The arial is missing

A brief introduction into getting the most out of eBay

I am a great believer in recycling. Most of my workshop was built from gash wood found in skips, and the Department of Home Affairs claimed to be pleased with the dressing table I built for her from stuff I picked up at the docks. I expect she’ll start using it soon, once the smell of mackerels has worn off.

Thus, with a customary eye out for anything re-usable, I was delighted to find that the undertaker had overlooked my late father’s dentures, and that they were still on the bedside table. I’ve been using them for about a month now, and although they don’t fit very well they are in much better nick than the set that once belonged to my mother, so I shall persevere.

It is not so easy to speak when you first wear someone else’s dentures, and you are liable to be misunderstood. Not good if you run a pub quiz. Last week, when I asked the contestants to name Britain’s largest carnivore, most people wrote down Notting Hill. And when I asked for the dictionary definition of a herring, everyone said it was a bird with long legs.

The following round was easier as the question paper was printed. On it I provided three possible definitions for various arcane words, and people had to guess which one was correct. One of the words was ‘Mordant’ and the choices I offered were ‘Delivering jokes in a deadpan manner’, ‘A suburb at the end of the Northern Line’, or ‘An abrasive manner’.

Being an erudite reader you will know, of course, know that one of the several correct meanings of mordant relates to someone abrasive in manner or speech. The word might easily apply to a sizeable proportion of people who trade on eBay. Many sellers start off by being abrasive. Before ever describing the item, they begin their pitch with such welcoming phrases as ‘I don’t’, ‘I won’t’, or ‘I never’. These resolve into statements like ‘I don’t accept returns’, ‘I won’t post overseas’,  ‘I never combine postage’, and so on.

At the time of writing, there was a live eBay listing that typified this attitude. The description read: ‘here i have a 968 bbc tv roving eye vehicle made by meccano good condition only problem is the arial is missing also comes boxed.’ The starting price was at the very top end of the market value, and the seller emphatically stated that he would not ship overseas, would not accept returns, and would not combine postage. And to crown it all, he was demanding a payment of £5 to answer the door if someone wanted to collect the item in person. Moreover, the title read simply ‘roving eye vehicle’ with no make, model, or catalogue number. The vital keyword ‘Dinky’ was missing from both the title and the description, and anyone searching for Dinky Toys would never have found it. The seller lived in Stoke-on-Trent, which somehow seemed apposite, and, needless to say, the item attracted no bids.

If you spend any amount of time on eBay, you will see hundreds of listings like this example and soon realise that merely by projecting an agreeable disposition, and by using a few vital keywords, you will, by other sellers’ default, have given yourself a head start.

But even before you begin the process of choosing the right words, you must first select a suitable typeface. Psychologists refer to something called ‘cognitive ease’, which, put simply, is the brain’s ability to read and absorb the written word at first glance. Of the nine fonts (typefaces) offered by eBay, three readily facilitate cognitive ease – Arial, Times Roman, and Trebuchet. The last-named font is particularly recommended because it can accommodate 12-point text, which further aids cognitive ease, without appearing to ‘shout’ at the reader. And by selecting dark grey rather than black as a font colour, it appears softer and less formal. In short, and if it can be said of any typeface, Trebuchet looks ‘friendly’; and, most importantly, it is easy to read.

To your friendly font, add a friendly salutation. A good choice would be: ‘Thank you for looking. You would be bidding for…’ Many sellers, if they bother with a salutation, start with ‘You are bidding for…’ The first version, using would rather than are, is less presumptive. To tell someone ‘You are bidding…‘ invites a ‘No I’m not!’ response, which any professional sales person will recognise as an objection. Not a good way to start a sales pitch.

Following on from the salutation should be a heading – a slightly more fulsome version of the title , with added punctuation and conjunctions. Since any number of characters can be used in the ‘Description’ section of the eBay template, you could make your expanded title as long as you wish. But in the interests of ‘cognitive ease’, try to be succinct. Use a bold font (and preferably UPPER CASE) to distinguish the heading from the remainder of the body text, but don’t increase the point size.

Beneath the heading should be the description, which will usually contain more facts relating to size, colour, provenance and so on. How much you write is partly a function of the item on sale. Clearly you will have more to say about a telescope than a tea tray. But even more crucial is what comes next. It’s what auctioneers call a ‘condition report’, and it provides another good opportunity for you to sell – both yourself and the item. What you write at this point exerts more influence on the reader than any other words before, or after.

In describing the condition of your artefact, try always to use plain English. For example, if you are selling an oil painting and want to point out that it is covered in a network of fine cracks, say just that, and not that the painting is subject to ‘some evident craquelure’. And similarly, if you mean the back of something, don’t write ‘verso’.

There are several good reasons for using plain English. Firstly, it is more transparent, and, by implication therefore, more honest. Secondly, eBay is international, and jargon is often not easily translated into a foreign language. (As George W. Bush once said: ‘The problem with the French is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur’). And finally, if you use words that people don’t readily understand, you have lost the element of cognitive ease, which is the KY Jelly of a written sales message. I might add that words that are difficult to understand can put some people off for no other reason than they can generate a sense of inferiority, which gives rise to emotive objections, and they are hard to deflect.

In a crowded market place, where, in return for a few keystrokes, customers can easily compare one offering with another, an honest, open description is much more likely to secure a sale than one obfuscated by jargon, absent detail, or fanciful language.

There is another reason not to be economical with the truth. If the winning bidder, on receipt of the item, asserts it is ‘not as described’ and opens an eBay dispute, it will invariably be settled in favour of the buyer because eBay’s default position is that the buyer is always more honest than the seller. If that happens, and the buyer and seller have not reached an amicable agreement, then the seller’s PayPal account will in all probability be debited with the full purchase price, even if the goods have not been recovered. And there is always the likelihood of a negative feedback, which is harder to shake off than points on your licence.

It therefore follows that an honest description, in which the truth is not economised, will not only stand you in good stead with your would-be customers but will also avoid the possibility of later recriminations.

And whatever you do, please write as if English were your first language. Try to get the spelling rite, avoid the dreaded grocer’s plural (it’s CDs, not CD’s), and use proper punctuation and case size. (For example, ‘I am’ can be shortened to ‘I’m’ but not ‘im’ – you are trying to sell something, not send a text msg.) Don’t forget that overseas buyers might be using an online application to translate your words into their own language, and if the English word is not correctly spelt, vital detail could be lost in the translation

This same ‘Description’ section also enables you to pen what some companies call a ‘Mission Statement’, which usually takes the form of a commitment to service and customer care. All most eBay buyers care about is getting an item in one piece, in reasonable time, and as described. That’s perfectly reasonable, since once the item is paid for, it becomes the buyer’s property, and therefore the seller has a duty of care. In order to reassure would-be bidders (AKA would-be buyers) that you take the duty of care aspect seriously, appending something like the following ‘mission statement’ to every description is strongly recommended. ‘All items are carefully packed and posted by recorded delivery within one working day of cleared payment.’ Other reassurances can be added according to how high you value the concept of customer care. For example: ’I offer a no-quibble refund (including postage) if buyers can demonstrate that an item fails to comply with its description’. And: ‘I am happy to combine postage on multiple purchases’.  Both of these concessions to customer care are highly recommended but not universally applied. Another chance to score a few valuable Brownie points.

Whilst I still have your attention could I direct you to this opportunity, and say: Thank you for looking. You would be bidding on…


Fashioned from wooden crates with faded lettering in the shabby chic style, and infused with the fragrance of the North Sea and late occupants of same. Buyer collects.




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