It all started with a broken laser pointer. That’s the first item that Pierre Omidyar sold on his pet project website, AuctionWeb, in 1995. It sold for $14.83 to — believe it or not — a collector of damaged laser pointers.
This momentous transaction opened Pierre’s eyes to the untapped power of a public digital auction house. AuctionWeb became the ubiquitously-known eBay, and a mere two years later, the explosive startup received a cool $6.7 million in funding.
The site personified the adage, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
Fast forward through several acquisitions, rebrandings, and decades of growth, and we arrive at the eBay we know and love today.
But whether you’re looking to build an eCommerce empire on eBay or you’re just a casual seller, there are certain items you should never list on eBay.
This may be because they historically underperform, violate eBay’s terms of service, or carry with them headache-inducing regulations and certification requirements.
In this post, we’ll dive into the benefits of selling on eBay and a list of items that you’ll want to avoid selling at all costs.
What are the specific benefits of choosing eBay as your ecommerce platform of choice? There are dozens of marketplaces to choose from — what makes eBay so special?
Not only does eBay have secure payment methods, but also a responsive customer care team that can quickly resolve issues.
Sellers can report abusive buyers, quickly resolve unpaid items, and remove undue negative feedback to protect their online reputation.
eBay’s seamless integration with PayPal that dates back to 2002 means funds from a sale are not only secure, but immediately available upon a successful transaction.
As of this writing, eBay’s official numbers boast a reach of 185 million global buyers. There are currently 1.7 billion live listings on the site. These don’t even take into consideration the significant SEO benefits afforded to eBay sellers.
Sure, you could create your own ecommerce site for more control. But why not ride the coattails of one of the largest, most trusted marketplaces in existence?
The bottom line is that eBay consistently rises to the top of search queries for used items. Sellers that build their ecommerce stores on eBay’s platform enjoy the benefits of their pedigree — including access to their staggering user base.
It’s a well-known fact that eBay is an approachable, easy way to make a few bucks on some used items. But eBay also offers some surprisingly powerful tools for sellers who want to build their entire business on the platform.
For example, the eBay Seller Hub is an all-in-one dashboard that gives sellers at-a-glance metrics on their performance, allowing them to make data-driven decisions in their business.
The eBay Store is a one-stop shop for a particular seller’s merchandise. In exchange for a tiered monthly fee, sellers have access to features unavailable to typical users.
Staying on top of selling eBay items, especially when you’ve got multiple concurrent listings, requires a lot of responsiveness
It’s simple and straightforward to snap smartphone pictures and upload listings straight to the platform. Also, monitoring watches, bids, and responding to buyer questions is as easy as responding to a text.
Serious eBay sellers can list and maintain their entire ecommerce business entirely from their smartphones.
Good photography is the key to profitable jewelry sales. This category is a favorite among sellers because of the products’ light weight (translating to low shipping costs) and high financial upside.
Jewelry is also an “evergreen” category that shows no signs of going away and isn’t subject to seasonality. Items in this category include watches, engagement rings, earrings, and necklaces.
Computers, tablets, and personal computing accessories often retain their value for many years. A used laptop, kept in good condition and wiped clean of personal data, often performs just as well as a brand new one, yet at a fraction of the price.
Items in this category include printer ink, video cards, laptops, netbooks, and computer replacement parts.
The same principles that apply to computer sales apply to smartphone and smartphone accessories. The only difference is that smartphones are lighter and even easier to sell and ship, making them obvious candidates for eBay’s marketplace.
Big gaming brands release their new consoles on a cyclical basis, rendering old consoles “obsolete.” So what’s a gamer to do when they need extra cash for the latest and greatest system? Turn to the internet’s favorite auction house, of course. Similarly to computers, video game systems can retain much of their value on the used marketplace if kept in good condition.
Second hand clothes and accessories make up a large portion of listings on eBay. Clothing is another example of an item that, when made with quality, has a long lifetime value.
And thanks to eBay allowing vendors to sell new products as well as used products, buyers can have the best of both worlds: rare fashion finds at a bargain bin price or fresh off-the-shelf essentials.
Even though eBay’s legacy began with a broken laser pointer, the stipulations for “approved items” has gotten necessarily stricter over the years. The following list includes items you should never sell on eBay for a variety of reasons.
Some are flatly prohibited by eBay, others are a hassle to ship and process or just don’t perform well with the eBay consumer base.
Any way you slice it, stay well clear of the following 14 items when planning your eBay selling strategy.
Let’s just get the obvious one out of the way. This is a catch-all for listings that are explicitly illegal, forged, stolen, or deceptive.
You don’t want to be selling drugs, stolen government documents, human body parts (yes, it’s been attempted before), or otherwise questionable paraphernalia.
eBay has a zero-tolerance policy on these items, and if caught, sellers may face steep penalties.
Anytime you’re shipping consumable products, you’re assuming more risk. Risk of spoiling, risk of getting customers sick, and liability with managing perishable inventory.
While eBay technically allows a short list of food items, their stipulations compounded with the risk make it too much of a hassle. If food is your thing, you’re better off trying a local farmer’s market.
One of the key things that novice sellers often forget is how shipping costs eat into profits. And this doesn’t just include the actual shipping charge itself, but all the requisite materials (boxes, bubble wrap, etc.) for shipping fragile items.
Bulky, heavy items such as furniture fall squarely into this category. It may seem like a good idea to sell that set of kettlebells or that small coffee table on eBay. But unless you want to pay a small fortune in shipping, you’re better off opting for a local platform like Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace instead.
While eBay does have some allowances for selling wine, it’s generally discouraged from selling anything in liquid form on the platform. This includes beauty products, beverages, or anything that has the potential of spilling or combusting during shipment.
Oftentimes, the potential reward doesn’t outweigh the risk of damage.
eBay does allow sellers to list items that require authentication, but only after jumping through a series of stringent loopholes.
Items that require authentication include things like watches or sneakers. These things are often listed at a premium due to their rarity and personal significance, but the prevalence of forgeries means eBay has to be especially strict with sellers.
For these reasons, unless you have an ultra-rare, one-in-a-million item, it’s best to steer clear of this category.
It’s alarming that this has historically been a real issue, but please don’t try to sell your cat on eBay.
In fact, anything alive (this includes plants) is better suited for local marketplaces or designated animal care facilities.
While eBay surprisingly allows the sale of bees, lobsters, and tropical fish (among other strange allowances), the burden is on the sellers to ensure safe, overnight shipping. That’s no easy task when you’re dealing with living creatures.
You might think it prudent to flip an old crib or car seat once your child outgrows it, but it’s best to stay away from listing these items on eBay.
Due to the high risk associated with baby safety equipment such as baby gates, car seats, and cribs, many of these items are subject both to federal safety standards and frequent product recalls.
eBay expressly forbids selling used variants of the aforementioned categories (including used bike helmets), and even new items must be certified by the appropriate governing bodies.
The risk is too high and the hassle isn’t worth it. It’s best to avoid listing these items altogether or opt for a local marketplace.
When building out your ecommerce strategy on eBay, it’s critical to know your market. Study the kind of consumer that looks for things on eBay.
A cursory look at the top-selling categories listed above will reveal that eBay is not designed for handmade, bespoke, or artisanal products. Sure, there’s nothing stopping you from listing those kinds of products, but don’t expect them to perform well.
Look again at the top-selling items and consider the question: “What is the average eBay consumer looking for?”
It’s clear they’re looking for practical, utilitarian items — not sentimental ones — at a discount. If handmade is your thing, you’re better off using a site that targets the appropriate demographic, such as Etsy or Amazon Handmade.
While eBay strictly forbids the selling of firearms on their platform, they make certain allowances for firearm accessories. These include things like barrels, firing pins, and hammers. However, due to strict stipulations and various state laws surrounding firearms, it’s best to avoid eBay for this category.
Instead, opt for a local-based marketplace dedicated to firearms and firearm accessories.
This item makes the “avoid” list by nature of its pointed irony. Beanie Babies were one of the things that put eBay on the map. In fact, much of eBay’s early success was thanks to the incredible Beanie Babies Boom of the 90s and early 2000s.
Analysts even predicted that the online auction house would fail due to so much of its profits being propped up by the popularity of these cute little bean-filled creatures. Well, eBay obviously prevailed, and Beanie Babies were left in the dust.
They’re now relatively unpopular on the platform and can be purchased for pennies on the dollar.
It may seem strange to see this category on the list, as it seems fairly obvious that counterfeit or bootleg media would be prohibited on eBay. But the rules can get pretty gray, especially when it’s not as cut-and-dry as illegal copies of films or video games.
For example, there’s a thriving underground culture of Star Wars fans that make custom “fan edits” of the classic sci-fi movies and distribute them on DVDs. These are examples of items that, while not blatant copies, are still prohibited on eBay’s platform.
The prominence of digital products such as online courses, eBooks, and software enhancements has skyrocketed over the past decade.
As a result, many entrepreneurs have found a way to keep their overhead low by creating completely electronic offerings.
To prevent intellectual property infringement, eBay has provisions on electronically delivered goods.
eBay’s demographic is all about buying used tangible goods. Selling digital goods on eBay is like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
If you’re building a digital product business, you’re better off looking into digital commerce platforms such as Udemy (for online courses) or Gumroad (for digital tools and software).
eBay is truly a hobbyist paradise. Whether you’re into fixing broken computers, collecting interesting musical instruments, or sourcing vintage antiques, eBay has something for everyone.
One popular hobby eBay cannot abide, however, is that of CB and HAM radio enthusiasts. According to their restricted items policy, “CB amplifiers and radio equipment that operate in both CB and HAM frequencies” is strictly prohibited on the platform.
Medical devices such as Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) machines and Electrical Muscle Stimulation (EMS) machines aren’t cheap. They’re also used to treat conditions that may be temporary, leaving patients with expensive hardware they no longer need.
Perfect candidate for eBay, right? Unfortunately, not. eBay strictly forbids listing these items or any medical item that requires a prescription.
You’d be better off looking into specialized sites that trade medical devices for cash.
One of the biggest skill sets of good ecommerce business leaders is the ability to choose the right tool for the job. This includes delegating the appropriate personnel to certain tasks and choosing the right online platform to meet specific goals.
Thanks to eBay’s responsive support team, their storefront and Seller Hub applications, and their wide consumer base, the platform has never been more viable for ecommerce business owners. But it’s not a one-size-fits-all platform. Doing a little bit of research on the front end will help you avoid listing inappropriate or underperforming products. Ultimately, what you sell is almost as important as where you sell it.
Matt Kenyon is a freelance writer for SkuVault, an inventory management system for eCommerce retailers. He enjoys researching the best practices of eCommerce and inventory management and synthesizing these ideas into digestible, written content to help businesses succeed