work in traditional storefront shops. But on-line service quality, even if it is exceptional, is vastly different from what customers receive, or should receive in a face-to-face trading environment. Product and service quality on-line have to do with product being exactly as described (or better), fast and reasonable cost delivery, and timely response to enquiries.

The nature of the relationship in a face-to-face situation is very different. Whether in a stamp store or at an auction, show or convention, buyers can kick the tires. Importantly, they also have access to the vendor’s knowledge, experience and customer connections. For this added value, they should expect to pay a premium, even if that premium is only continued patronage. These vendors are the “downtown merchants” who live there, and work there.

It would be interesting to hear reactions from members of the CSDA on these observations.

Times have changed. The Internet and Web have brought us new collectors, sellers and buyers who before might never have had a chance to get into philately. For them it is an exciting experience. They are operating at a level, and at a pace that goes far beyond what we have been doing at our stamp clubs. All collectors now have exposure to a great deal more variety and options. We have “philatelists without borders” who trade globally, bound only by their area of topical or specialized interest. When these wired collectors put their seller hat on, they add vitality and variety to the philatelic marketplace while maybe making a few dollars. None of that can be a bad thing.

Besides on-line auction and sales outlets, we all now have access to Internet clubs and societies. They range from casual and quirky to sophisticated. Most offer some degree of inter-activity and almost always remarkable inventories of information, capabilities and services. A good example of this is the BNAPS site. It offers a searchable repository of TOPICS from 1944 through to 1999.

Example: search for “large queen” in title and you come up with 27 hits. And as I mentioned in an earlier segment of this series, eBay itself serves – quite unintentionally I should think – as a repository of collector information about product and pricing.

Delphi Forums maintains the “Virtual Stamp Club” which is an amazing success story. Other sites such as Frajola’s are much more specialized and focused but nevertheless enjoy high levels of participation. Many on-line sites will often offer up an answer to a question – no matter how obscure – in mere minutes.

There is also a loose and free-flowing but no less important community of stamp buyers and sellers who wander the virtual corridors of eBay. These players are, I think, bringing new life and a new approach to into a hobby that for a long time was on the down slope. The high sales volumes and excellent auction results we are seeing these days speaks of resurgence, not decay.

And consider this aspect. There are now many people, young and old, who are immobile or who have communication challenges. Maybe they don’t like groups, or are simply more comfortable in their own homes. All these people now have access to the collecting community – exchanging and dialoguing about these little pieces of paper that we have been studying and collecting for 150 years or so. And despite all the chatter we hear about what the effects of the Web have been, this last observation outweighs, I think, all of that.

David G. Jones is a member of BNAPS and has been active on eBay for ten years.


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