Web auctions, the new jackpot for middle Americans

Al Losey, a corporate trainer at a Detroit auto parts maker, lost his job six weeks ago in what could be another down-and-out story from a hard luck corner of the American economy.

Instead, Losey, and his wife Peggy, a devoted part-time seller of odds-and-ends on eBay, flew to Las Vegas this week trying to change their fortunes by hitting the jackpot as full-time sellers on the online auction site.

They joined thousands of other hopefuls who made the pilgrimage to eBay Inc.'s annual user conference to learn how 1.3 million people worldwide support themselves, in whole or in part, through online auctions.

"This is a great opportunity to kind of do our own thing," said Al, who, after being downsized from two jobs in the motor industry in six years, is ready to join his wife of 35 years in building a small business online.

"We've had it with corporate America," says Peggy. "I'm tired of relying on other people," echoes her husband.

Since 1998, she's created a sideline to her day job as a medical assistant by scouring garage sales for items many people might consider junk, but collectors on eBay covet. Now, the couple are gearing up to become full-time eBay sellers.

"No more mom-and-pop operation. It's time to move up to the next level," Al enthuses during a break in courses on how to incorporate a small business and become trading assistants by helping manage other people's eBay sales.

The middle of Middle America -- retirees, stay-at-home moms and school teachers -- are learning how to support themselves by the detailed work of turning items they buy on the cheap into profitable sales.

EBay sellers are protected from what to outsiders might seem like the latest in a long line of get-rich-schemes because they control the sale price and how payments are received, minimising the risk of fraud.


Trainers at the event estimated there are 12 million eBay sellers, including those who sell the occasional unwanted item on eBay's vast market. EBay recently signed up its 200 millionth registered user worldwide.

"It's pretty much my life," says Nancy MacGillivray, 49, of San Marcos, California. She turned to eBay four years ago, after her employer went bankrupt.

Her schooling 30 years ago in fashion merchandising came in handy. She sells extra large-sized clothing for young people under the eBay seller name Plus Size Fashions and More.

Her daughter, Kristi Roller, 22, a fashion student, started out helping her mother, but now runs her own eBay business, called KLR Couture, which specialises in clothing for juniors.

MacGillivray says she sells 35 to 50 packages of clothing a day, which at an average price of $20 (11 pounds), translates into around $700 to $1,000 in gross sales. Among eBay sellers, she ranks as No. 8,904 in volume, company figures show.

"Last year it started to feel like a real business," Nancy says. "But I'm still waiting to hit the jackpot."

"You're happy, mother. Don't be greedy," chides Kristi.

Peggy Losey believes she hit the jackpot three weeks ago, when she found some old plates shaped like lettuce leaves. She recognised the markings a type of Majolica pottery she'd seen on an antiques television show.

Because they had tiny chips on the edges, she paid just $10 for 15 pieces. When listing the items for auction on eBay, she acknowledged the defects, fearing the wrath of buyers and the harm to her all-important user feedback rating if she did not.

She auctioned off the plates for $1,419. Coming just weeks after her husband's lay-off, it amounted to winning a jackpot.

"I was just running around the house yelling, 'Oh, my God! Oh, my God!'"

Christian Godfrey is more sanguine about eBay.

"There is no jackpot," Godfrey said. "It's just another way to sell."

Still, he drove 12 hours with his wife, Kathy, 37, from their home in Idaho Falls, Idaho. The 39-year-old teacher of Website development at a technical college has been on eBay since 1998. He says he sells $2,000 a month of merchandise, mostly home furnishings.

"Everyone thinks that people can sell junk on eBay and make lots of money," Godfrey said. "It's way more work than people let on," he said between checking on inquiries. "That's the problem," he says. "You are on call all the time."

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