Of all the new platforms and marketplaces out there, the one that caught my fancy the most recently was eCrater. The biggest selling point is that they are 100% free with no fees. Think of them as a craigslist style posting board that looks and feels more like an e-commerce site like eBay.

Unlike a lot of new marketplaces, they actually had a lot of people buying and selling the exact kinds of items I usually sell (collectibles) so that was a big selling point for me as a buyer and seller both. Then I got really ticked at the platform because of a security flaw so I deleted my account entirely before I really got to give it an honest try. (In the interest of clarity, this was about a year ago so they have likely fixed this security flaw by now, I haven’t checked. It also may be something that normal people would have considered a minor thing and I may be a diva. No one can say for sure. ;-))

But I still thought the marketplace had a lot of potential and I wanted to find out more about whether it was worth starting up a presence on eCrater. So I have enlisted Stacy Anderson (on Twitter as @itsmestacy) who has found success selling online on both eBay and eCrater to give us a review from the perspective of someone who has used eCrater extensively. Selling clothing out of Fort Worth, Texas, Stacy has been selling on eBay since July 2000 and on her own eCrater websites TheCheapSkirt.com and TheUglySweaterShop.com for a few months now.

I’d really like to thank you for joining us on the blog today to share your experiences. First thing, can you tell you a little about yourself and how you got started selling online.

I started selling just things I had but no longer needed around my house 10 years ago. I was amazed because back then you could put a pair of used Levis on eBay and get $20 for them, without even having a picture. This was about $19.50 more than you’d get for them at a garage sale. Back then, auctions were the only way to buy on eBay and it was exciting starting something out at a penny and seeing the price go up. (That doesn’t happen very often on eBay in the clothing categories anymore, I’d say not for the past 5 years or so.)

I was living in Wisconsin at the time and had access to a lot of Green Bay Packers related items, and breweriana (everyone had beer signs in their basements up there), so I did sell a little of both in addition to clothing, but after I moved to Texas 3 years ago I began to focus primarily on clothing, shoes and accessories.

Was the move to eCrater motivated out of anything specific that happened on eBay or were you just trying out other things?

EBay’s price changes were a bit like the story of the frog and the boiling pot of water for me. A little increase here, a little increase there, I thought I could take them in stride.

But as the fees went up for me, search visibility went down as did sales. I found myself doing more and more advertising and legwork to bring in customers. Auctions would end with only one bidder, if that. Store items were difficult for buyers to find in search. Once Google stopped accepting individual feeds to Google Base (which was my main source of eBay store traffic), my sales were nearly at a standstill.

I decided that if I were going to to do the legwork to bring buyers to my items, it wasn’t worth it for me to pay eBay. I’d looked at their “job” as my advertising, and when it came to store items, they weren’t doing their job.

So I moved my store items to TheCheapSkirt.com at eCrater. And on that particular store, I can safely say that I haven’t sold any more or less there than I had been selling out of my store at eBay. So I wouldn’t call it a success, other than the fact I’ve saved on fees for those items that have sold.

However…

Sort of on a lark, around Halloween I opened TheUglySweaterShop.com, another eCrater store, primarily as a resource for people who needed something truly awful for an Ugly Sweater Party.

I’d blogged an “ugly sweater of the week” for a while and got a bit of a response, so when I’d see one when I was out on an inventory run, I’d pick it up. Pretty soon I had quite a “collection”, and I started listing them.

I realized that with a relatively new web presence, I wouldn’t rank high in Google searches, so I turned to social media instead. I started Tweeting about these ugly sweaters. I started a Facebook Fan page. I listened to my customers: they would lament that the sweaters on eBay were always too expensive, and I listed mine for less. I posted links to Ugly Sweater Party charity events. I retweeted pictures people had posted on Twitter of themselves modeling their own ugly sweaters. I became involved in the “ugly sweater community”, as it were.

Within 2 weeks my page views had skyrocketed. In the 6-week peak “ugly sweater” selling season, I had over 30,000 page views and had sold more than 75% of what I had listed, with emails and tweets asking for more. I couldn’t keep up! I was so unprepared for the success! And 75% of those page views came via Google (eCrater uploads a listing feed to Google Base 2x a week automatically for all of their stores–they became a Product Search Marketplace Partner with Google in November of 2009).

In comparison, I had one tacky Christmas sweater listed on eBay as a fixed price listing for a month. Only 40 page views. In an entire month. AND I was a Top Rated Seller at the time.

I moved it to TheUglySweaterShop.com and it sold within 24 hours and I had emails asking about it from others who also wanted it and missed out.

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I know I brought you in to talk about eCrator but you just gave us some fantastic examples of using social networking to build a business that really should be highlighted. I want to go back to your great ideas there in another post for sure but for now, let’s move on to … What sets eCrater apart from the other selling platforms out there?

Well, it is free. Free is good. And it is simple–there is no HTML in the listings (some may see that as a drawback, but I’ve seen so many poorly-formatted eBay listings that I find a text description to be very easy on the eyes).

They are a Google Product Search Marketplace Provider which, as I stated before, had a great bearing on the amount of traffic my eCrater stores have been getting. They have a fully integrated Google Checkout, so there is no fiddling with buttons/waiting for Google to approve your site, etc.

They are responsive to user requests. In the past I’ve asked them to add categories in their store structure, and they were added within days. They were very responsive. I’ve also requested an erroneous feedback be removed from my account, and they were quick to address that as well. Worlds apart from eBay in that regard!

I think eCrater is a great place to get a feel for how it would feel to sell somewhere other than eBay if you’ve only sold there. I learned all about Google Checkout via eCrater, including coupon codes, promotions, etc.

Some people I think confuse eCrater with eBay in that they think they can list things there and just “sit” on them, and the traffic will come in. It doesn’t work that way. Yes, people can shop all eCrater stores from the main eCrater.com page (think of that as an online mall of sorts), but the majority of traffic comes from people finding you from somewhere else. I’d say less than 1% of my traffic comes directly from eCrater, and those most likely are from postings on their message boards.

What do you feel like eCrater could improve on?

I’ve asked them to look into issues I’ve run across: I can’t seem to get some of the calculated international shipping options to work properly, their USPS Express Mail service states it is 1 day shipping time, which can be misleading to customers who are in areas where it takes 2 days for Express Mail (I asked them to switch it to 1-2 days after I refunded a disappointed customer who lived in a 2-day area who needed an item for a party and it arrived a day late).

Also if two people buy the exact same thing within minutes of each other, it can show as “double ordered”–had that happen a few times during the peak of “ugly sweater season” because traffic in my store was *that* brisk!

Although I’d like to see some more “customizability” (is that a word?)[Ed note: It is now! ;-)] in my store (layouts, the look of the landing page, etc), I realize it is a free site and the more bells and whistles they add, the more support they need and that costs money. I’m glad to see they put the focus on supporting the functionality of the site, rather than on making it prettier. If your core functions don’t work (like we’ve seen with eBay’s search), then it doesn’t matter how pretty something is if nobody will see it.

Where else have you sold? How do those other marketplaces compare to eCrater or even eBay?

I was a very early member of Bonanzle, but stopped selling there once they implemented a fee structure. Initially I was drawn to them the same reason I was drawn to ecrater: the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach they had to the site with no HTML in listings, ease of use, etc. Then with the fees they also started to move away from that, and since I hadn’t gotten any traffic in a few months, I didn’t feel it was right for me.

I have and still sell books on Amazon.com, but from my own personal stash. I love to read!

I used to sell on Half.com but since they merged their feedback in with eBay’s, I became concerned, as people are more likely to leave neutrals there and just one or two bad ratings can put my selling status on eBay at risk now that I’ve gone from a Powerseller to a small volume seller.

I used Auctiva to list on eBay and prior to eCrater, had considered getting one of their off-eBay store packages, but then they had that nasty situation with a virus that I didn’t feel was handled well, along with the way they implemented their fee increase (fee schedules changing almost daily, pressure to “lock in” a rate before it changed–total hard sell) and I no longer felt comfortable entrusting my business to them.

Putting your loyalties as a seller aside, which is your favorite online store to shop at and why?

Amazon.com, hands down. Mostly because I’ve talked my family members into making wish lists, so Christmas shopping is a breeze! They all live across the country so I just click, pay and have it shipped out!

With a depressed economy and all the changes in retail happening all the time, where do you see your business in 5 years? How are you adapting?

I don’t see myself as an online clothing magnate in 5 years, or anything so grand. ­čśë I just feel fortunate to be able to do this as my primary source of income for the past two years. Despite our current economic crunch, I truly believe that by working for myself, the only thing that could be holding me back from more success is myself. That is why I’ve continually reassessed my business model and make changes, rather than pine for “the lost days of eBay”, a rut I see some of my fellow sellers get stuck in.

I’ve been recently starting on yet ANOTHER business model, this one ironically going back to using eBay as it will be auction-based, rather than fixed price. I don’t see it supplanting my other two stores, rather it will supplement them. I’m finding diversification makes me feel safest–not keeping all my eggs in one basket, so to speak.

Before next fall, I may move TheUglySweaterShop.com to its own space with its own shopping cart, as I feel it may have outgrown eCrater. I’d like to be able to better integrate my Ugly Sweater blog at uglysweaters.wordpress.com with the sales portion of the site, as well as make it more visually appealing and fun to shop. Another former eBay clothing seller, ShopNastyGal.com, is a great inspiration for me, she seems to have transitioned VERY successfully from eBay to a stand-alone site and has a great social media following. I think social media is a very inexpensive way to market and to keep in touch with what people really want.

I honestly see Google as the key to getting buyers in the future, as long as eBay is more and more cumbersome to weed through. I think it will matter less where your items are, and more than they are found by buyers. I actually searched for something on eBay today, and got a message that “Your search could not be performed at this time. Please try again later.” I tried it again later, and got the same message. I found what I was looking for on Google instead.

I really want to thank Stacy for taking the time to answer my questions. I wanted to be able to give the platform a thorough review and evaluation and am very glad she was able to stop in and give us the in-depth perspective of someone doing some selling “in the trenches” as it were.

But what about you? Have you sold on eCrater? What were your experiences with the marketplace? Has Stacy convinced you to give it another try?