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Confessions of an eBay Addict

I am an eBay addict. And I'm proud of it.
John Marr

Issue #42, March 1999


My name is John Marr.

And I'm an eBay addict.

It started innocently enough. A few friends told me about this great website where you could find all kinds of neat old junk. And it wasn't the electronic equivalent of the local antique collective, where dealers, living in absolute horror of anyone ever finding any kind of a bargain, slap $20 price tags on any book published before 1975. It was an auction site. Sellers put stuff on the electronic block. Potential buyers bid. And courtesy of the electronic invisible hand, the authority of hundreds of so-called "Official Price Guides" was decimated. Adam Smith would be proud.

So I logged on to eBay. At first, I was staggered by the sheer volume of crap (more than 1.4 million items on the block at any one time as of this writing). There was everything from bootlegged computer software to Franklin Mint-style pseudo-collectibles. Zeroing in on the "mystery" sub-category under "Books," I found plenty of junk, from Agatha Christie paperbacks to endless volumes featuring plucky female private eye protagonists. Yeech. At least the prices seemed sane (one of the cheap pleasures of eBay is watching the neglect of items with ridiculously high listed minimum bids). But finding the good stuff seemed problematic. Scrolling through a junk shop 50 items at a time is no way to shop no matter how fast your connection is.

Then I discovered the search function.

I was lost forevermore.

eBay combines the appeal of the grungy, catch-as-catch can merchandise of the garage sale with the convenience of keyword searching. Toss in the frequent illusion (and occasional realization) of a bargain and the heady passion of the auction. The resulting combination is lethal for anyone who has difficulty passing up a thrift store. For your sane and sensible used-goods shopper, looking for a good deal on a used DVD player, this is not a problem. But for all you compulsive collectors, passionate packrats, junkstore junkies: welcome to your Skinner Box.

I'm not going to tell you what I'm looking for because I don't want to give anyone ideas. Let us just say that it is a very special type of magazine. In an instant, I had 75 of them on my screen, most with pleasingly low bids. This was about 74 more than I'd find in a month of rummaging through used bookstores and dealer's catalogs. The only frustration? You have to register to bid (a process that takes overnight) and several of the more tasty auctions were ending in a few hours. The torment!

spare time As soon as I had my screen name and my password, I started bidding. At first, it was overwhelming to see arcane items that you've been hunting for months, if not years, suddenly pop up on your screen. In fact, it's a such a heady experience being able to search for anything that I immediately forgot half the stuff I was looking for. I have since remembered.

Of course, eBay doesn't totally replace the pleasures of real (as opposed to virtual) shopping. Some things are lacking, most notably serendipity and the sheer chance of discovering the thing you can't live without that you never knew existed until you saw it. No matter how high-powered your modem, rummaging at random through eBay waiting for lightening to strike just isn't the way to go. But if you know exactly what you're looking for, a quick search through eBay is like distilling the contents of a thousand junk shops into one almost pure page of a specialty store.

Perhaps the single item that most convinced me of the possibilities of eBay was a humble alarm clock. A long time ago, I thrifted a '50s alarm clock. It was nothing fancy, but it kept good time, filled my room with a comforting retro ticking sound, and never failed to wake me in the morning. And best of all, I subsequently discovered it was a twin to the clock on Beaver & Wally's nightstand. Now that's a timepiece!

One sad day it broke. The local clock repair shops laughed at me. Even if parts were available, repairing such junk was beneath them. So I tried to replace it. For years I searched antique stores, junk shops, and thrift stores without once finding one remotely resembling my beloved cream-colored ticker. In desperation (one does have to get up in the morning, after all) I purchased pallid substitute after pallid substitute. But I never quite filled that gaping void on my nightstand.

But those clocks pop up every week on eBay. I now have two in cream, another in black, and am actively bidding on a few larger models in the same style. This is one of the deadliest features of eBay. It can be too easy to find far too many things. Your normal collector of slightly off-the-beaten track stuff is protected from himself by the nature of the market. The stuff just doesn't pop up that much. The slow and steady collecting pace can continue without thought to budgetary limitations or space constraints. But eBay is like a mall, complete with a specialty store catering to the most arcane collectors. Suddenly, it's not how much you can find--it's how much you can afford. Collectors are not known for their discipline or restraint. It's easy to wake up one day to discovery your previously healthy bank balance has been transformed into a mushrooming accumulation of alarm clocks, beer signs, or tiki mugs.

There are bargains to be had on eBay. But it's also quite easy to get sucked into paying more than you wanted by the heat of the auction. Bidding can get bloody. The process is a little convoluted. As in a traditional auction, the computer always shows the amount of the current bid. But there's no need (save in the waning moments of a crucial auction) to sit by your screen constantly upping your bid. Instead, you indicate the maximum bid you're willing to make. (eBay swears this isn't revealed until after the auction closes.) The winner is the person with the highest maximum bid. But this isn't necessarily what they have to pay. The amount of the high bid is figured at one increment (usually 50 cents or a dollar) above the maximum bid of the second highest bidder. If no one else bids, you get the item for the amount of the minimum bid set for the auction. (There are also the much reviled "reserve price auctions" where the seller reserves the right to not sell the item if bidding doesn't reach a specified level.)

For a perfect automaton, this is a purely rational system. You figure how much the item is worth to you and bid that amount. If you get it, fine. If not, on to the next auction. But I am far from a perfect automaton, and I highly doubt anyone else on eBay is either. Because of the nature of the bidding, you don't know the opposition's maximum; you just know that the bid is now $1 more than what you thought you were willing to pay. A marginal value fallacy sets in. If you're willing to pay $20, why not $21? And if $21 is not too much, neither should $22. Who, caught in the grips of lust for stuff, can let a single measly dollar get between them and the object of their desire?

Not me. When eBay emails me the dreaded notification that I have been outbid, I consider it a call to arms. Damn the budget. I must counterattack and up my maximum, repeatedly if necessary. For crucial auctions, I've been known to hover over my computer in the waning moments, ready to respond or stealthily sneak in that last minute bid that takes the field. If I fail--and sometimes sanity does prevail--there is the consolation of knowing I drove the price up for the other guy. If I succeed, well, at least I wind up with some pretty cool stuff, even if it means paying $30 for something that, at first bidding, I thought was only worth $15.

This is why I find myself in an apartment rapidly filling up with old magazines, cheap rusty alarm clocks, and other assorted debris of days gone by. My checking account is barren, my hand is developing mouse-related carpal tunnel syndrome. The mail guy at work is getting visibly pissed as the packages arrive on an almost daily basis.

I am an eBay addict. And I'm proud of it.

John Marr is the editor, publisher, and janitor of Murder Can Be Fun.

Copyright © 1999 by John Marr. All rights reserved.