Student entrepreneurs find the price is right online

Sunday, September 11, 2005

WASHINGTON, Mo. -- How much would you pay for a bag of marshmallows?

A group of college students wondered the same thing earlier this summer.

On a whim, they made a trip to the grocery store, purchased three boxes of Lucky Charms cereal, spent an hour separating out the candy-color marshmallows and put them up for sale on what has become the world's marketplace -- eBay, the online auction Web site that "offers a platform where millions of items are traded each day."

The students opened bidding for the one-gallon Ziplock bag of marshmallows at 1 cent. The winning bid was $102.50. Even they were surprised.

"We did it as a joke," said Andy Breig of Washington, who orchestrated the sale with his friends Mark Buddemeyer, Keith Meyer and Ben Bauermeister.

"We were sitting around on a Thursday night thinking about what we could do," he said. "Then we started talking about eBay and some of the dumb things that have sold -- like a grilled cheese sandwich with the image of the Virgin Mary that sold for $15,000 -- and we said, 'Let's see if we can sell just the marshmallows from a box of Lucky Charms.'

"We thought it might sell for $10," he said. "We were just hoping to make our money back."

Two weeks after the auction closed, Breig and his friends hadn't received their money and weren't too hopeful it would ever come. Ebay buyers and sellers are each given a rating based on their reputation from previous transactions.

Their buyer's rating wasn't the best, but they weren't upset. They were already thinking up more "weird stuff" they could auction.

"It's just something fun to do while we're going to college," Breig remarked.

Pierre Omidyar and Jeff Skoll are credited with founding eBay in September 1995. What began simply as a marketplace for the sale of goods and services for individuals has evolved into an online person-to-person trading community on the Internet.

Sellers list items for sale, buyers bid on items of interest and all eBay users are able to browse all listed items, which are arranged by category.

For the majority of eBay buyers and sellers, the site is a source of more serious income.

Jim Heidmann, Washington, sells a variety of items, from car parts to collector-quality magazines, videos to CDs. One of the more unusual items was an old eight-track player he had had lying around for 30 years.

"I got on eBay to check out if something like this was selling; it was, so I put it on," he said. "It sold for $400."

Many of the things Heidmann sells are items he has owned for years, and like the eight-track player, he sometimes has a hard time letting go. But the right price makes it easier, he said, with a laugh.

Heidmann has only been in the eBay market for about a year. In that time, he has sold about two dozen items.

"Right now it's just a hobby," he said, "but I have friends who make a living off of it."

Jay and Jaimie Hicks are in that category. This Washington couple now makes enough money selling items that Jaimie was able to quit her job to stay home and manage their eBay "stores."

The couple run several businesses -- one is a plumbing wholesale shop with a true store front and two are "virtual" automotive parts stores on eBay. Jay acts as a distributor, selling aftermarket (add on) and sport compact performance parts direct from the manufacturer.

In the "motor store" category on eBay, Hicks is one of the top five largest sellers. He has over 16,000 items listed. His eBay sales can range from $15,000 to $30,000 per month.

In July, Hicks completed over 100 transactions for sales of nearly $20,000. His clears about 22 percent from his sales.

"It costs a lot to sell on eBay," he remarked. "Last month I had a $1,200 bill for fees."

While eBay is best known as an auction Web site, items are also listed for a specific, nonnegotiable "buy it now" price, said Hicks.

Looking back on how his business has grown, Hicks is a little surprised.

"It started as a whim," he said, noting he has been an eBay user since 1998. "I looked at the types of items and products that were selling and saw an opportunity.

"My wife was irritated with me because of the time I spent on it, but when I would tell her I just made another $1,000, she stopped being mad," he said, with a laugh. "It's weird how it has snowballed since then."

Today, Hicks sells to buyers all over the world.

A seller who puts his money where his mouth is, Hicks regularly buys items on eBay as well. He has bought everything from "oddball" things not found in stores to sports memorabilia to a number of cars, including a Lexus -- which he sold a year later, on eBay.

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