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THE EBAY WAY OF LIFE
LOCAL ENTREPRENEURS USE AUCTION SITE TO MAKE MONEY WITHOUT LEAVING THE HOUSE

Sarah and Chris Crawley of Kenmore can turn from the computer screen that links them to customers all over the world and watch their two toddlers take an afternoon nap.

Dorothy Jacobs, 43, of North Collins, dreams of moving to England -- where she and her husband, Brian, can continue their online business.

Frank J. Gubala, 57, of Kenmore, ran a sports photography company after being laid off. But his nagging Vietnam War injuries made him look for something less strenuous -- and he found it in the worldwide marketplace he reaches through his basement office.

The Crawleys, Jacobs and Gubala all have at-home online businesses in a field that didn't exist 10 years ago. They make a living selling everything from plastic jewelry to military memorabilia on eBay, the worldwide online auction site that links buyers with sellers.

Today, more than 100 million people around the world use www.ebay.com to buy and sell literally everything, from trash to treasure, except for a few prohibited items -- human organs, animals, guns and drugs, for example.

For countless people, eBay is a diversion, a place to search for the Howdy Doody doll you had as a child or a piece to complete your china pattern. But for an estimated 430,000, including many Western New Yorkers, eBay offers a part-time or full-time selling job, enabling them to structure their work to fit their lives.

The young couple

In the Crawleys' house, Kayla, 2 1/2 , sleeps deeply in a muddle of blankets on the living room couch, while Brianna, 1 1/2 , naps in a nest of stuffed animals in her mesh playpen.

Sarah, 23, and Chris, 26, cherish their time at home with their daughters. But their dedication to their eBay business, carried out under the seller name "Kaylastoybox," can be seen with just a few clicks online.

Late last week, the Crawleys had 804 items offered for sale, ranging from Barbie jewelry to makeup, all new in their original packages. The prices for most start at just 99 cents; the "Buy it Now" prices, which end the auction on the spot, range from $3.50 for a Care Bears key chain to $20 for a Hello Kitty backpack.

"My auctions start off very cheaply, but even if the item sells for that, I still make money," says Sarah Crawley.

Sarah Crawley makes all her purchases at wholesale prices from one vendor. "I get everything for clearance prices, and I sell it for a profit," she said.

Sarah handles the listings, and estimates she can get a sale item online in five minutes. Chris, who does the mailings, says the staff at the nearby post office "knows me very well."

The Crawleys started selling on eBay in the summer of 2001, when they auctioned Chris' G.I. Joes and other toys from the '80s. "We checked it out on eBay, and found out we didn't know how valuable they were," said Sarah.

Next, Sarah, who was working at a video store, used her employee discount to buy DVDs and sold them for higher prices on eBay. "I worked up until my first daughter was born," she said. "And I've been at home since."

With the eBay business, "You can work your own hours, be your own boss. I have to do it between whatever we're doing during the day, however my kids are," she said.

"Before we started this, neither of us even considered a business career," said Sarah. Now Chris Crawley is taking an online course in business management.

In 2002, Kaylastoybox was named an eBay PowerSeller, joining an invitation-only group that sells a significant volume of items and maintains a positive feedback rating from customers of 98 percent or better.

There is one drawback to operating a business via computer, she says: "I think one disadvantage is that people seem to find it's easier to lie to you about not paying, because you hear every excuse there is why someone can't pay."

But the Crawley business -- though you can only visit it in cyberspace -- is growing and thriving. Just like Kayla and Brianna.

Bound for England

Dorothy Jacobs was in her mid-30s before she ever touched a computer. When she finally had to go online, to study business administration and marketing through Empire State College, it opened up a new world for her.

But even then, her mind was on the Old World -- England, to be exact. She and her husband, Brian, 46, a truck driver and blacksmith, share an interest in nature and history. They were married in medieval costume during an outdoor ceremony in Allegany State Park in 1995. And a visit to the Cornwall area of England about seven years ago convinced them that they'd be happiest in that rugged land.

In 1998, "I started looking at eBay, and I thought, this would be a way to get rid of a few extra things in my collection of horse figurines, which I'd been collecting since I was 8," said Jacobs. "I was looking at thinning the herd" before their eventual move to England.

After her father's death, she quit school, and, she says of her eBay business, "I just ran with it." She was a charter member of the PowerSeller program.

Jacobs has emerged as an expert in the world of horse figurines, but she also sells animal-related collectibles, artwork, books, glassware and "a little bit of everything" under her seller name "Dorothyj." Early last week she had 23 items listed for sale, with starting prices ranging from $24.99 for a rare Buffalo China plate to 99 cents for two chalkware fruit plaques.

"When I started needing inventory, I started going to local auctions and sales," said Jacobs. But getting the items -- through newspaper ads, at estate or garage sales or local auctions -- is just the start. "I need to keep a research library and keep up-to-date; I subscribe to several different antiques publications. You have to do your research" to set prices correctly, she said.

Jacobs has seen an eBay effect on antiques, she says. "eBay has lowered the prices on some things that used to be considered really rare because nobody ever saw them," she says. "A lot of things are not as rare as people once thought they were.

"Franciscan china, for example -- when I first started selling on eBay, I could make a huge profit on it. I might buy a dinner service for $40 (at an estate sale) and get $50 for individual pieces," she says. "That's kind of fallen off."

Also, "you don't find the bargains at Goodwill that you used to, because there are so many people doing eBay," said Jacobs. "When I first started, I picked up a pale yellow Ultrasuede coat from the '60s, Christian Dior, for $8. I think I got about $300 for it from somebody in New York City, and they never would have found it in their area. You don't see that so much anymore."

Until Dorothy and Brian Jacobs are ready for the big move to the moors of Cornwall, where they will continue to operate their business, they take a lengthy vacation there each year.

"I just have to arrange all my auctions so that they are ending in time for me to get things out and make sure I communicate with everybody," she said. "You really can't beat being self-employed. It's a lot of work to stay disciplined, but the time freedom is great. After I'd been doing it for a while, I couldn't even imagine going back to work for someone else."

The Vietnam veteran

After Frank J. Gubala of Kenmore was laid off from his job as a computer service engineer in 1985, he started his own sports photography business. Although profitable, the work was strenuous and time-consuming, he said.

Because he's a disabled veteran with some physical problems, "I was very worried before I started the coin business," he said.

Then he made contact with a fellow veteran who took his place when he was injured by a land mine in Vietnam in July 1968. That man knew a manufacturer overseas who made military "challenge coins," which are given out by unit commanders as rewards.

The "challenge" aspect refers to military tradition that has developed around the coins: If a fellow unit member who has a coin challenges you to show your coin, you must produce it on the spot or pay a penalty, usually by buying a round of drinks. If you show the coin, the challenger must buy.

"There are hundreds of different kinds of challenge coins," said Gubala, who joined eBay in the fall of 1998 and was soon a PowerSeller under the name "FJGubala." "If you lose an original one, walking on water would be easier than getting another one that's identical."

Early last week, Gubala had nearly 900 items for sale, ranging from infantry pins for less than $4 to a group of 10 Marine Corps challenge coins for $79. He also sells military-related Christmas ornaments and key chains.

Gubala, whose wife is a teacher and whose son is a Marine deployed in Djibouti, Africa, employs a few marketing tactics to increase sales. He ships for free, and he sends a sixth item for free to customers who buy five. He also donates 25 cents to the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 77 Food Pantry in Tonawanda for every sale. Those quarters, with additional donations, added up to $1,130 in 2003, he says. "This year already I've given them over $1,300," he said.

"My prices are reasonable," says Gubala. "I don't want to gouge people, but I want to make enough to pay my bills and put a few bucks in my pocket."

And it's working. Gubala estimates he sold his 12,000th coin in 20 months in August.

Inside eBay

eBay, the largest online auction site, can be found online at www.ebay.com.

Buyers and sellers must both register, which is free, before using the site. Anyone, registered or not, may browse to see what items are available or what they have sold for recently.

To list items for sale, buyers fill out eBay forms and add their own pictures -- either digital photos or hard-copy photos converted into computer files on a scanner.

eBay collects a listing fee, depending on the minimum price set by the seller. The fee can start at less than $1 per listing. If an item does not sell the first time, eBay may permit it to be relisted for free or at a reduced cost.

An auction may last for three, five, seven or 10 days, or may end immediately with a "Buy it Now" bid. "Buy it Now" bids are usually much higher than the starting bid, but taking one eliminates the waiting period and the possibility of losing an item to another bidder.

A bid is considered a binding contract by eBay.

After the auction closes, the buyer and seller are sent each other's e-mail addresses and make contact with each other. They agree on a method of payment, usually money order or electronic transfer such as eBay's own PayPal. The buyer sends the money, and, when it is received, the seller mails the item.

MORE SITES TO SEE

Although eBay is the largest online auction site, with more than 100 million members worldwide, there are others. They include:

Yahoo! shopping auctions at http://auctions.yahoo.com. This site is most like eBay, selling everything from antiques and art to video games.

Auction Fire at http://auctionfire.com. As of late last week, this site had 14,551 registered users and 8,606 items up for auction, ranging from home and garden items to sports-related products.

Ubid.com at www.ubid.com. uBid.com, which calls itself "the Brand Name Marketplace," offers brand-name merchandise at discounts. Most auctions start at $1, and the products include warranties.

BuySellTrades at www.buyselltrades.com says it is "the leader in low-cost auctions." Established in 2002, this site specializes in antiques, collectibles, computers, electronics and sporting goods, among other items.

Auctions at Overstock.com at http://auctions.overstock.com. Founded in 1999, this Web site liquidates excess inventory. There were more than 23,000 items listed on this site late last week.

WHAT EBAY PROHIBITS

Airline- and transit-related items, including uniforms of airline or airport workers and safety or emergency manuals less than 10 years old.

Animals and wildlife products, including anything made from an endangered or protected species and any live animal, except aquarium fish.

Alcohol or tobacco products or coupons.

Counterfeit items, including designer look-alikes, counterfeit money and stamps.

Drugs and drug paraphernalia, embargoed goods, firearms, fireworks, gift cards, government IDs and licenses, human parts and remains, lock-picking devices, lottery tickets, plants and seeds, postage meters, prescription drugs and devices, recalled items, satellite and cable TV descramblers, stocks and other securities, stolen property or surveillance equipment.

Source: eBay

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com