Digital World: The eBay open-book test

They say that school is just a paradigm for life, and in the case of eBay, that certainly seems to be the case.

Nobody likes tests. Students hate them for obvious reasons, and even teachers aren't such big fans, since they have to put up with a lot of student whining afterward if class grades are low on the "bell curve" - to say nothing of the principal's wrath, as her or she is forced to deal with whiny parents and questions from the Board of Education. That's one reason why many teachers opt for open-book tests, especially if they're faced with a less than stellar student body. With the open-book test, students at least have a fighting chance to do well on tests - or so the thinking goes, until the test results come back. It's amazing how many students can blow it even when all the answers are in front of them! They say that school is just a paradigm for life, and in the case of eBay, that certainly seems to be the case. eBay ( and its international progeny (there are native sites in 28 other countries besides the United States) have brought the magic - and choice of on-line shopping to hundreds of millions of consumers around the world. Millions - maybe tens of millions - of sellers peddle every imaginable consumer product, being sold by millions (tens of millions?) of on-line merchants. For a minimum investment, they can get in on the world's biggest flea market. eBay is actually an ideal business for some people, especially those who are business-skill savvy but cash poor. The start-up costs for an eBay business are zero (it costs nothing to join), although there are fees when you sell products and (in some circumstances) when you post them on-line. Lest you think that eBay is useful only for selling old clothes you've outgrown or the kids' comic book collection, be aware that there are new and used goods of every type for sale, from matchbook covers to multi-carat diamond jewelry, which people snap up. The most expensive item ever sold (and bought!) on eBay was a yacht (, for which Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich (, he of the Chelsea soccer organization and who apparently collects yachts, paid - would you believe - $168 million! Critics have in recent years bashed eBay for "not being fun anymore" and being "too commercial" (I can't imagine what else you would expect in a commerce site!). But eBay is as popular as ever, and is still a great way to make money - if you know what you're doing, of course. If all this is news to you, you're like a majority of Israelis; most eBay sites serve the locals, and Israel does not (yet) have a native eBay site. Since eBay is made up of independent merchants, there is no set shipping policy, so finding a merchant that has something you want and that is willing to ship here takes a lot of searching and motivation - more than even the most avid bargain hunters have. So eBay is usually not a great on-line shopping venue for Israelis, unless they have a place to ship goods to in the US, UK or other eBay-friendly country. Selling was, until several months ago, a problem for Israelis as well, unless they had a foreign bank account. It was only recently that Paypal, eBay's payment mechanism, made a deal that allows Paypal proceeds to be deposited directly into local bank accounts. But that hasn't stopped Israelis from selling stuff - lots of it! Hundreds of people are doing it, many of them artisans selling Israeli crafts, stamps and coins, books and jewelry, among other items. Still others are based in Israel, selling goods on eBay sites shipped from China or other Far East countries directly to the customer. Why not? Just about everything they sell in the US is made in China now anyway, so why shouldn't Israelis get in on the action too? But like with everything else in life, there are winners and losers on eBay. Which one of the 1,121 laptop computers offered on a particular day, by auction or set price, would a customer opt for? How do you set prices in the wake of such competition? How do you attract the customer's attention? If there are 1,000 laptops for sale and a prospective customer looks at them with the layout default of 50 machines per page, how do you make sure your offering is on page one or two, and not page 437? Thus the open-book test analogy: All the answers are right there on the eBay site - some obvious, others esoteric. The trick to winning at eBay is knowing how to use those tools to promote your product and your service - gaining the attention and favor of potential customers who will not only bid on (or outright buy) your product, but give you a positive feedback rating, a key element in how eBay decides whom to label a trustworthy seller? It's clearly a science - and, in fact, a most interesting article on "The Science of eBay" ( gives some useful tips on how to play the system. Based on scientific research using numerous behavioral studies conducted among eBay customers and merchants, several professors from the London Business School and Northwestern University came up with 10 "commandments" on what to do and avoid when doing business on the site. An even more extensive list of tips is available at, and lists 51 useful ideas on how to sell and make money (also don't forget eBay's own tutorial site - for buyers and sellers - at On-line education is all well and good, says Asi Tsur, a professional full-time eBay seller in Israel - but there are a lot of charlatans out there who sell on-line courses consisting of not too much more than the tips on the sites I listed above. "It's just too complicated," he says, "with all the rules and regulations it's easy to get lost." Despite what many people think, Tsur says, eBay is not a get-rich-quick scheme. On the other hand, he says, with the right tools and knowledge, local merchants can join the many Americans, Brits, Poles, Argentineans, Indians and citizens of almost every other country in the world who sell on eBay, and who earn a nice side - or full-time - income from their work. Asi has a Web site on the subject and offers classes in Hebrew (he says he will soon offer them in English as well) on the eBay business. As far as I know, he is the only person in Israel teaching such classes. (eBay itself runs training programs for potential merchants in many countries, but not in Israel.) Check out his site at> if you're interested. The site, in Hebrew, also has a useful list of free tips, links and sales aids at