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eBay School: Book-keeping

Keeping a record of your eBay transactions
by Gisle Hannemyr
Published: 2011-04-25.

Unless you are a business, and need to keep track of your equipment for tax purposes, you do not have to keep books on your transactions on eBay. I am not a business, but I do it anyway, because I like to know where my equipment came from, what it cost me, and who I am conducting business with.

When you transact over eBay, eBay keeps the data about transaction accessible for you in My eBay for about three years before it is deleted (or made inaccessible). If you want a permanent record, you have to copy all that information to your own books before it goes away.

I only do photography as a hobby. What is presented here is how I happen do things, for no other purposes than my own. If you are a business, you probably need a more formal system. Talk to your accountant about what is required.

I do not think my system of book-keeping is particularly clever or elegant. It is offered here for those of you looking for ideas for your own book-keeping system.

The software I use for book-keeping is an ordinary spreadsheet, and my computer's file system for any attachments. I do not use any fancy spreadsheet functions, so any spreadsheet will do. I just think the tabular format of a spreadsheet is suitable for this sort of task.

Transactions

I keep a record of all my transactions in a directory directory on my hard drive set aside for this particular purpose. The main book is a spreadsheet where I enter all the transactions chronologically, one item per spreadsheet line. The first column is some sort of unique string that gives the transaction an unique identifier in my system. I could use the eBay transaction number, but I prefer to make up my own identifiers to have them more mnemonic. After I've created this identifier, I then immediately create a sub-directory on my hard drive that has the same name as this identifier. This directory is going to hold any text and image attachments.

The second column in the spreadsheet is used to hold a description of the item (e.g. “Nikon 17-55 mm f/2.8 G ED-IF AF-S DX, used”), the third its serial number, the fourth the name of the marketplace where I bought it (e.g. “eBay”, “web-shop”, “Craigslist”, etc.), and in the fifth the name or handle of the seller, For name or handle, I use the eBay member name or eBay store name for entities I transact with on eBay, the URL for web-shops, and real names for the people I buy stuff from via Craigslist and other local markets.

Then in the following columns I enter how much I paid for the item, how much I paid for shipping, the date I bought it, and the date I received it.

I have two columns for descriptions. One with a summary of the seller's description (e.g.: “Used, clean glass, some small scratches on the metal.”), and one for my own notes. For good sellers, my notes usually says “As described.” For bad sellers, I enter my own notes about what the seller left out.

I also have two columns with the feedback. One column for the feedback I received, and the other for the feedback I left. If the received column is empty, and the other person is a seller, this means that he or she did not leave any feedback. I believe this identifies a dubious seller and I make a note about never buying from that particular seller a second time.

The final column is reserved for returns, and is only used if I have to return the item for a replacement or a refund. If I am shipped a replacement, I record that as separate transaction with a different transaction identifier.

I also like to save all the text describing the item, and all the photos the seller put up do document it. I use the simplest form of web scraping (copy-and-paste) to record the relevant text from the listing. For the pictures, I use Photoshop to capture screens with the images, because most eBay merchants have disabled the function that let you right click on images to save them directly. The text document with the web-scraped text, and all the images, are saved as attachments in the appropriate attachment sub-directory.

People and stores

In addition to a record of all the transactions were I have bought and sold equipment, I also like to keep track of all the individuals that I've done business with.

My main reason for doing this to give the good guys and gals repeat business, and to avoid having to deal again with the bad ones. However, having their contact information on file also makes it simpler to track them down later, if for example, an item under the seller's store warranty needs to be repaired.

So the first time I do business with a particular person or store (on eBay and elsewhere), I create a page in my spreadsheet to keep track of all business with that particular person or store.

At the top of the page, in the first column, I put the name or handle that will be used as identifier. This is the same name or handle that I put in column five in my transactions spreadsheet.

In the following columns at the top of the page, I record – if I have that information – the real name, the physical address, the email address, and the contact phone number. Of course, I do not always have this information. On eBay, the real identities of members are deliberately protected. But when you receive a box with, merchandise there is usually a return address printed on the box, and sometimes there also is an invoice included. To have contact information on file, I simply always copy any relevant information from the outside of the box or the invoice onto my spreadsheet when the box with the goods arrive.

When I buy something from a seller, I enter the same transaction identifier as I use to identify the transaction in my transaction spreadsheet in the first column below the name or handle. This allows me to refer back to the full data set about the transaction if I need to. In the second column, I just put a brief note where I record my feelings about the transaction. This note may be as brief as “OK”, but if there were any glitches, I like to keep have a record of it on file for further reference.

Final word

As I said in the introduction, my book-keeping system is not clever or elegant. If I'd used a real database instead of a set of spreadsheets I could have connected the transactions, the saved text and images, and the people and stores through the database instead of having to come up with mnemonic identifiers and having to keep track of those by manual means.

But I am a hobbyist I don't buy or sell equipment that often, so this purely manual systems built around spreadsheets and files is adequate for me. For book-keeping, you need to find a system that is appropriate for your own requirements.

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