Nickel Notes: Selling Thrift Store Finds for Profit on eBay

by Lindy on November 2, 2011

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A few weeks ago when I put out the signal for money-making superheroes, Carrie from Careful Cents was one of the first to respond. I’m really excited about this Nickel Note because Carrie is doing something I’ve always wanted to do: buying items for cheap and selling them for profit online. Pay close attention, she has some great tips!

Nickel Notes

Making consistent side income or extra money from eBay is much more competitive now than it was a few years ago. But I’ve had success by following these easy rules.

Tip 1: Find your niche and stick to it

What are you knowledgeable about, or what are you passionate about selling? You won’t be very successful reselling items if you don’t have some personal experience behind it. I love anything having to do with electronics or designer items (jeans, shoes or handbags). This mostly comes from my own desire to find deals for myself. I then found I have a pretty good eye when it comes to these particular items and it’s simple for me to make a profit.

Tip 2: Set a limit that won’t break the bank

Set yourself a limit on what you’re willing or capable to spend for something. I personally set myself a limit of no more than $100 on one item, since there’s always a possibility it won’t sell, or a chance it’s fake or it’s broken. If you’re not sure what the item is worth but you feel it’s a fairly good bargain, you want to safeguard your investment in case you get stuck with it. If you’re conservative with the items you take a gamble on, you won’t get in over your head.

Tip 3: Leave yourself a big profit margin

When you’re (re)selling things online, whether it’s eBay, Craigslist, Amazon or other sites, you will rarely ever be able to get retail price for the item. Normally you will sell the item for 50% of the original price. So if a pair of designer jeans has a price tag of $220, I can fairly determine they will sell for about $100-$120 on eBay. This means I need to get them for no more than $50, since I want to double my investment (minus the selling and shipping fees). My general rule of thumb is to only purchase items that are 75% or more off retail. In some unusual cases if the item is really popular or out of stock elsewhere, a bidding war will ensue, which can cause the final price to skyrocket.

Tip 4: Consider time versus money

Personally, I prefer to purchase bigger profit margin items and only spend a little bit of my time reselling them. Some people are very successful at doing the opposite. They find lots of smaller items, with a smaller profit margin but resell them in mass quantities or in bulk. If you want to do this and it works for you, that’s great. But I prefer to assemble and ship the fewest items as possible [Lindy’s note: Amen to less boxes!]. This saves me from running back and forth the Post Office or UPS store all the time. Time is just as important as making money, so spend your time wisely and find the best solution that works for you.

Tip 5: Research and remember the time of year

One of the most important things you can do, when looking for items to resell is to research them before you buy. The prices can fluctuate from day to day and from season to season. Be aware of the time of year, and what season is coming up. If Christmas just ended you will see a massive influx of other people selling unused gift cards and other items online. So the prices and inventory will be very competitive. eBay’s mobile app is a great tool to use for finding the current market price for a product. You can search the current and completed listings to see what your competition is like.

Tip 6: Find quality items to sell

Some of the best places to look for products to resell is at yard sales, consignment shops or places like Salvation Army or Goodwill. You should always inspect the items really well, and if they are electronics, ask to make sure they work or if you can plug them in to test. You need to think like a business person and purchase quality items, because you are in this to make a profit. Research your item before hand, ask questions and always try to negotiate on the price.

Tip 7: Sometimes you get lucky

My lucky moment happened when I walked into a used guitar shop, and found a rare 6 string guitar. It didn’t even have a price-tag on it yet, it was dirty and a little worse for wear. The manager said they just received it and he hadn’t even had time to research or process it in their system. I offered him $100 cash, which he gladly accepted. I paid to have it cleaned, polished and the strings replaced, which only cost me a few bucks. Then I was able to resell it for over $700 on eBay! Sometimes you will just get lucky!

Tip 8: Don’t rely on winning the lottery

The bread and butter of my ability to make money online comes from being consistent to follow these rules and not be swept away by the chance of “winning the eBay lottery.” My guitar success story was because I was at the right place at the right time, the market was perfect, and the employee didn’t know what he had on his hands. Getting those lucky moments are great, but don’t expect them to happen all the time. You have to be smart with your purchases, and be fairly sure you will make your investment (and more) back.

The success formula

By combining all or some of these tested principles you can create your own success story. Most of my experiences were through trial and error, and there are a few times I got stuck with items I couldn’t sell (like a designer handbag that eBay temporarily suspended my account for selling because it was fake and I didn’t know it). There will be ups and downs when you are figuring out your niche and learning the ropes, but above all have fun and enjoy the journey.

Tips 3, 4, and 8 are my favorites.  I’m the type who would want to win the eBay lottery every time! Anyone have questions for Carrie? Anyone else have a secret dream to make money this way?  Do tell in the comments below.

PS: If you want to share your adventures in money-making by writing your own Nickel Note, contact me

NEXT POST IN THIS SERIES: Adventures in Chicken Farming

Photo by Sam Howzit

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  • This is great! I used to do this, but I stopped because I realized that a lot of other people in my area were doing it also, so it made it hard. I’ve been thinking about getting back into it though.

    • There is a lot more competition than when I first started on eBay 5 years ago. A lot more people are becoming aware of what items are worth, and it’s harder to find good deals. But for a deal hunter, that’s all part of the fun.

      Thanks for commenting and I hope it inspires you to get back into it and have fun making some extra cash.

  • There is an app that lets you scan barcodes of books in order to help maximize the profits on resale, which would be of help in a deal like this. The first thought I had when I read the title, was furniture: you can buy it, sand it down, satin it and flip it for a lot more than it cost. And, if you go a little further, add some accents like new hardware to really make it sellable.

    • Oh yes, furniture is a great idea! I’m not that handy or creative but some people are and it’s a very therapeutic hobby.

    • Lindy

      Did you know buying, refinishing, and reselling furniture is one of my dream jobs? ;)

    • Carrie–it’s really not that hard. Just need a little sandpaper to take off the old finish and a can of stain and a rag and you’re good to go. Changing the hardware is as simple as being able to use a screwdriver. It doesn’t take much money and you could probably recoup the cost a few times over!

      Lindy–I had no idea. The thought just popped into my head like a second after I saw the headline without even reading the rest of the article (but of course I did read the whole thing!)

  • Great idea Carrie. Ive been doing books with amazon with the help of an iphone app. Maybe I can expand a bit and keep an eye out for other items.

    • Lindy

      That iPhone app is sure handy.

  • These are some great tips. I just found out that people do this. Yes, I’ve been hiding under a rock for a few years…I am interested in the whole process, so thanks for the tips!

  • WOW, love it that you do this. my problem is usually not knowing the true value of something, but Hubby undervalues EVERYTHING. makes me crazy…in the past when he priced his stuff for a yard sale, it was soo cheap folks snapped it up right away. I felt like our money was walking out the door!!

    • Lindy

      Knowing the value of something is pretty tricky (that’s why I never volunteered for the Price is Right). But I can see how buying items that tie into your interests could help with that.

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  • I have been teaching eBay sellers since 1999. the first lesson I teach is what to sell and where to find it. Even if you eventually plan to go into selling new goods of some type – starting out by selling of things you get at garage sales and thrift shops is an excellent way to go and the advice in this column can really help you.

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  • Some awesome ideas. Especially like the furniture idea. Wonder if I can work this in with some of the other ideas I’m working on?

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  • Awesome advice, and it’s something that i’ve been doing with coins for the last year. I’ll buy quality coins in bulk on eBay and sell them back individually for a profit. Great stuff here.

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  • aulbertwest

    I like your advice, the day I decided to start selling on Ebay, I bought a DVD at a local grocery store for $3.24 [tax included], did a little research on Ebay and found that similar DVD’s were selling in lots of 20 for $10 or $15.

    The very next day a friend gave me a book that was written by an early editor of a “magazine” from his denomination. The copyright of the book [A commentary] was 1942, the book is 75 years old and in at least fair and in my opinion good [but not mint] condition. I think I will have a better chance of selling that book than the DVD and making a profit. And I may look to see if I can find companion books by the same author.

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