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Monday, August 8, 2005


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DENNIS ODA / DODA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Tiffany Tanaka, right, owner of Wesellthings4u, sells merchandise for people on eBay. She and her staff show off some of the items they've been entrusted with selling -- Jana Park, left, holds a coffee pot and a pottery vase that just sold for $400, Cory Takata has a Godzilla toy, Robert Kudo an antique toy horse and buggy, and Jesse Navarro a tire rim (one out of a set of four). Tanaka is loaded down with camera equipment.



The eBay way

Isle residents turn trash into cash
-- and make a living from it --
via online auctions

Within the great, expansive universe that is eBay, "Platinum Powerseller" Tiffany Tanaka pegs her customers as either C-1 or C-2. A seller or a buyer.

Whether they're walk-ins to her Wesellthings4u storefront in Kakaako, or users of its Web site, Tanaka's C-1s and 2s are among millions who use the virtual marketplace to auction off their "trash" for extra bucks.

This year being the 10th anniversary of eBay, Tanaka and four of her staff, as well as Kevin and Sasisopin Kobayashi of Mililani, decided to get some inspiration and selling tips by attending their first eBay conference, held in late June.

The tag phrase "The Power of All of Us" was displayed throughout the San Jose McEnery Convention Center during the eBay Live! 2005 Conference.

At seminars and discussions, conferees were able to have a direct and personal "interface" with company staffers and sponsor representatives eager to help with their concerns. It was all about keeping the interests of eBay users juiced and their spirits up, up, up.

That was evident as the approximately 12,000 attendees filed into the final day's party at the nearby Santa Clara Convention Center.

Lining both sides of a red-carpeted aisle were blue-shirted eBay employees cheering and glad-handing their arriving guests.

The Kobayashis, who augment their regular income by selling collectibles and merchandise on eBay, were caught up in the festive atmosphere. "You really felt special with the red-carpet treatment and the employees cheering," Kevin said.

It's imperative for eBay that those cheers reverberate through its "community" of around 60 million active users worldwide (out of 150 million registered). They have made the company an e-commerce global giant, with a projected profit of $1 billion by the end of this year.

It's already been reported that the company's second-quarter earnings have eclipsed analysts' expectations. This is despite a reported 40 percent decline in eBay's stock value, due to the increase in merchant fees put into effect in January, and eBay's efforts to curb less-than-honorable users making bogus bids or selling merchandise that doesn't exist.

And despite poaching from other Internet companies -- such as Yahoo, Google, Amazon and smaller auction rivals -- it's still tough to top the incredible amount of traffic eBay draws to its Web site every day.

Not bad for a company that started modestly enough as Auction Web, founded by Pierre Omidyar (who, according to Tanaka, attended Punahou School for several years). Omidyar started off as one of many software engineers working in Silicon Valley. Now he's chairman of eBay.

It all began as a simple online system where people could trade goods such as Pez candy dispensers and Beanie Babies. As eBay's success grew, it hired Meg Whitman away from the Hasbro toy company to become president and CEO in 1998.

Whitman knows eBay is driven by its users. "We make a small number of rules and get the heck out of the way, because the entrepreneurial talents of our users will solve a lot of the problems," she said in a June 11 article in the British news weekly the Economist marking eBay's 10th anniversary.

EBay survived after the 2001 dot-com bust because it no longer operates solely as an auctioneer, as commodities have gained importance over collectibles. Customers on eBay are now trading in expensive clothing, cosmetics, cars, even medical machinery. Whitman said a half-million Americans "now make all or part of their living from trading on its site."



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GARY CHUN / GCHUN@STARBULLETIN.COM
The San Jose, Calif., McEnery Convention Center was all decked out for the eBay Live 2005 convention held in late June.



LIKE THE Kobayashis. They set aside a small part of their day for doing eBay side work from their Mililani home. Like many others, young and old, they initially used the online auction service to, in Kevin's words, "try to clear the house of stuff."

"We dislike going to swap meets or doing garage sales, and a friend told me about eBay back in 2000," he said. "We basically got lucky right off the bat, but first, in order to establish ourselves on the site, we needed to buy first to get customer feedback. So I started off small with baseball cards, since it takes a few dollars to get that trust."

Among the first items they sold was a rechargeable flashlight set, opening bid $14.99. "At the end of the auction period, it sold at $47."

They have also sold framed Chinese-styled artwork that was found in Sasi's mom's friend's house. The four paintings were separately listed at $3.99 and went for around $125 each.

"I also sold a 'Pearl Harbor' movie crew T-shirt that I found at a yard sale. I listed it at 55 cents, and it sold for $48. This was before the movie came out, and the hype was still surrounding it. If I had sold that after the movie's release, I probably would've gotten only a couple of dollars for it. So I've found out that I have to go with the flow and sell whatever's popular. It's all about timing." (Taking advantage of the poker craze, Kevin admits he's "into casino chips" now.)

"You gotta have fun doing this. The growth of eBay is unheard of. It's more than just a brick-and-mortar business. Using eBay, you've got to have an open mind while searching for products, thinking what would the majority of buyers like."

TANAKA HAS seen a "500 percent increase" in her eBay Powerseller business since she opened Wesellthings4u a year and a half ago. As the go-between for local sellers and worldwide buyers, Tanaka does the things the Kobayashis do on their own. Her business will photograph merchandise, write descriptions to help with appraisals for auction, and pack and ship items. Wesellthings4u takes a commission -- a percentage of the final selling price.

Her business has included high-price items such as motor vehicles and, very recently, real estate, Tanaka said. "We plan to expand to San Francisco in two months' time, but I hope to keep our roots here."

A graduate of Punahou School and the University of San Francisco, Tanaka went to the Parsons School of Design in New York City, then moved back to Honolulu to help care for her grandmother.

What started off as a hobby of selling some of her own things on eBay turned into a job and then a business.

"Someone's trash is someone's treasure," she said. With up to 350 items listed on the Web site, and around a thousand in her storefront ready for purchase and shipping, Tanaka has helped people sell such items as a surfboard, Range Rover and a vintage Dooney & Bourke handbag.

Kobayashi said he was amazed and amused at the San Jose convention to learn what others are able to sell through eBay. "I remember our meeting a guy from Texas that sold vintage and antique Christmas trees. I guess there is a market (for this), because this guy's business was steady all year."

Come next year, maybe more of Hawaii's eBay users will attend the eBay conference. It'll be in our home away from home, Las Vegas, at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.


Wesellthings4u is at 839 Queen St., phone 589-1102, and online at www.wesellthings4u.com.



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