eBay Jeebies

Valley bidders go berserk on Internet's biggest auction house.

First, both buyers and sellers have to register. Registration is free but participants have to be 18 years or older; most traders operate under handles like "golfwidow" or "doughboy."

Sellers post pictures and descriptions of merchandise they're trying to unload. They can run sales for three, five, seven or 10 days.

eBay collects a listing fee from 25 cents on up based on asking price. The site also collects a fee based on the winning bid of each auction, a sliding scale of 5 percent for items under $25 to 2.5 percent for bids in the $25 to $1,000 range.

Bid vibes: Go Kat Go's Brandy Kvetko and Chris Swanberg got burned in eBay transaction.
Paolo Vescia
Bid vibes: Go Kat Go's Brandy Kvetko and Chris Swanberg got burned in eBay transaction.

Buyers try to outbid each other, and rather than having to sit at their computer all day, they can plug in an automatic maximum bid. For instance, if you're willing to pay up to $25 for an item, eBay will automatically meet every opposing bid for you until someone offers $25 or more. At that point, you'll be notified by e-mail that you've been outbid and will have the opportunity to plug in a higher proxy bid.

After the auction, the seller contacts the winning bidder by e-mail to work out the details of the sale -- usually an arrangement in which the seller waits until the buyer's check clears before shipping merchandise.

And, in theory at least, everyone goes home happy.

Truth be told, a lot of people around the Valley are sitting in front of their glowing eBay screens wondering where it's all headed.

Although he's getting some flak from his wife, Gary Perkins of Rare Lion Resale is ready to jump into eBay Nation headfirst. When the lease expires on his shop at Mill and University next year, he'd like to avoid the overhead of a full-time shop and go strictly cyber. Among other reasons: "It's a lot easier than loading up a trailer and setting up at shows around the country."

But others, like local used-record dealer and eBay user Dennis Chiesa, express mixed emotions about this ephemeral competitor.

"eBay's definitely had an effect on my business," says Chiesa, co-owner of Central Avenue's Tracks in Wax. "From the seller's standpoint, the good thing is that you're going to get a lot more exposure for your merchandise. That can bring the price up."

And the downside? "Suddenly, the customer doesn't have to go to his favorite record store anymore," Chiesa continues. "Before he comes in here, he might check to see if he can find it on eBay. Or he may come in anyway -- but he'll compare prices. It's been a terrible crunch on us."

According to Chiesa, media coverage of unfathomable bidding hasn't helped -- ice, a CD retailer trade magazine, recently reported that someone had paid $430 for the privilege of owning a new disc by former New Kid on the Block member Jordan Knight a month before it was officially released.

"eBay can bring down prices as much as it can bring them up," says Chiesa. "There will be a frenzy over some record, and the next time that same title comes up, absolutely nothing. It's timing, it's luck, who knows? I do know that if I were still an active record collector, there's stuff on eBay that I'd have mortgaged the house for. There's also a lot of unbelievable crap."

Chiesa laughs. "I saw some clown who was trying to sell Elvis' toenail clippers. The rationale was that he'd found these clippers in a couch that had once been owned by Elvis, so therefore it was possible Elvis had used them to cut his toenails. There's no limit to what people will try to sell."

That's what the Valley woman who calls herself Rosy was counting on when she first logged on to eBay several weeks ago.

An avid collector of a second-rate juvenile fiction series from the Fifties, she anxiously typed in the name of the one title that had eluded her for years. Voilà! Several days later, she received word that she'd placed the winning (and, as it turned out, only) bid on Donna Parker at Cherrydale, a steal at $4 plus postage.

For Rosy, that was the beginning of an endless eBay trawl that shows no signs of letting up. "Getting the book was so easy, I decided to see if I could find a cookie jar I've been meaning to get," says Rosy. Big mistake. After locating a ceramic crock that caught her eye, Rosy realized she'd come in during the final moments of a highly competitive auction in which her opening bid of $25 quickly escalated to a winning bid of $125. Plus an additional $15 for postage.

"Would I have paid $140 for this cookie jar in a store?" asks Rosy. "No way. But you get sucked into the competitiveness. Everything is happening so fast that you don't have time to think straight; you're just clicking away without really thinking about the consequences. And the truly insane part about eBay is that I'm sending off checks to people I know absolutely nothing about."

Had she been paying closer attention (and, as a seasoned eBayer, now she does), Rosy could have checked a seller's Feedback Profile.

A customer-satisfaction index instituted several years ago to help keep users honest (or as honest as can be expected in such a trust-driven business), the public tallies allow users to read comments made by other buyers and sellers. Almost always positive (users who rack up too many negative comments are booted off the system), a typical accolade might read: "Tops! Fast pay! eBay could use more like this! AAAA!"

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