eBay Jeebies

Attention, online shoppers! Welcome to eBay, your one-stop shopping headquarters for everything you never knew you needed.

An international flea market to some, a global Dumpster to others, this behavioral-research head-scratcher has produced some of the wackiest human-interest stories of the year. In recent months, Internet shopaholics have vicariously thrilled to the story of the Pennsylvania eBayer who auctioned off an antique pickle jar for which he'd paid $3 to another collector who bid $44,100.

Then there was the 13-year-old New Jersey boy who, during a weekend shopping spree, racked up winning bids (later suspended) of more than $3 million on items including a '71 Corvette and a van Gogh original.

In Florida, a high school senior briefly attempted to auction off his virginity (opening bid: $10) to the right woman or man ("I'm willing to experiment") before eBay monitors jerked his offer off the service.

And if Phoenix hasn't yet given birth to any such eBay legends (like the highly apocryphal report of the couple who were arrested after they allegedly tried to auction off an adopted baby), the Valley collector community is still abuzz with tales of this sky's-the-limit agora that threatens to make Goodwill stores a thing of the past.

Out-of-control spending, secret identities, vindictive auction wars, sneaky bidding practices, even death threats: Thanks to eBay (or, as one local dealer has nicknamed it, "The Swap Meet of the Damned"), the once genteel world of antiquing has suddenly been turned into a marketplace gone mad.

"What's going on with eBay is totally insane," says collectibles dealer Brandy Kvetko, owner of Go Kat Go in Glendale. "People are using it to buy big-ticket things like cars and houses that they've never even actually seen. No wonder it's all anyone talks about anymore."

Shaking the monkey from his back is every addict's dream.

But one Valley eBay junkie who's racked up thousands of dollars bidding on online auctions claims she'd be happy to simply shuck the mouse from hers.

"eBay is addictive, no doubt about it," says Ms. X, a stressed-out cyber shopper who prefers that her real name not be used. Since first logging on to the online auction site earlier this year, X has spent more money than she'd like to think about -- successfully clicking in winning bids on more than a dozen Maxfield Parrish prints and other tony objets d'art.

But very few of those pricey treasures adorn the walls and shelves of her home. For the time being, at least, most are tucked away in her office at work until she can figure out how to smuggle them into the house without her husband finding out.

If all this sounds like a high-tech episode of I Love Lucy, well, Ms. X will be the first to admit it.

"If I weren't spending so much money," she says, "it would be comical." X admits that she was racing home to check the mail on her lunch hour until it occurred to her to have the packages delivered at work. During her peak dependence on eBay, X became such a slave to the site that she monitored auctions from her computer terminal at work throughout the day. At home, she began rising hours earlier than usual and going to bed much later in an ultimately futile effort to wade through an endless morass of merchandise ranging from genuine antiques to a Laverne & Shirley Matchbox car and a slightly mustard-stained Hot Dog on a Stick sweat shirt. And if the TV in the background happened to be tuned to Antiques Roadshow, PBS' flea market appraisal program, so much the better.

"I'm finally getting a little better," says X, who boasts that she hasn't made a "serious" bid in several days. In fact, she's even thinking about auctioning some of her purchases back -- but not to cut her losses. "I just want to have more money," she says, "to spend on other auctions."

A weird wedding of the Internet, home shopping networks, gambling and CB radio, eBay first raised its electronic gavel in 1995 as a nonprofit site for collectors of Pez candy dispensers to swap their wares in cyberspace. Drawing the attention of other hobbyists after it appeared in a number of "hot site" listings, the auction site soon bid adieu to its grassroots origins. The rest is Wall Street history, and at any given time the site lists nearly two million items in 1,600 categories.

On a typical day, the San Jose-based site fields 800,000 bids from auction-happy surfers skimming across oceans of other people's flotsam and jetsam, everything from a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish training video to "reality check, please" items like sight-unseen precious stones. One of the most popular sites on the Net, eBay has spawned a handful of competitors but remains leader of the pack; Fortune recently reported that eBay stock was valued at more than that of Kmart, Toys "R" Us, Nordstrom and Saks -- combined.

So how does one go about buying or selling, say, a Wesson Oil mayonnaise maker or a Hot Wheels Little Debbie delivery truck?

Until someone gets around to writing eBay for Dummies, here's the Cliffs Notes version:

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.

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!"

While this all looks good on paper (the more feedback a seller receives, the more business he's likely to attract), some dealers complain that unethical eBayers abuse the system, threatening to use negative feedback to ruin their businesses.

"The feedback thing is the living swamp of eBay," says one user who, shortly after posting a negative report about a deadbeat dealer who took four months to deliver some merchandise, received threatening crank phone calls and an e-mailed computer virus.

"I had another guy badgering me with email, just begging for positive feedback," continues the dealer, who wishes to remain anonymous. "He made such a big deal about it that I finally looked at my records just to see what it was he'd bought from me. Well, guess what? He'd never bought anything from me at all! He was just counting on the fact that I'd give him a positive rating without even checking. Some of these idiots live and die for feedback."

eBay user Blake Shira, a vintage paperback dealer who operates Lost Dutchman Comics in Phoenix, has even had some customers use the threat of negative feedback as extortion. Citing minor flaws on books for which they placed the winning bid (one customer complained that a staple had a rust spot), several users have demanded cash kickbacks or additional merchandise in return for keeping Shira's slate clean.

"This is the part of eBay that I hate," says Shira. "Some people have become so depersonalized by computers and the Internet that they're firing off truly hateful e-mail. Hey, someone has a problem with something I sold them? Fine, let's work it out. But don't be sending me threatening letters saying stuff you'd never say to my face."

But in recent months, walk-in customers at one east Phoenix collectibles emporium have had no qualms about telling the owner exactly how they feel.

"Practically everybody who comes in these days tells me how eBay is going to put shops like this out of business," says Doug Patterson, owner of Do Wah Diddy on East Thomas. "Well, no, I don't think so. But we may all have to adapt a little as shop owners."

According to Patterson, one of the biggest banes of the eBay boom is that suddenly, "everyone's a dealer." Like similar businesses, Patterson has always relied heavily on "pickers" -- freelance flea market scavengers -- to keep the shelves of his store stocked for the past 20 years.

"It's getting harder to find good stuff to resell everywhere," says Patterson, explaining that part of the joy of his business is digging through dusty attics and backwater junk shops. "Well, now even people in small towns where you used to be able to find all sorts of wonderful things know about eBay. It's really getting tough."

Patterson also bemoans the "thrill of the hunt," a sentiment echoed by recreational eBay user Shari Miller, co-owner of the Vintage Modern Gallery on Central. While most of the items in her store -- midcentury furniture and designer artifacts -- are too large to fit into the eBay mail-order milieu, Miller doubts that the cyber marketplace will ever replace the physical shopping experience.

"I love touching, smelling, sitting in -- the three-dimensionality of the object," she says. "On eBay, you're just looking at pictures. I think that eBay is going to ebb and flow; people who are used to going to big shows are going to miss the tactility of this thing we do."

Stung by sour deals, even gung-ho eBayers admit that worldwide window shopping is still far from perfect.

"Trade safely!" trumpets eBay literature, warning buyers to deal with sellers with established track records. That said, eBay assumes no responsibility for any transaction and recommends that users employ the services of a third-party escrow house whenever making a large purchase.

But what do you do when that's not financially feasible (escrow houses charge each party a minimum of $5 per transaction), as is usually the case in the majority of low-dollar eBay auctions?

As they say, you pays your money and you takes your chances. While eBay boasts that it receives a mere 27 fraud complaints for every million transactions, that figure doesn't take into account what's arguably untold thousands of disputes that never reach eBay headquarters.

On three different occasions, a local record collector paid top dollar for rare discs billed as "factory-sealed." What he received were actually used records that had been sloppily re-shrink-wrapped. "I don't know whether they were trying to pull a fast one or maybe they honestly thought these records were factory-sealed," says the buyer. "I finally got refunds on two, but dealing with the third person was so much trouble I just gave up and kept it."

Shari Miller of the Vintage Modern Gallery hadn't had any online troubles until she received a vase with a four-inch crack running down the back. When she complained, the seller insisted that it wasn't his fault and must have happened in transit. "Uh-uh," countered Miller, who finally received a refund -- four months later.

Of course, many botched deals can simply be chalked up to the confusion that's to be expected when an experienced collector deals with someone who's trying to turn spring cleaning into a college fund. So the owners of Go Kat Go discovered when they placed the winning bid on a vintage model car kit described as "in mint condition."

"It was so pathetic, we just laughed," says Brandy Kvetko. "The box had been opened, the pieces were all pulled apart and there was a big dent in the cover. We didn't even bother trying to send it back or posting negative feedback. Who's got time?"

eBay caveat emptor: In eBay Nation, one man's mint is another man's poison.

"You really have to wonder who's buying all this stuff," says the executive director of a local political group who now spends her spare time peddling household wares, costume jewelry and old clothing over eBay. "It's crazy," she says. "I've had people buy things from me for more than they would have paid new at a store. Where could they live that this possibly makes any kind of economic sense?"

Conceding that eBay selling is no way to get rich, she adds that her customer service department keeps things interesting.

After a customer failed to follow up on a winning bid of $41.32 for a couple of tae-bo tapes, she fired off an e-mail using "the old 'If I don't hear from you, I'll leave negative feedback' ploy."

"Well, I immediately get an e-mail from her: 'My husband was just shipped out, I'm moving out of this house, my child has a severe disease -- how dare you threaten me with negative feedback! If you look at my track record and read my feedback, why would I ruin it over these tae-bo tapes?'

"I wanted to tell her, 'Because you're stupid enough to pay more than you'd pay at Target, you goddamn nitwit.'"

Have a nice day -- and thanks for shopping eBay!


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