Why eBay is successful -- Users can find a little bit of everything on the auction website

By Suna Chang
Updated December 04, 1998 at 05:00 AM EST
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Why eBay is successful

News flash: downloading Dr. Laura’s nudie pics gets old real fast. For thrills that last, consider joining the growing cult of eBay. The auction website has become famous in a time frame speedy even by Net standards: Founder Pierre Omidyar launched the site in 1995 after trying to help his fiancée enlarge her Pez-dispenser collection, and, three years later, 1.2 million users are bidding in approximately 375,000 auctions for 943,000 items each day. Omidyar’s now a billionaire — thanks to a leap in eBay’s stock from $18 per share this past September to $147 in mid-November. Estimates have eBay moving at least $525 million worth of merchandise this year.

That’s a lot of Pez. So why is the site so successful?

1. No D’oh! eBay’s laughably easy to use. Love that Jetsons lunch box? Decide how much you want to pay, then post your bid. That’s it. If your bid — even if it’s 50 cents — remains the highest when the auction ends, you’ve won. Sellers pay 25 cents to $2 (depending on the starting bid) to list each item, plus eBay receives a small percentage of every sale. As a buyer you pay nothing to bid, and you can go for as many items as you want. But remember — you win, you buy. (Reality check: One bidder recently forked over $400 for a domed Jetsons lunch box.)

2. Selection, selection, selection Think of eBay as the world’s funkiest flea market. A 1793 document signed by George Washington just sold for $10,200. Someone unsuccessfully tried to unload an island. Even a toilet seat from Courtney Love’s hotel room was put on the block (though no one met the $150 minimum bid). But eBay pretty much remains true to its roots as a collector’s paradise. My kitsch niche? Bulldog collectibles (don’t ask) and books by Pearl Buck. I’ve added two hard-to-find volumes to my 54-book collection, and I got my latest acquisition — in hardcover, no less — for two bucks. How cool is that?

3. Browsing = FUN! You can indulge your primal browsing urges via eBay’s search engine. For example: A recent search for ”Leonardo DiCaprio” brought up 93 auctions for such items as Leo mouse pads and phony driver’s licenses, starting at $1. Pez? 1,140 auctions. Gas masks? 52. Beanie Babies? 8,496. Even ”Yanni” brought up 11 results. Strangely, ”Dr. Laura” yielded zilch.

4. You get rated! eBay weeds out wackos in two ways. First, no one with an anonymous (i.e., Yahoo! or Hotmail) e-mail address is allowed. ”Want complete anonymity? That’s great [but] go somewhere else,” says Steve Westly, eBay VP of marketing programs and business development. ”We want to know who you are.”

Second, the rating system allows all buyers and sellers to review each other. So if you’re a jerk (i.e., renege on a deal, rip someone off), everyone will know via public postings. Rack up four negative ratings and you’re out. Period. The flip side? If you are ”good” (i.e., pay promptly), you get positive reviews and, at times, even a shiny star! (Guess who has two?) To paraphrase Woody Allen in Annie Hall: If only life were like this. A

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