Ebay: A Fuzzy, Nutty Market

It's strange enough that people spend hours of their vacations in tchotchke shops in far-off destinations, but now they can soothe such cravings in the comfort of their own homes at 3 am.You may have heard of Ebay, the mammoth Internet auction house, in connection with companies like AOL, CDnow, Amazon.com and other hot tech companies that are causing a stir in the stock market.The difference between Ebay and other e-commerce sites is that Ebay not only allows the shopaholic to get a quick fix but also lets commoners become Internet entrepreneurs without having to go to the trouble of creating their own Web sites.The idea behind Ebay is truly brilliant, but on close examination the much-hallowed Web space is revealed to be a haven for a culture of pack rats who can't bring themselves to throw anything in the garbage.On a daily basis, Ebay is flooded with an abundance of collectible items like trading cards, comics, old magazines and every little trinket imaginable -- from toothpick-holders to rare brands of toilet paper.Bizarre thingsPart of the thrill of going to Ebay is browsing through lists of the bizarre things people collect, and then marvelling at how strange it is that other people are actually buying them. For example, on a recent search I found a used tube of Palmolive shaving cream from 1973 selling for $20, and there had actually been 11 bids for it.The truthfulness of the age-old saying that one man's trash is another man's treasure really becomes apparent during a casual stroll through the piles of thingamajigs and gizmos available at Ebay.But amid the trash is some purely nostalgic paraphernalia. Among Ebay's most popular categories are toys and dolls, and in these sections I found pictures that really brought me back to my youth and angered me at the same time. I realized that I could have made good money if my mother hadn't thrown out all my old toys so she could house her Beanie Baby collection in my old room.On any single day, you can find listings, many accompanied by pictures, of Transformers, GI-Joes, He-man figures and Barbies. The sellers seem to be a counterculture of toy-obsessed junkies, many of them selling their more ordinary toys so they can acquire more desirable ones.Big gameIn many ways, sellers are competing against each other in a big game of Monopoly. Ebay facilitates this competition by rating sellers according to the number of satisfied buyers.Once sellers complete 10 transactions for which they've received positive feedback, they're rewarded with a yellow star; after 100, a blue star. The highest level to be obtained is the elusive shooting star bestowed on Ebayers with user ratings of 1,000 or more.These tactics, at the minimum, evoke memories of the warm and fuzzy feeling associated with receiving colourful stickers from an adored kindergarten teacher. But the pull is even stronger for video-gamers, who see a higher star level as a measure of self-worth.Trading on Ebay masks the fact that you're actually spending your hard-earned cash in a transaction masquerading as a children's game.Some users are so captivated by the pseudo-gaming aspect of this Internet auction house that they completely forget about its business side.I recently made a few successful bids for items being offered by one Ebay vendor and became dismayed when I hadn't heard back from him after a few days.I contacted the seller and asked him for his mailing info so we could complete our transaction.He apologized for taking so long to get back to me and explained that the reason for his nonchalant attitude about completing the sale was that he was more concerned with boosting his user rating to a purple-star level than with actually collecting the money from his sales.Small feeEbay's self-betterment motif is most prevalent when a user lists a new item.For a small fee, the vendor has the option of making the listing appear more attractive by showcasing it in a featured auction, including fancy print or adding cartoonish icons alongside the offering, creating eye candy to titillate potential buyers.Ebay also facilitates the use of HTML language within item descriptions so pages can have even more bells and whistles.As a result, every listing can be incredibly unique, almost like a personal Web page.The idea that you can make money by just sitting in front of your computer screen is so alluring it's almost bewitching.The day I discovered Ebay, I put three items of my own up for sale and bid on three others.Afterward, my eyes were glued to the screen -- I was petrified that if I blinked I might miss some action on my auctions.Yes, Net auctions are addictive, and the pseudo-gambling aspect of the site makes it even more seductive.Ebay says approximately 70 per cent of the items listed sell, but a casual observer can tell that this number is inflated.It would probably be more accurate to say that half the stuff for sale actually sells.And even if an item sells, there is a risk that one party may renege on the deal, even though Ebay's user rating system is designed to make this as unlikely as possible.Unfortunately, the system is easy to foil by having friends bid on your items, thereby upping your user rating to a respectable level.No guaranteeAnother problem is that users have no way of knowing if the descriptions of items for sale are accurate. Ebay tries to get around this difficulty by encouraging users to add pictures to their item descriptions.Again, there is no guarantee that the picture hasn't been retouched or that it even depicts the actual item for sale.As in any old-fashioned marketplace, everything boils down to reputation, and Ebay allots plenty of space for its participants to voice complaints and praise.Net auction houses hope people's insatiable desire for recreational shopping and making easy money will fuel mega-profits.Judging by their stock prices, they're on the right track.

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