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Part One: Online Selling

The best shopping websites for your business Add to ...

In this four-part series, we'll examine where to sell your products or services online, how to set up a sales window, which e-money transfer services to use and how to build up your data history.

Part One: Where to sell your products

“The Internet is like a beach,” says Ron Walker. “If you start up a website, you’re one grain of sand on that beach. But eBay is half that beach.”

Mr. Walker knows something about getting noticed. He’s on the phone from his antiques store in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, a rural store serving a global market – and one that recently saw him named one of eBay’s entrepreneurs of the year.

Mr. Walker started using eBay in 2001, selling a World War II-era Churchill pin, listed at $5 in his store, for $400.

The next year, he and his wife, Sheri, moved from Victoria to Nova Scotia, and the pair put online sales at the heart of their operation, running a hybrid bricks-and-mortar storefront and online store.

Fifteen years after the online auction site started, online commerce is no longer the province of outliers and risk-takers; it’s a mature marketplace for more or less any goods. Yet it remains the undiscovered country for many small businesses. As the years have passed, eBay has been joined by others: sites like Craigslist, the anarchic classified site, and Kijiji, its more commercial sibling. Meanwhile, craft-oriented marketplaces like Etsy have appeared to cater to the handmade set.

If you’re in the business of buying or selling – and you don’t mind being on close terms with the folks at the local post office – then online marketplaces can give you online sales capabilities without needing to build a custom website.

But there are different models worth considering:

eBay: Fifteen years after it was founded, eBay straddles the world like a goliath. Its size is a double-edged sword: On one hand, it offers instant access to a global market. On the other, it puts the onus on sellers to make themselves visible.

eBay started as an auction site, but today vendors have the choice of selling goods via auction or at a fixed price, like any other online store. Buyers rate the service they got from vendors, and eBay puts a premium on the resulting trustworthiness scores: The site’s search engine puts well-reputed vendors at the top of the list, so maintaining a good reputation is a priority.

Typically, the site charges a fee for listing items, and takes a cut of the final purchase price. You can also pay to have your items listed more prominently. eBay offers a number of different pricing packages, at different price points, depending on the volume of goods a business wants to sell; a fee calculator on the site will help determine what the best deal is for you, given the amount you’re selling.

Access to a global market with a built-in sales is a tempting proposition. But those who build eBay businesses warn: it’s work. One by-product is voluminous correspondence. Sheri Walker spends about five hours a day answering e-mail, and then there’s the endless packaging and trips to the post office. (The Walkers ship with Canada Post.)

Mr. Walker says that, of the hundred-odd people he’s introduced to eBay, only two have built working businesses out of it. The trick, he says, is to approach it not as a hobby, but as a serious enterprise.

“You have to answer the e-mails when something sells. You have to ship it in 24 hours. It has to be your business.”

Kijiji: Where eBay is an online store, Kijiji (like Craigslist) sells classified ads. The practical difference? On eBay, the entire transaction is carried out online – the buyer pays through PayPal, and gets their purchase shipped to them. On Kijiji, the parties meet online, but the deal is completed offline – payment and transfer of goods is up to the individuals, just like in an old-fashioned classified.

This means that while eBay is global, online classifieds are a local proposition. This is a boon for people who are selling things that you can’t ship to Bangalore: cars are a big seller, and classifieds are a good outlet for professional services. (It is not, after all, particularly advisable to put yourself up for sale on eBay.)

Posting listings on Kijiji is free, except for cars sales, where a listing fee of between $9.99 and $15 applies. As with eBay, advertisers can also purchase upgrades that will make their ads more prominent in different ways.

Kijiji boasts it reaches 36% of online Canadians, which it says is significantly higher than Craigslist, its closest competitor. Craigslist, the anarchic classified site, remains a strong presence, but its spare, hard-to-search interface and chequered reputation work against it. On the upside, it’s also mostly free, only charging for job listings.

Etsy and craft markets: Amongst the fastest-growing online stores is Etsy. A marketplace for handmade goods – one of several in a booming trade – it’s became far more than a store for beads and baubles, but for all manner of self-made merchandise.

Debra Norton is a Toronto-based artist who’s dedicated herself full-time to creating and selling paper goods – greeting cards, gift tags, invitations and the like – and has found Etsy to be more than just a sales tool.

“It’s let me reach an audience I might not otherwise have access to without doing a lot of shows,” she says. “It’s opened up a lot of opportunities.”

Etsy works much like eBay, but without the auctions: Vendors put up items for sale, at a fixed price. Etsy charges a small listing fee for each one, then takes a percentage of the final sale. Payment happens online, either through credit card or PayPal. Shipping falls to the vendor, must be handled promptly, and can eat up a lot of time.

Etsy became known as a place for hand-made items, but not everything sold there needs to be individually whittled from a log. Some people use letterpresses to make prints; Ms. Norton uses a computer to digitally colour her creations and prints them out from there. Now, she says she’s looking at ways to scale up her home-based operation, from which she currently ships about 50 items a month.

Etsy’s not the only game in town: Ms. Norton recommends looking at new selling options, including 100 Mile Finds, which puts buyers in touch with local vendors, the Arizona-based Artfire.com and the Vancouver-based PoppyTalk Handmade.

For more series, go to the Web Strategy section of Your Business.

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