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by Lloyd A. de Vries

Vol. 21 - Selling Online

Do you sell stamps and covers on the Web? Probably. Do you use eBay? Also probably.

(You may also use the Internet to promote a stamp organization or upcoming show; more about that later.)

However, eBay isn't the only place or method you can use. You may find other venues more successful, or — more likely — a combination of venues.

The most obvious alternatives are the eBay "wannabes." (And I can't believe the spellchecker just accepted "wannabe" as a word!) The next-biggest challenger is Yahoo auctions (http://auctions.yahoo.com). There are also Bidville and StampFair.

Most of these online auction sites start with no fees charged, but then, as they become more successful, charges are instituted.

None has anywhere close to the traffic that eBay has. If you are selling general philatelic merchandise, this may not matter to you: If your products are of interest to general or beginning collectors — mixtures, low-priced collections, common stamps — you may not need a large number of "eyeballs."

You might also use the non-eBay auction sites in addition to eBay simply to reach new customers, people who for one reason or another don't use eBay.

I had a bad experience with one of these sites, though: Someone "bought" about a dozen of my lots, but never responded to my requests for payment. That took my first day covers off sale. Since I hadn't paid the site any fees, nor shipped the goods, I really had no recourse, but it left a bad taste in my mouth. I've been told by other stamp dealers who use the site that mine was not an isolated case.

Some commercial Web sites also offer "stores" to small businesses, among them eBay and Amazon.com. These are fixed-price sites with longer display times for your merchandise than is allowed on the auction sites. You're also charged a fee for listing items, and there may be a monthly base fee, as well.

Amazon.com allows you to link your items to specific books that it sells. That means the listing for a book about errors, freaks and oddities, such as the Krause Catalogue of Errors on U.S. Postage Stamps, might include a link to a dealer's listing of EFOs.

These are all sales sites: places constructed for selling. There are also philatelic places on the Internet where selling or promoting is allowed.

Before posting or promoting in any of these more-than-just-sales places, a few words of advice:

  • Read the rules for the venue, and follow them. Failure to do so may result in ill will (not good for sales) or deletion of your messages (ditto) or nasty comments from other participants (not fun).
  • Post your sales messages in the right place within these venues.
  • Try to participate constructively in the other discussions that may be under way. In almost all cases, you are allowed to identify yourself as a stamp dealer or show promoter with a short commercial (much like the this-is-not-a-commercial-but-sure-sounds-like-one announcements that accompany public television programs). Your participation, hopefully, will show that you are a fine person, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, and knowledgeable in your philatelic specialty.
  • When you do participate in discussions, stay away from short "Me, too" messages that say nothing and from extensive quoting of preceding messages.
  • Stay away from "flame wars," the all-too-frequent arguments that break out on the Internet. Also stay away from politics and religion discussions in philatelic areas, even if allowed or encouraged. None of these will do your image any good.

"The Internet" and "The Web" are not synonymous: The Internet includes the World Wide Web, but also e-mail and newsgroups. There is some overlap between these functions, but a savvy salesman will take advantage of all of them.

The oldest part of the Internet, at least as far as stamp collecting goes, is the newsgroups. There are two types, the Usenet newsgroups which have charters that describe their purposes and hierarchies, and the independent newsgroups. The latter can include private newsgroups, available to specific people, such as subscribers or corporate employees.

Usenet newsgroup names begin with "rec." and then a category; in our case, it's "collecting" — rec.collecting. There used to be a single Usenet newsgroup for stamp collecting, rec.collecting.stamps, but several years ago, it broke into several: rec.collecting.stamps.discuss, rec.collecting.stamps.marketplace, and rec.collecting.postalhistory.

You may post sales messages in Marketplace, but not Discuss. On the other hand, posting a notice about your neat new Web site exhibit of trombonists-on-stamps in Marketplace probably is a waste of time.

Part of the charter of these newsgroups says that images cannot be posted, but you can include links to pictures on the World Wide Web.

There's also alt.collecting.stamps, which has no charter and was started as a protest against the division of rec.collecting.stamps. Almost all the messages I see in this newsgroup are commercial and promotional announcements; there's very little discussion.

What we used to call "Bulletin Boards" on the old dial-up systems have metamorphosed into "Message Boards" on the World Wide Web and on America Online. These may also be fertile grounds to plow, but these tend to be even more structured than newsgroups. Again, as mentioned above, become familiar with the board before posting. Read others' similar messages, and if you're not sure if your message is appropriate, ask the forum's host via e-mail.

To access America Online, you need to subscribe to AOL. For most of the other board systems, you need to register, but it's usually free.

Yet another Internet medium is e-mail, but don't bother buying a list of addresses from a broker: Most of us resent such "junk mail" and delete it quickly, often unread.

However, there are electronic "list-servers" (sometimes also called "lists"), which are, in effect, cooperatives: You subscribe, and then every message sent to the group address goes to every subscriber. There are several of these lists for stamp collecting, but most are specialized and moderated: Unless your merchandise falls into that specialty, the "list owner" may reject it.

The biggest e-mail list, though, is the Philatelic.com/Philatelic.net group, and it not only welcomes advertising, it thrives on it. Send a message to majordomo@philatelic.com, and in the message put "subscribe philatelic." No subject is required on the message.

You'll get a confirmation message from the automatic system, and that tells you how to get off the list, something many newcomers on lists forget to save.

There are two strategies for these non-selling sales opportunities: One, advertise stamps and covers directly, or two, use these sites to drive potential customers to your listings elsewhere.

It's not enough to just offer your stamps or covers for sale: You have to market them. The famed bank robber Willie Sutton, asked why he hit banks, replied "That's where the money is." You have to go where the customers are.

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