Jewish World Review Nov. 15, 2004 / 2 Kislev, 5765

Rheta Grimsley Johnson

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Consumer Reports

eBay effort gobbled up | Years ago, when my little sister ran a Kentucky antiques auction, I bid on a turkey platter and won. The platter was pretty old and pretty big, so big that, between Thanksgivings, I stored it beneath a bed.

By some miracle, the platter wasn't part of the flotsam culled when I moved back from a large house in Georgia to my small Mississippi home. I had forgotten all about it until recently. I was cleaning out the storage shed and discovered the giant transferware plate precariously lodged between camping gear and tax records.

It had occurred to me not long ago — probably on the day my American Express bill arrived — that I might enjoy eBay auctions just as much if I were selling, not buying. After all, the fun is in the auction process itself, in watching as seemingly inconsequential items soar in price, while something you considered valuable goes for nickels. It's a form of gambling, and the house always wins.

Lots of people make their living selling on eBay; I'd heard all about it on "60 Minutes."

My own sister matches her regular income with the money she makes selling yard-sale finds on eBay.

And I have enough junk lying around to support a heroin habit, if only I could do what every other half-bright citizen knows how to do: Part with excess.

I decided to sell the turkey platter. The eBay registration process wasn't too complicated, and I cheerfully imagined a separate checking account with mad money to spend on French enamelware and vintage postcards and other eBay nonessentials. It would be, in effect, like swapping old junk for new treasures.

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I borrowed a friend's digital camera, took a nice outdoor shot of the colorful bird and used up a month's worth of adjectives to describe the platter. I chose a 10-day auction, the better to attract bidders, and then took off on a family trip. I was due home long before the auction ended.

Bidding was slow. I checked on it 50 times a day. I had started the auction at $25, and somebody finally offered that amount. I myself had paid at least $50 for the platter — I couldn't remember exactly — and that was a deal.

On the last auction day, two invisible bidders got busy online, raising the final sale price to $36.50. Not great, but not too bad for something I'd forgotten I owned. I was happy.

I was also far from home. Family affairs had taken longer than anticipated, and I was nine hours away from the turkey platter that needed to be mailed, promptly, to its new owner.

So I made a quick round trip, as they say in the trucking game, driving 18 hours in two days — with gas at $2 a gallon. I'd not break even, but at least my first buyer wouldn't put a black mark beside my name.

In the eBay game, the feedback that others leave about you is all-important. Other cybershoppers want reassurance that you're a good person to deal with, so, I figured, pleasing your first customer is imperative.

I packed the platter carefully, using bubble wrap and Styrofoam, even throwing in a cardboard turkey with crepe-paper feathers as lagniappe. I paid for priority postage, though the buyer had been promised only standard mail. Might as well get good feedback, if not a profit. I dropped the box at the post office and felt a load had been lifted.

Next time I checked my e-mail, the message was there: Turkey platter arrived today in pieces!

It was as if someone had slapped me. I quickly wrote a note back offering to refund the customer's money if she didn't want to be bothered with filing an insurance claim with the post office. She accepted my offer and kindly left good feedback.

Best I can figure, my box was too weak. My positive feedback cost me roughly $100, if you don't count mailing materials and gasoline. I don't.

I was never good at selling anything, from Girl Scout cookies to newspaper advertising. And my first eBay attempt, well, it was a real turkey.

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© 2004, Rheta Grimsley Johnson Distributed by King Features Syndicate