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EBay feels the power in band of top sellers

Gary Neubert made sure everyone knew his eBay trading name; all the better to sell to them later. The Tampa shipping-supplies dealer walked around the floor of eBay's user convention last week in a polo shirt with his auction-trading ID imprinted in large letters on the back.

"People who have bought from me stop me and say "Hi' when they see "Gatorpack' on my shirt," he said with a grin.

Minutes later, a seller Neubert had met last year at the auction convention ran up to hug him, while people passing by laughed and pointed at her derriere, where she had embroidered an eBay logo on her jeans. "I just love being here," said Tina DeBarge, a collectibles dealer from Louisiana. "There is so much energy."

Neubert and DeBarge were among the 4,000 or so members of eBay's elite power-seller corps who traveled to the auction service's eBay Live convention to hobnob for three days and explore ways to streamline and turbocharge their eBay operations. Power sellers are the most closely watched participants of the online auction site, because they account for a significant chunk of eBay's revenue, which is forecast to hit $2-billion this year.

The high-volume sellers include many of eBay's biggest success stories, folks who have quit their regular jobs to earn a full-time living auctioning goods to strangers. EBay-only businesses are becoming less of an oddity as the Internet marketplace approaches its eighth birthday. Yet they are an intriguing group because their businesses are young enough that their impact on the distribution chains of traditional business has yet to shake out. So, too, is their eBay-dealing lifestyle still in its formative stages.

"I'm a stay-at-home dad, and three of my friends recently quit their jobs to sell on eBay and be stay-at-home dads, too," said Larry Kaplan, 33, a power seller who auctions footwear on eBay under the name "Cheapsneaks." Kaplan said he has sold more than 5,000 pairs of sneakers on eBay so far and thinks he is building a major business that will require more supportive tools and services before it can afford to grow bigger. "The whole reason I am here is to find companies that can help me grow," he said.

Not all eligible sellers choose to join eBay's invitation-only power-seller club, nor do all of the site's high-volume dealers qualify. EBay estimates that about 150,000 people earn their living on the site, whereas only about 90,000 dealers are in its power-seller group. To receive an invitation, dealers must sell more than $1,000 worth of merchandise each month for three months and maintain a stellar feedback rating from customers. The power-seller club has five levels -- bronze, silver, gold, platinum and titanium -- based on sales volume. Titanium sellers move more than $150,000 in merchandise on eBay a month.

EBay caters to big sellers, offering them extra customer support and special access to staff. At the user conference, power sellers were invited to hang out in an exclusive lounge and golf together. The elite of the elite -- the titanium crowd -- were treated to a special evening soiree where they got to dine with staff members, sip free booze and pose for pictures with chief executive Meg Whitman.

Neubert seemed typical of the power crowd. Selling on eBay is his full-time occupation. He and his wife have leased a 6,000-square-foot warehouse and hired three employees to help pack and ship the thousands of orders of bubble wrap and other mailing supplies they receive monthly, mostly from other eBay dealers. "Our business model is simple," he said, laughing. "Stuff goes in; stuff goes out."

Neubert handed out business cards that showed three "shooting stars" beside his name. Shooting stars convey special status in eBay's virtual reputation system. The elaborate feedback system encourages parties to each transaction to leave comments about each other. Then it tallies the comments and displays a numerical rating, along with a color-coded star icon beside each user's name. It takes more than 10,000 positive comments to earn shooting star, which changes in color as a user racks up more comments.

EBay enthusiasts delight in saying the Internet marketplace creates a level playing field between small and big merchants, who generally appear the same to potential buyers, especially since the traditional brick-and-mortar trappings of retail establishments are stripped away on the Net.

So it was interesting to see some big offline businesses attending the conference, too, including a few that aspire to power-seller status but are still peewees in the strange culture of eBay. One was Schwan's Food Co., a frozen-food manufacturer that opened an eBay storefront in May and began auctioning packaged meals in small and medium-size lots. Known mainly for selling to restaurants and food stores, Schwan's has run a telephone mail-order food business for years and also takes food orders from its own Web site.

The frozen-mealmaker rented a booth in eBay's exhibition hall to tout its new eBay store to the 10,000 folks who paid $60 to attend the show. Glen Bader, the company's director of Internet marketing, sounded as gung-ho as any seller in the titanium power lounge as he showed off his eBay auction listings to folks dropping by his booth and described his plans to reach new customers through eBay.

Asked how many feedback points Schwan's had amassed, Bader laughed and said, "Nine."

"We're a newbie; I won't deny that," he added. "But we think this is going to be big."

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