'And the Opening Bid Is …'

The EBay auction site is giving the 55-plus crowd a chance to flex its entrepreneurial muscles
September 26, 2005; Page R9

Marcia Cooper and Harvey Levine hoped for a blissful retirement, until they both were laid off from their jobs. They hadn't planned to quit working so soon and hadn't saved enough. Feeling unprepared to compete with 20-year-olds in the traditional job market, the 60-something New Jersey couple turned to eBay Inc.

Ms. Cooper and Mr. Levine started small, standing in line to buy concert tickets for acts like Phish and Bruce Springsteen and then reselling the tickets for a profit on eBay, the global Internet auction site.

From there, they moved to selling wine glasses, antiques and more valuable items such as baseball memorabilia. Those endeavors turned into a business the couple named General Enterprises. The average monthly sales this year: more than $10,000.

"It's been a boon to us," Ms. Cooper says of the business they started back in 2000. "We didn't expect it to grow quite as fast, because at our stage in life it's very, very difficult for somebody to enjoy what they're doing and make money at it."

Many people age 55 and older are turning to the online marketplace. For some retirees, eBay has become a kind of financial lifeline, supplementing pension plans or savings that may not be sufficient. Others have uncovered a latent entrepreneurial streak in themselves or simply see eBay as a creative outlet; they enjoy the sales process and the interaction an eBay business gives them with people around the world.

'Never Too Late'

"I spent the first 30 years of my life in corporate America, and I wish I had started my own business the first day I got out of school," says Joe Marcinkowski, 64, who began an eBay business five years ago. "It's never too late to start."

An internal eBay study completed in the first quarter found that more than 22% of eBay users in the U.S. are 55 or older. More than 250,000 eBay sellers in the U.S. say they retired early to sell on eBay, according to an AC Nielsen survey. (EBay says it has "millions" of sellers in the U.S., but declines to disclose more specific figures.)

Ms. Cooper, now 70, says retirement arrived sooner than expected. The former marketing executive left her job at a medical-supplies company in 1999 as part of a corporate downsizing. Her fiancé, Mr. Levine, now 66, an operations manager at a fine-art paper company, was also laid off from his job. Ms. Cooper's son, Rob, suggested selling on eBay to generate income.

Ms. Cooper, though familiar with the Internet, had never bought anything on eBay; Mr. Levine had purchased a few things like casino chips there. Ms. Cooper's son, who had paid his mother to buy him some concert tickets, suggested she buy more tickets to sell on eBay. He guided the couple through the entire process, telling them exactly what concert tickets to buy and coaching them through the process of posting their offerings on eBay's Web site. At the end of their first week, Ms. Cooper and Mr. Levine had $1,000 in profit. (Some states regulate the resale of event tickets for venues located in their states, setting limits on the prices that resellers can fetch. EBay says on its Web site that its ticket marketplace is designed to be fully compliant to the regulations in various states.)

Digging for Treasure

The couple was hooked. They started emptying their closets and trolling flea markets to unearth treasures to sell. Starting a business after age 55 was easier than it might have been in her 20s, Ms. Cooper says, because she didn't have to worry about a family or saving for a house. EBay made it easy, too, she says; the only capitalization their business required was the cost of a computer.

The couple, who live in Fort Lee, N.J., soon turned to selling things such as collectible cars for other people, whom they charged a commission. One problem: They initially got carried away, saddling themselves with inexpensive flea-market finds that didn't generate large enough commissions to justify the time required to market and sell them.

"We said, 'Whoa, this isn't the way to run a business,' " Ms. Cooper says. "Now we're a lot more discriminating." (Each item sold must now generate a minimum commission of $100.)

The pair also started training, for a fee, other would-be eBay sellers in how to navigate the auction site. They haven't replaced the incomes they earned from their full-time jobs, but they cite the freedom in operating their business from anywhere and the flexibility in scheduling their days as two benefits of an Internet business.

Joe and Laura Marcinkowski started selling furniture on eBay after a fire destroyed all their belongings in 1998. The Nassau Bay, Texas, couple, who had lived overseas for 26 years when Mr. Marcinkowski worked for several oil companies, started buying furniture to replace an eclectic collection lost in the blaze. When their new house was ready, they had more furniture than they could use.

EXCESS TO SUCCESS The Marcinkowskis and their furniture

Mr. Marcinkowski had bought furniture and a car on eBay after discovering the site in 1997. When he wanted to sell the excess furniture, he immediately considered eBay. Those pieces generated a profit, prompting him to consider a business. In 2000, the couple formed Metro Retro Furniture to sell vintage 1940s and 1950s furniture and new reproductions. Ms. Marcinkowski managed the accounting, while Mr. Marcinkowski handled other tasks.

In the beginning, the work proved difficult and physically challenging. The pair scoured estate sales and auctions to find valuable collectibles. Mr. Marcinkowski hauled the furniture himself for refinishing and reupholstering.

The company immediately generated strong monthly sales on eBay, shipping containers of furniture to Prague and Tokyo. The pair had tapped into a global market of designers and architects interested in vintage furniture from designers such as American office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller. "When I realized I had to sell this, and I had this very niche product, I couldn't get to my market in any other way but eBay," Mr. Marcinkowski says. "Nothing else would've worked."

Rarely Rattled

The 64-year-old says starting a business later in life didn't prevent him from making mistakes, such as selling valuable designer pieces for too little. At the same time, having more experience with setbacks in both work and life has meant that such mistakes rarely rattle him. He still works hard at his business, starting at 7:30 a.m. and finishing at 5 p.m.

"It's rewarding and not as much of a burden as working for a corporation," Mr. Marcinkowski says.

After a year and a half of using their garage and public storage space for their inventory, the couple acquired a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in September 2002. They also opened a Houston retail store in January 2004.

For Mr. Marcinkowski, the fun part has been learning about various designers and studying pictures so he can spot different styles. One of his recent coups came last year when he acquired furniture from the New York apartment of influential designer Hans Knoll -- including a rocking stool Mr. Knoll designed. "It's always exciting when you continue to learn," Mr. Marcinkowski says. "It keeps you young. You don't want to stop doing that."

Rising Costs

Operating a business dependent on eBay hasn't been without its drawbacks. The San Jose, Calif., company has raised some fees for sellers, such as auction listings and store subscriptions, every year for the past five years. This year the monthly fee for an eBay store subscription rose 60% to $15.95, which affects store owners like the Marcinkowskis. EBay has expanded its customer service to merchants, such as telephone support, partly in response to complaints earlier this year.

Mr. Marcinkowski says he has run into problems using the company's PayPal electronic-payment service for transactions involving buyers outside the U.S. When he calls PayPal for help, "it's sometimes very hard to get the right person" who can resolve his problem, he says. A PayPal spokeswoman says that some transactions are delayed when the company tries to protect its customers against potential fraud, but that it tries to resolve matters in a timely manner.

Metro Retro generated 2004 sales of $900,000 and expects to generate sales of about $1.5 million this year, Mr. Marcinkowski says. Most of those sales are online. The company employs 15 people, freeing Mr. Marcinkowski to focus on sales and learning about the furniture the company acquires through liquidation sales.

Some retirees find an eBay business gives them another hobby to fill their days. Mark Goldberg, 58, is one such person. When he retired in December 1999 from running a rare-coin company, he spent much of his time golfing. Four months later, he found himself drawn back to his hobby of coin collecting through eBay, where he started trading coins with people as far away as Croatia and China. By the end of May 2000, he had sold everything he had owned in terms of coins and collectibles. He says he was "bitten with the craze" and began buying more merchandise to sell.

"It's a lot of enjoyment for me," says Mr. Goldberg, who lives in Marina del Rey, Calif. "If you said, 'Do you want to play golf tomorrow or do you want to load images on eBay?' I'd rather load the images."

An Internet business allows him to dictate his own hours. He can spend a few days away from home or spend the morning on the golf course. "The beauty of what I do is I can do it anywhere," he says. "I just need a post office and a phone line." This year, he says, he has generated about $750,000 in sales.

Having run his own business for years, Mr. Goldberg has more perspective and patience with his coin-selling business on eBay than when he was younger. He also finds he can focus on the aspects of the business that he really enjoys: the buying and selling of coins. He has one employee who helps him with shipping and paperwork, but he handles most of the inventory, which he enjoys. "I'm doing what I want to do."

--Ms. Mangalindan is a staff reporter in The Wall Street Journal's San Francisco bureau