Main Street Meets Online EBay Culture By JEFF WEISS Contributing Reporter When EBay became a national phenomenon in the heady days of the late 1990s dot-com boom, many predicted that the company along with Amazon.com would make traditional retail stores obsolete. They were wrong. Instead, a new trend sweeping across the Valley melds retail and e-commerce as stores that operate as independent middlemen for the online auction house have sprung up in recent months, evidenced by last month’s opening of the Garage Seller in Encino. EBay’s premise is simple. You take whatever you don’t want and put it up for online auction, where a pool of ready bidders swoops up that unwanted copy of Styx’s Greatest Hits or your dusty collection of baseball cards. In exchange for this service, EBay takes a cut ranging from 50 cents to $20 of the final sale price. But the process can be difficult for someone who doesn’t own a digital camera or scanner or is simply not computer literate. Enter the Garage Seller and the increasing number of similar stores. “How it works is the seller brings in his product to us. We do a free appraisal and tell them how much they can expect to sell their product for,” said Garage Seller owner Peter Mehrian. “If they decide to leave it with us, we handle the product’s sale from then on. “We take anywhere from 2-10 pictures of it, research it, do the specs, write a complete description of what the item is, post it on EBay for a seven to ten day auction, and do everything to ensure that we get the maximum sale price,” Mehrian added. Follow-up Once the product is sold, these brick and mortar middlemen continue to handle the goods until they wind up in the buyer’s hands. “We do all the packaging and all the wrapping, then we Fedex or UPS it, giving the buyer a tracking number. Once the buyer gets the product we verify that everything is OK and we cut the check the following week,” Mehrian said. “The seller never even needs to return to us and we always give them a copy of the actual sold price. We offer full customer service insured and bonded. Once you leave a product with us it is guaranteed to get there in one piece.” In exchange for its service, the Garage Seller takes a sizable cut from the final sale price, charging a 38 percent flat fee up to the first $200. For products that sell for $201-$500, the Garage Seller takes 30 percent and for items above $500, the percentage drops to 20 percent. These prices include the EBay commission, the prices to post multiple pictures of the ads, and Paypal fees which range from 2.9-5 percent of the total sale price. Mehrian has been in the business for approximately a year and a half, but only now decided to take the leap into renting a storefront. “We’ve been working on this project for a year and a half, our main business is as distributors for OEM manufacturers. “The company came to us and was overstocked, so they asked us to help them sell their excess merchandise,” Mehrian said. “We couldn’t move it through our channels so we went ahead and posted it up on Ebay and it took off for us. We started doing it for friends and family. “It ended up being great for the seller, the buyer and us,” Mehrian added. EBay has taken a positive view of these middleman stores. “EBay doesn’t own or have any affiliation with any of these stores, they are completely independent, which is not unusual within the EBay universe,” EBay corporate spokesman Hani Durzy said. “That’s what EBay is all about, entrepreneurs using the EBay platform to create businesses,” he added. “People seem to have taken to this idea, and we look at it as a great thing for us because it takes a segment of society that had previously declined to list items on EBay and bring them into the EBay marketplace.” Both the Garage Seller and EBay seem to have benefited from this symbiotic relationship. After less than a full month in business, they are working nonstop to deal with the vast quantities of merchandise being brought in. “Business has been wonderful. We’re actually backed up right now,” Durzy said. “We’ve gotten a lot of celebrities in, that have brought in $20,000, 30,000, even 40,000 worth of merchandise. We have many luxury items posted on our web site.” Durzy acknowledged that there are still lots of homes without PCs or digital cameras or without the inclination to list items and that these stores give them an option that they might not have had before to use the online service. EBay’s popularity is soaring. The nine-year-old company reported first quarter profit nearly doubled to $200.1 million or $0.30 a share, up 92 percent from $104.2 million, or 16 cents, in the like period a year ago. Expansion planned The Garage Seller has bold plans to expand its concept around the Valley, expecting to have 10 stores in operation by the end of the year. The next expansions will be a Studio City store by the end of this month and a Woodland Hills/Tarzana location will open its doors by June. However, the Valley market will soon become much more crowded when the Auction Wagon, also an EBay middleman, opens up a Sherman Oaks location in coming months. In addition, iSoldIt, a Pasadena-based EBay drop-off store that is currently the highest volume company of its kind, also plans to open a Sherman Oaks location shortly. “We currently have an aggressive expansion plan underway. Our Sherman Oaks franchisee is in the process of looking for real estate and plans to open in Sherman Oaks by September,” Elise Wetzel president and founder of iSoldIt said. For now, the Garage Seller has been capitalizing on this nascent trend, appealing to customers who enjoy its convenience. “It was really convenient. It’s a hassle for me to do it myself. They do everything for you and take just a straight cut. There’s no hidden fee. I came in gave them everything and made the process simpler and they were very helpful. They answered my questions without me having to even ask them,” Studio City resident and Garage Seller customer Isabele Aboly said.