Making Mad Money on eBay

Believe it or not, there is a market for the bizarre on eBay. Here we outline some examples of hits and misses for those who want to earn cash the unconventional way.
One day in the early 1990's Diana Duyser of Hollywood, Fla. made herself a grilled- cheese sandwich. Then she gazed down at the brown skillet marks on the bread: "I saw a face looking up at me; it was the Virgin Mary staring back. I was in total shock," she later told reporters. Diana held on to the sandwich for 10 years — then sold it on eBay for $28,000.

The most frequent way eBay makes the news is from such reports of goofy or bizarre items that sell on the site, often at prices that astound. Their numbers are legion, with some items becoming legendary to the point of entering folk culture. Though it is a subjective issue, by some estimates the blue-ribbon winners in this category were the breast implants of a former stripper, a certain Ms. Tawny Peaks.

Previously, Peaks made news in 1998 when accused of assaulting a gentleman by hitting him with her breasts. The victim claimed whiplash because her implants "were like cement blocks." This 'trial' took place on TV in The Peoples Court, the presiding 'judge' Ed Koch, former mayor of New York, rejected the suit, ruling the assets soft, therefore non lethal.

In 1999, Peaks got married and had the implants removed. After six years of languishing on a shelf, Tawny had an idea: she decided to autograph her implants and auction them off on eBay. On Feb. 25, 2005, The Golden Palace, an Internet casino, bought them for $16,777. Previously, the Golden Palace had purchased on eBay the notorious Virgin Mary cheese sandwich, a haunted walking stick ($65, 000,) and the "mystery envelope?" ($7,600.) More recently the company bought a Britney Spears half-eaten egg salad sandwich and a William Shatner kidney stone.

At first glance it might seem that the folks at Golden Palace have more money than sense — a lot more money. But do they really? The publicity garnered from purchasing these ridiculous items is much better than simply spending money on traditional advertising. Nor did Peaks' implants reach $16, 777 with just a single bid; clearly, separating the lunatic-fringe bidders, there were other entrepreneurs who had the same idea. In short, there is a market for the strange, weird, bizarre, ridiculous and unimaginable on eBay.

EBay's home for the absurd is the "Weird Stuff" category that breaks down into three sub-categories: "Slightly Unusual," "Really Weird," "Totally Bizarre." A recent check showed about 12,000 auctions in the three sub-categories. Regardless of where they're placed, the sales vary widely in weirdness, from redundant ads for "miracle diet pills" to " Secret Information From Outer Space." The "Buy It Now" sales outnumber auctions as they allow sellers with redundant copies of popular items to re-list quickly.

Catering to eBay's absurd auction buyers, while perhaps lacking in dignity, can be profitable. However, competition is fierce: on a recent check of the 12,000 sales in the 'Weird' categories, less than 10 percent had garnered bids. Given that nowadays most eBay buyers are savvy enough to bid at the last minute, the seller still needs a "hook" to succeed with the absurd. That generally translates into crossover appeal. Here we will attempt by example to offer some ideas of what works and what doesn't for eBay sellers who are, depending on your viewpoint, shameless, courageous or creative enough to try it.

Don't Mention Money
EBay has no problem with crass auctions, as long as they stay within company rules and federal laws. Sellers cannot conduct raffles, lotteries or games of chance and the mention of cash is forbidden (although a box full of "dead presidents" of different denominations passes muster somehow.) In one interesting case, however, the "cash" rule does not apply. At 14,000 to the dollar, Iraqi dinars are basically worthless currency, not traded on the world market. Nevertheless, one Power Seller offers large sums of it in multiple sales, all drawing bids, all containing pages of argument on how someday things will settle down in Iraq, the oil will flow, the currency will be revalued, etc., making the buyer rich. It's a sort of "the South will rise again" argument on an international scale, with successful results, at least for the moment.

Mystery Auctions
Mystery auctions are perhaps the most popular theme among eBay's "Weird" categories. EBay "one-cent wonder" sellers, for instance, have found new life through this avenue. Buyers had been shying away from sellers who offer items at pennies and make their profit by slamming the buyer with excessive shipping fees. But buyers do not seem to be able to resist bidding on the unknown, especially if it's labeled a "gift." In order to convert profits into serious money however, sellers often combine the allure of "mystery" with the crossover appeal of "gifts," love, sex, greed, the fascination with the grotesque and absurd, and an interesting story, plausible or otherwise. In a recent instance over the holiday season a seller offered in Dutch auction, a "mystery holiday gift," nicely gift wrapped at the more than moderate price of 6 cents. Shipping, however, came in at $8.50. Doing the math, a seller could buy any sort of trinket at closeout or 99-cent store, buy boxes and wrapping in quantity, and turn a profit of $4 or $5 with each sale.

The Love Connection
Love in all its permutations is frequently offered on eBay, sometimes with mixed results. In February an auction was posted with an image of a provocatively dress woman offering to be somebody's "Personal MySpace Girlfriend." The description stated: "I will add to your profile and send you messages. Also, I will answer all your emails and send you profiles for all your friends to see." The love in this case was conditional — "up to two weeks," and the auction was taken down by eBay.

On the other hand, the offer of "unconditional love" for a perfect romantic Valentine's Day in New York City, complete with a Godinger Shannon crystal coach and several mystery gifts, sold for $263.

Love lost can also pay dividends, particularly when combined with mystery or heartbreak. "My ex-wife cheated on me and now it's time for payback," touted the header on another recent eBay auction. The sale was accompanied by a photo of the ex in lingerie. "I'm not auctioning her, the photo is just to arouse curiosity," we were advised, then told it was a mystery auction of something his former wife loved, with hints accompanying each $100 in bids. The mystery item, apparently a designer garment, sold for $405.

Another ad had the header: "He Left Us For My Best Friend," and was accompanied by the photo of the cad holding an infant. The seller tells us she was seduced and abandoned and was now selling off the dad's belongings in a "mystery auction" format. The seller had more than 100 feedbacks, all previous sales being mystery auctions, with mediocre positive feedback. This did not prevent 40 bids and a selling price of $250.

Love-loss prevention also does well on the site as male chastity belts are hot sellers in the $250 to $500 range, and for the lovelorn, inflatable female blow up dolls never fail to draw bids.

The Whimsical, Creative and Odd
Sometimes, it's worth just listing something to see if it will work, because you just never know what will happen, and if there's low over-head, why not try? One seller attracted 33 bids for a pack of cigarettes he was currently smoking, until eBay pulled the sale with 15 hours left.

In another off-beat auction, a pair of brothers who are musicians offer to write an original song, on any topic and deliver it by e-mail or snail mail. The listing is accompanied by a photo of two handsome young men. Judging by the number of feedbacks, this gambit works.

One enterprising vendor auctioned off a piece of toast supposedly bearing the image of Britney Spears' bald head. Granted, it sold for just $1, but considering the initial investment, that's not a bad return.

In another case, given the unusually mild, snow-free early winter in the Northeast, Mary Walker of Loveland, Co. thought it would be fun to auction off three snowballs made from the 4 feet of snow dumped on the Colorado Front Range in early January. Three days and 100 bids later, the snowballs sold for $200 to Chris Hansen, a Connecticut firefighter, who bought them for his three teenage daughters. Walker posted the auction as a joke, and at first refused to accept Hansen's money, but the firefighter insisted and Walker was stuck trying to figure out how to get the snowballs to Connecticut intact.

In other instances, just going for the grotesque or "freak of nature" works. For example, in this category, there are two-headed stuffed chickens, currently garnering $550 with eight bids, but two heads is not always better than one. Imitation shrunken heads made of goat hair and skin seem to be popular too as these listings are also drawing bids.

Biblical Proportions
A "Jesus" search among the Weird categories nets an appalling assortment. Apparently inspired by the success of the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich, sellers are offering images of Jesus on rocks, frying pans, photos of cloud formations and just about anything else you can imagine, because, oddly enough, people bid on them. In one of the few intentionally humorous sales found, a header read "Grilled Cheese Sandwich Looks Nothing At All Like Jesus." The description noted, "Looks remarkably like a grilled cheese sandwich." But then, even at 99 cents and free shipping it attracted no bidders.

One recent religious relic, a priest's last-right's kit, however, sold for $36.99, showing there's always a market for the unusual, especially when it is the real thing.

Celebrities
It goes without saying that any item even claimed to have been touched by a celebrity can bring in the bucks, though some types of items sell better than others. The catch is getting your hands on, say, the hand-written letter from Anna Nicole Smith that just sold for $488. Usually, the celeb items fall into the more obscure arena, as is the case with a fork claimed to have been used by the former rapper Vanilla Ice that's still languishing with one bid of 99 cents.


Only on eBay
Shear Madness: Selling celebrity domain names on eBay.
(Click for larger image.)
But there's an easier way to cash in on the tabloid tsunami of celeb news that doesn't involve serendipitous timing or dumpster diving. You can buy creative domain names on the cheap and sell them before the news goes stale. For instance, after Spears shaved her head and the New York Daily News and New York Post blared headlines of "Britney Shears," one star-savvy capitalist began auctioning the "britneyshears.net" domain name, currently at $26 with 17 bids.

Going Once, Going Twice, Gone
Ebay's success has often been credited to its entertainment value. For those not faint of heart and who possess a sense of humor, the "Weird" categories rank high in entertainment value. For sellers who wish to cash in on the ridiculous, bear in mind, good news travels fast. The days of the $28,000 cheese sandwiches and $65,000 haunted walking sticks are probably over. Having something unique, applying creativity and hard work seem to be the winning recipes for success in the world of eBay weirdness.

For those seeking ideas or just for the fun of it, there are several Web sites devoted to strange auctions, among the best are, whattheheck.com, goofyauctions.com, oddballacutions.com and noshameauctions.com.

Frank Fortunato is a regular contributor to ECommerce-Guide.com.

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