eBay the smart way

selling, buying, and profiting on the Web’s #1 auction site

The Internet has thrown up lots of new possibilities for commerce, and one which has exploded in the last eighteen months is online auctions. This is the car boot sale principle writ large. People are making a living – if not fortunes – buying cheap and selling as dear as the market will stand. Vendors describe their goods on an auction house website, and buyers register their bids. At its best, everybody wins. Sellers get more profit than they would in the bricks-and-mortar second-hand market, and the buyer gets a cheaper price. The person who makes most of course is the auction house, because it gets a cut of the transaction.

There are lots of auction houses, but Joseph Sinclair’s guide concentrates on eBay because it is the biggest and most successful. In July 1999 eBay had over two million items for sale in over 1,600 categories, and it was receiving over 50 million hits per day on its site. That’s an awful lot of traffic, and it’s quite obvious from his account that if you want to win in buying or selling, you need to know how it all works. There are four types of auction, and they can last for three, five, or seven days, usually producing a flurry of bidding towards the last few hours.

The system is obviously wide open to abuse and fraud, all of which Joseph Sinclair confronts quite frankly. Some people send duff goods, others fail to pay for them. Many, many pages are devoted to the problems, and by midway through the book auctions seemed to me like a legal minefield. But eBay has built into its interface a complex system of public feedback, checks, complaints, and an ‘About Me’ system in which commercial reputations can be built up via honest transactions – or lost via sloppiness or corruption. He also claims that online criminals are more easily caught than offline, because they are easier to trace.

It’s interesting that the online auction system brings all the previously ‘hidden’ disputes over problematic transactions out into the open. They certainly do go on in daily terrestrial commerce, but others don’t normally see them or even hear about them However, he includes advice on withdrawing an item from auction, withdrawing a bid, or disagreeing over a transaction. It’s quite obvious that he knows the system very well, and anyone feeling inclined to snap up bargains would do well to follow his advice.

As you can probably imagine, this new form of trading has throw up its own weird jargon – including terms such as ‘feedback solicitation’, ‘bid shielding’, ‘bid siphoning’, and ‘shill feedback’. He explains most of the terms, but I think a glossary would have been useful.

The book is quite an interesting market product in its own right. Huge margins, wide line-spacing, only 200 words per page, a sub-heading for almost every paragraph, and page layout kept brutally simple. Perhaps this is a sign of book production which has been influenced by the design of web sites? Oh, and it’s also quite cheap.

© Roy Johnson 2002

Joseph T. Sinclair, eBay the smart way: selling, buying, and profiting on the Web’s #1 auction site, New York: Amacom, 1999, pp.418, ISBN: 0814470645

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