Along the Highway

The e-bay-zing eeeeeeeeeeeebay
By Mike Wojnowicz

A new shopping phenomenon is sweeping the country — one that allows shoppers to buy many types of merchandise from a single location. The savvy shopper, given just a few minutes, can find at this location a Nico digital camera, some scratched-up Frank Sinatra records, a vintage still-in-the-case Bubble Barbie (with matching Ken), an "immaculate" 1996 stretch limousine, rare Beanie Babies, and farm land out in Newberry, Florida.

This new shopping phenomenon brings together two bebop jazz lovers - one from Seattle, the other from Charleston — to discuss how much their out-of-print Charlie Rouse reissues are worth.

This new shopping phenomenon, unlike the mall, doesn't cause traffic congestion, but instead allows people to shop from home, smiling in their furry, reclinable chairs.

The new shopping phenomenon — and for your sake, I hope you already know this — is led by eBay, the largest, hippest, smartest, and most popular of the auction sites on the Internet.

EBay is quick to acknowledge its kingly status among the hundreds of auction sites that will combine to host an estimated $2.3 billion in sales this year. EBay's "about eBay" section boasts that the Wall Street Journal once called it "a must see Web destination," that C/Net voted it "most likely to succeed" in 1998, that 250,000 new items appear daily, and that members always find it "a great place to be" — well, eBay is the world's largest on-line trading community.

But with so many devoted members, eBay doesn't really need to manufacture enthusiasm.

Many members jump at the chance to praise eBay as a wonderful seller's market.

"It's a great forum for selling the stuff you don't really want -baseball cards, records, comic books, beer coasters," UF librarian Greg Allen says. "You can make lots of money just getting rid of your junk."

Allen once sold a Franklin Mint watch for $70. Not bad for a ten-year-old watch he didn't want at all.

Philadelphia housewife Cathy Broadus praises eBay's social environment. Broadus likes to post messages in "eBay café" — a bustling shopping-related chat room — and peruse eBay's on-line newsletter, where readers answer questions like "what was your greatest eBay find?" and "has eBay changed your life?"

Broadus actually likes the environment so much that she doesn't mind that most of her items sell at a loss.

"I just enjoy the people I meet," Broadus says. "I am impressed that so many people use this service and [that they] trust each other to deliver the goods as promised."

But while sellers get relatively enthusiastic about eBay — after all, they are making money (well, most of them are) — they don't get nearly as enthusiastic as the buyers.

UF freshman Michelle Tomasso talks excitedly about how eBay offers "pretty much anything — even dumb kitchy 80's stuff, which I love."

"eBay is like my favorite thing in the world, really," she says. "I heard stupid Rosie O' Donnell talking about it. So I went there and loved it!"

Tomasso really does love eBay. On America Online, she sometimes uses the alias "eeeeeeeeeeeeebay" — that's twelve E's and a "bay" — and she and her friends have developed a linguistic system in which they sometimes say "e-bay-zing" instead of "amazing" or "eBay" instead of "yes."

"It's morphed into something more than just a Web site," Tomasso says.

EBay is the brain child of founder Pierre Omidyar's wife, an avid collector of Pez dispensers, who fantasized about being able to trade Pez dispensers on the Internet with other avid collectors. Omidyar helped his wife realize her dream by launching the site on Labor Day, 1995.

The site grew quickly into its present state, offering over 3.3 million items for sale to over 4 million users.

Here's how it works. Someone who wants to sell an item puts it into a category (like automotive, coins and stamps, or sports memorabilia), describes the item's physical condition, states the shipping and handling charges and the preferred method of payment, sets a minimum bid, and declares a date to end the bidding.

When an interested buyer sees the item, the buyer offers a bid that exceeds the current maximum bid. Some buyers set up a "proxy bid" — letting eBay automatically increases a the bid by the least increment necessary to make it the highest one, up until the buyer's chosen maximum limit.

But unfortunately, the sales don't always go so smoothly.

As Tomasso says, "punks" sometimes make up code names and bid exorbitant amounts on expensive items, forcing the bids to skyrocket so that the winner must pay a good deal more than really necessary. And if the "punk" bidder happens to win, he or she simply does not pay.

This "punk" bidding isn't the worst problem, though. (Remember, the buyer's designated "maximum limit" prevents the proxy bidding process from making the buyer pay anything more than he or she could have expected.)

The worst problem is there's no guarantee that after a completed auction, the buyer will send money as legally required. Or that the seller, receiving the money, will ever send the product.

It's quite easy to find stories of blown transactions. In the eBay café, where members are encouraged to "Sit Down. Relax. Have a mocha," chat lines sometimes clog with the angry grumbles of cheated members and the astonished pleas of the audience.

"It's just so frustrating," says one user, "We had some joker bid on a high money card and then he never sent the money. Turns out its some Indian kid in New Mexico using his parents' eBay account and bidding on high-priced stuff. Ticks me off!"

And the flip-side, of course, is even worse.

"You guys don't even know," says another user, "Bobcat2770." "I sent $1335 for a computer to New York and received nothing … [the seller's] not even answering his phone. I am giving him until 9 a.m. tomorrow before filing claims and fraud reports."

These problems have been garnering some press for eBay, both nationally and locally.

A recent 20/20 report chronicled the problems of eBay's online commerce, focusing on a series of fraudulent computer sales coming out of New York — "Bobcat2770" may have some company in his fight to get back his money.

And on Tuesday, November 9, a UF student — 21-year-old "Bubble Gump" Lightfoot — was arrested for scamming a total of $8,000 from nearly 30 eBay members.

But not to worry — smart electronic shoppers can take steps to avoid these problems.

Extremely cautious members can take advantage of eBay's protective escrow service, in which a third party holds the buyer's payment until the buyer receives the agreed upon item. The service, of course, costs the buyer a fee, generally hovering around 4 to 6 percent of the purchase price.

And there are simpler, cheaper solutions, too.

"I only use C.O.D.'s," says UF librarian Greg Allen, who after an estimated 100 transactions has never been cheated.

Another trick, Allen says, is to make good use of eBay's ingenious feedback system, which tracks a seller's history through comments from previous buyers. The feedback system records each buyer's name and e-mail address along with the comment. The comments are then separated into "positive comments" and "negative comments," with the totals displayed on a "eBay ID card."

Those with few negative comments are likely reliable sellers. So sellers work hard to keep up those sterling ID cards.

The e-bay-zing Tomasso thrives on her sterling ID ratings. Even her friends know this.

"If she ever got negative feedback, she'd kill herself," they say.

Tomasso advises beginners to "just bid on stuff you really, really want. Because if you don't pay, you're screwed."

Really screwed, because "otherwise you'll get negative feedback."

Tomasso pauses to reflect on what she's just said.

"Oh, god, I'm such a dork."

Omidyar's wife, lacking Pez dispensers, had a dream. And whoa, was she ever on to something. Americans love regular, plain ol' shopping — around 41 percent of American adults and young adults endorse the statement "shopping makes me feel good." In fact, some researchers go so far as to call shopping "retail therapy," as the activity allows people to escape from boredom, fight depression, and reward themselves. But Omidyar's eBay takes shopping and translates it into an activity that requires hardly any effort to access — an activity which in fact waits for you, just a few mouse clicks deep into the friendly confines of Netscape Gold.

And the bidding game just makes it that more addictive.

eBay really is addictive. Addicts have recounted their sad stories of eBay addiction in the nation's finer publications, like Marc Zawel did in his September 11, 1999 letter to The New York Times. The letter closes:

But my escapades on eBay taught me a remarkably valuable lesson: certain opportunities in life are tempting to undertake, but you must choose your undertakings wisely.

Because eBay was consuming so much of my time, my grades declined dramatically. And now as I prepare college applications, nothing is so disappointing as my poor performance during sophomore year.

I warn others my age that even though eBay may be a tempting, lucrative option, you must keep your focus on a solid education. It'll get you a whole lot farther than a couple of bucks earned on eBay will.

Something about eBay also lured the e-bay-zing Tomasso into buying a $40 wall tapestry "and a lot of other worthless crap I don't want."

Tomasso decided to take a brief hiatus from eBay.

"I'll get addicted…Like last time I went on there and I was like ooh, ahh, a Pizzicato Five watch. All my friends make fun of me for having the watch. It was like $70."

Perhaps eBay allures customers because it offers precisely what all businesses aspire to offer — tantalizing good deals on desirable items. But perhaps this "trading community" maintains a bit of an extra edge on the downtown mom-and-pop store because it is, after all, a community.

The "eBay café," in connecting consumers with others who have similar purchasing interests, could very well create what Juliet B. Schor, author of "The Overspent American" and leisure researcher, calls new "reference groups."

In one study, Schor had consumers rate their financial status in relation to their reference groups — friends, coworkers, neighbors, relatives. With each step down on the five-level rating scale (which ranged from "much better" to "much worse"), the consumer saved $2,953 less for the year.

Schor argues that when consumers who see their peers as having "more" will spend to catch up.

And in the eBay community, there's always a lot of catching up to do. Jazz-lovers compare their records collections not to the sports lover down the street, but to somewhat anonymous people with names like "misty-music" or "sshiphop99" who always seem to own a bunch of records they've always wanted.

If nothing else, the eBay community — with its chat rooms, its newsletters, its libraries — encourages spending through mere exposure.

As Schor writes, "to understand how your possessions came to fill a full-size moving van, or why you never seem to have enough closet space, we need to begin with the acquisition process. The sequence of events starts with a social act — being exposed to consumer goods…Inner desires are prompted first and foremost by exposure."

So eBay loves it when an eBay café visitor debates the attributes of a Hummer versus a Porsche or describes the new Led Zeppelin box set in detail. (Of course, all this occurs over mocha.)

And eBay loves it that some people spend enough time, energy, and money on the site — the undeniably clever and addictive site — to unwittingly elevate "the Bay" to an unfathomable position of power.

Tomasso describes how she once owed eBay about 25 cents. Unfortunately, Tomasso forgot to pay, and was slapped with a $15 late fee.

"It sucks, yeah, but I must pay," Tomasso says. "I don't want eBay to hate me."

Of course she doesn't want eBay to hate her.

After all, eBay is her favorite thing in the world, really.

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