By Mike Santa Rita
She sells the shoes - more than 1,000 in the past three months - not out of a store, but over the Internet on online auction outlets, including the mother of all such outlets, eBay.
Right from the start Chandler knew that she would have no place to put the shoes she was going to buy from a wholesaler.
"They all arrive ... all at once," she said. "I couldn't fit 2,000 shoes at home. I would use up the entire garage, and I wouldn't be able to find inventory that easily."
So she turned to the Columbia-based Auction Safari, a self-described eBay "brokerage" founded by a pair of Ellicott City residents that, for a fee, provides warehousing, a call center, and a host of marketing and merchandising techniques for small eBay entrepreneurs like Chandler.
"If you don't have customer service, you're hosed," Chandler said. "I get instant staff, I have an instant warehouse."
eBay spawns new businesses
Auction Safari is one of an emerging set of service companies around the country that is taking advantage of the eBay "economy," eBay spokesman Hani Durzy said.
With 147 million registered users worldwide and $34 billion in trade last year, eBay is a worldwide market place of mostly small businesses of one to five people that sell almost anything over the Internet. The auction also is supporting a growing number of consultants and storage facilities that help these small businesses sell their goods, Durzy said.
"There's a whole slew of businesses built around the eBay marketplace that wouldn't exist without eBay," he said.
Drop off points, warehousing, trading assistance and inventory services for eBay clients are becoming more and more common, he added.
Durzy said he knew of Auction Safari. He added, however, that such peripheral businesses do not represent eBay. Nonetheless, the auction giant is glad for such peripheral businesses.
"Smart entrepreneurial people seek to find ways to create businesses around those economies," Durzy said. "We think it's great."
New warehouse on horizon
Ron Bratt, 40, and Jeff Shiller, 39, who own Auction Safari, ship more than 100 products a day - from shoes to DVDs - out of their 9,000-square-foot warehouse on Red Branch Road in Columbia, Bratt said.
Although Bratt and Shiller call their company an "eBay brokerage," they use other online venues, including Overstock.com, Shopping.com and Yahoo.com to push its clients' products.
The pair said they help clients devise strategies to best move products through the tricky world of online auctions, taking into account such factors as the length of auctions, starting prices for products, market saturation and how to avoid paying fees for items that don't sell. They also help clients with e-mail campaigns and conduct key word campaigns to ensure that clients figure prominently in key word searches on sites such as Google.com.
Auction Safari charges clients a set-up fee of between $1,000 and $10,000 and monthly fee for storing goods that range from $500 to $1,000. In addition, the pair take a 18 to 25 percent cut of each sale a client makes.
Bratt and Shiller opened the business in December 2003 and hired their first employees in November 2004. They now have 10 brokers and 20 employees and plan to move to a new 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Columbia within the next year, Bratt said.
The pair are gold sellers on eBay which means they sell $10,000 worth of products a month through the site, they said. They declined to state their profits.
$100,000 loan aided growth
In May, Auction Safari garnered a $100,000 loan from the Columbia-based Jim Rouse Entrepreneurial Fund, whose mission is to assist small and emerging businesses in Howard County.
The fund loaned the company $100,000 to hire new staff, said Mary Becker the fund's director. Auction Safari's track record of job creation, and its unique nature, were decisive factors in the fund's decision to give the company one of the six to eight loans it distributes annually, she said.
Bratt said Auction Safari would like to do business with larger companies, but have yet to snag any.
"We're developing a campaign to really work with those companies," he said.
Durzy said that large companies sell through eBay, but mostly excess goods they can't sell through regular retail outlets or seasonal items that are being replaced. Individual eBay sellers also tend to buy in blocks from large retailers via eBay, he said.
Durzy stressed that Auction Safari's client base of small- to medium-sized businesses will always be eBay's strength.
"eBay has always been, and always will be, a place for small individuals or businesses of one to five people," he said.
E-mail Mike Santa Rita at Mike Santa Rita@patuxent.com