SELLINGOUT

The Baltimore Sun

Buying and selling on eBay used to be so easy and so much fun.

It used to be that the online auction site's biggest strength was the idea that anyone could sell anything there. A box of sports pages from the 1950s, discovered in my father's basement after he died, generated all sorts of interest; two lots of four pages sold for $10 each, and the buyers were plenty happy to get them. A relative once bought a plastic container filled with candy jawbreakers, ate them, then put the empty container on eBay. It sold for more than enough to cover the cost of the candy in the first place.

For those finally cleaning out that desk drawer or wading through that pile of stuff in the attic, eBay was a godsend: not only could you get rid of stuff, but you could get money for just about anything and find it a good home. Plus, thanks to the Web site's feedback system, there was even a way to let the world know when someone stiffed you.

Sadly, those days seem behind us now.

EBay has morphed into this rather unwieldy behemoth, awash in complicated (and high) listing fees and fixed-price listings that often seem less than a bargain. From the sellers' standpoint, lots of stuff goes unwanted, without any nibbles from the buying public. Buyers are apt to find the really good stuff either priced out of their reach or migrated to other Web sites. Sellers aren't even allowed to leave negative feedback anymore.

Even as a corporate entity, eBay seems to have hit something of a wall. On the day this month that eBay announced it would pay $945 million for the Timonium-based Internet billing service Bill Me Later, it also announced it would lay off 10 percent of its 16,000-member work force. Even the company's stock price, which rose to $54 a share shortly after going public in September 1998 and seemed the surest of sure bets, has taken a beating. Yesterday afternoon, the price closed at $15.47 a share, well below the $32 it was getting as recently as April.

Of course, not all the news out of eBay's San Jose, Calif., headquarters is bad; the company, for instance, announced last week that its third-quarter revenue was up 12 percent over the same period last year, to $2.12 billion (even while it adjusted its annual revenue projections down about $300 million). There are still plenty of people making plenty of money selling stuff, especially when they view business on the site as more of a job than a hobby. Put the necessary time in and learn how to market your stuff, they say, and eBay is still the best game in town.

"You may have to be a little more creative with your selling style, and you need to learn a bit more about marketing and promoting yourself," says Danna Crawford, an eBay "power seller" who teaches courses on how to best use the Web site at Central Florida Community College. "The marketplace is still very active; you just have to look at different angles than we used to look at."

Maybe that's true; maybe all eBay is guilty of is evolving, getting bigger and more complicated. But there's more to the changes in eBay than simple dollars and cents.

"It feels like the trend is to get rid of the Ma and Pa sellers who have found something in their attics, and go more with the online stores," says John "Bumper" Moyer, owner of Twilite Zone Comics in Glen Burnie and an occasional seller on eBay.

The early years of eBay were heady days for collectors, myself included. It was like a nationwide flea market had suddenly opened, with buyers and sellers of all persuasions welcome.

I had spent years, for instance, trying to track down a poster of Orioles great Brooks Robinson like the one that once - when I was in junior high school - hung on my wall; within a few months of discovering eBay, I'd found it, won it and had it displayed proudly in my study.

Around the same time, I took an 8-by-10 of actress Jean Harlow on a sailboat and reluctantly put it up for auction. It turned into a classic eBay success story: two people wanted it, and neither was willing to give up. They kept bidding against each other, and eventually the recent-vintage black-and-white photo I'd paid $5 for in a Hollywood bookstore brought over $400 at auction!

Those days seem farther and farther in the past. True, lightning still strikes on occasion; one part-time seller, seeing that a 1950s comic book had recently been featured in an episode of the TV show Lost, took the copy from his collection and listed it on eBay. The book, which had a market value of maybe $40, was snapped up by a Spanish Lost fan for more than $400.

But more often, collector's items offered by casual eBay sellers fail to achieve their market value - partly because the market for collectibles has become saturated since eBay came along. Also, other auction sites have emerged that cater to niche markets (comic books, bobbleheads, baseball cards, etc.) and that tend to attract the higher-end material. And, especially over the past several months, potential buyers don't have as much disposable income as they once had.

The more common items, things that would have brought their sellers at least a few dollars back in the glory days, tend to sit on eBay undisturbed. I put a few more of those sports pages on the site recently, and no one even looked at them. And instead of putting things up for auction, thus letting the market set the price (and offering object lessons in free-market capitalism that any economist would appreciate), more and more sellers - many of whom live off their eBay sales - offer items at frequently inflated fixed prices.

The trouble signs for the small-time dealers have been around for years. Back when the online payment service PayPal started, sellers could accept payments without being charged a fee. Then the company was bought by eBay (for $1.5 billion in 2002), and more fees were added. Now, all sellers are charged a fee for accepting payments via PayPal. And this month, a new eBay rule will prohibit the use of checks and money orders to pay for items - leaving services like PayPal and Bill Me Later as the most viable payment options.

EBay's own chat rooms and discussion forums are filled with disgruntled customers, upset with increasing fees and increasingly constrictive selling regulations. One unhappy part-time eBayer wrote, "The point is gang, eBay doesn't want any of us. EBay wants to get rid of the small sellers of unique items that have made eBay a success over the past years." Representatives from eBay could not be reached for comment. But in a New York Times article earlier this month, eBay CEO John J. Donahoe acknowledged that the site is trying to actively court larger sellers, and is increasingly interested in fixed-price listings rather than open-ended auctions. The site, he says, is simply reacting to what the marketplace wants, and buyers aren't as interested in the tug-of-war that is an online auction, no matter how exciting it might be.

"We need to make bolder, more aggressive changes to the eBay ecosystem," he said, "even if they are unpopular."

Crawford, for one, thinks all this tumult is just a byproduct of growth, a natural reaction from people still in love with the way things were. "I just think some people can't handle change, so they complain, rather than just learn and grow," she says. "It's a shame."

Maybe. Then again, just because people complain, doesn't mean they don't have something to complain about.

"More and more people have turned to the business aspect of eBay," Moyer says. "It's not as much fun as it used to be."

MILESTONES IN EBAY HISTORY

1995:

EBay offers its first item for sale, a broken laser pointer. It sells for $14.83.

1996:

Florida man offers his "fully functioning kidney" for sale, with an opening bid of $25,000. Price reaches $5.7 million before eBay pulls it off the market, noting the sale of one's own body parts violates both eBay rules and federal law.

1998:

EBay goes public, with an initial stock offering at $18 a share.

2002:

EBay purchases online payment service PayPal for $1.5 billion.

2004:

A North Carolina man offers the contents of a cup once sipped from by Elvis Presley. The three tablespoons of water go for $455. The man keeps the cup.

2007:

After singer Britney Spears shaves her head in a Southern California salon, the owner puts tufts of the fallen hair up for auction. EBay ends the auction, saying the hair's authenticity could not be verified.

2008:

EBay purchases online billing service Bill Me Later for $945 million; announces layoffs of 10 percent of its 16,000-member workforce.

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