The consumer republic: The Auction Block




Let Web sellers set their own prices and they’ll charge you more than even the most blatant bilk artist.
Into the trash went the tacky jewelry box with a slot for a family photo on the lid. Ditto for the mementos from the 1985 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Kansas City Royals and the grease-splattered 1970s edition of The Joy of Cooking. Silly me, I thought the stuff was garbage. All along it was inventory that might have earned good money at auction on the Internet.
Americans are going, going, gone on the thrill of online auctions. eBay, the planetary yard sale, is the most high-profile of the sites that enable us to become a nation of shopkeepers. Amazon.com stock leapt to evermore delirious heights a few weeks ago at the announcement it was going into the auction business. So did untold hundreds, perhaps thousands, of more obscure Web auctions, including such irresistible cyberemporiums as Ceausescu’s Fortune, where you can bid for “automobiles, boats, residences and clothes from the late dictator,” and the piquantly titled Haggle Online.
O, Sears. O, J.C. Penney. What have you been thinking all these years? The zillions you’ve poured into establishing your good names–and all the time people were ready to send money to absolute strangers for utterly untested goods. If you happen to have a bridge to sell, the Internet is the place to do the deal.
The stampede to name one’s price has produced another IPO darling in Priceline.com, a “negative” auction that allows consumers to make deals for unsold airplane seats, hotel rooms and, more recently, cars and mortgages. Priceline.com tests the finesse of the proverbial smart shopper, who is challenged to save dough on a plane ticket without lowballing herself out of the running.
True, the deal comes with lots of fine print, like having no say on flight times. It’s not even clear one saves that much:
Priceline.com suggests players bid above the lowest published fare. But the lure of Priceline.com goes beyond mere dollars saved to the thrill of empowering consumers to create their own “sale” rather than wait passively for sellers to do it. It’s the (perhaps false) sense of control that’s the payoff, with a touch of gambling fever thrown in.
Gambits such as Priceline.com are aimed at the consumer profile that emerged in the 1998 Yankelovich Monitor. According to the report, this year’s model is a savvy customer who feels capable of going into the marketplace jungle and bagging a good buy. Forget everything you’ve heard about America’s self-esteem crisis. In the Monitor, 63 percent of respondents think their IQ is higher than average.
Unfortunately, some of them are wrong.
And a certain percentage of that group seems to be hanging out at places like eBay, where merchants who work out of their garages find that their merchandise commands huge markups once it’s displayed on virtual shelves. Here’s the beauty of letting consumers name their own price: They’ll often set one far above what even the most blatant bilk artist would charge.
Am I the only one who thinks that as a buyer, the numbers of online auctions are against me? Yes, they offer access to vast amounts of stuff (last time I checked, eBay had about 1.8 million items for sale), far more than one could encounter in a lifetime of tag sales. But they also attract hordes of buyers. If I’m looking for that must-have Beanie Baby (a category served by eight auction sites alone), do I want to compete for it with hundreds or thousands from all over the globe?
For the smart shopper of the 21st century, the Internet would seem an unmixed boon. Too big a boon, worry the dwindling ranks of e-commerce doubters who fret that all this consumer empowerment ultimately serves to depress prices and shave profit margins razor-thin. Lord save merchants from the savvy consumer. Or maybe not.
For an alternate perspective, check out A Theory of Shopping, a fascinating ethnographic study of working- and middle-class shoppers in North London by British anthropologist Daniel Miller. Among several thought-provoking findings, Miller discovered that the distinction between spending and thrift was fuzzy in the minds of most consumers.
“On many occasions, I have returned to the home with a shopper to reflect on the shopping done. The conversation would not be of the form, ‘I spent £3 on beef’ and ‘I spent £10 on a bra,’ but of the form, ‘I saved 50 pence on ice cream’ and ‘I saved £6 on my daughter’s shoes.'” He concludes, “[People] are going shopping in order to have the experience of saving.”
Of course, that’s why retailers invented sales with loss-leader items in the first place. The mind boggles at what might happen when consumers are free to make “sales” of their own. There’s not that much difference between a smart shopper and a spendthrift–often, they’re one and the same.