Wally Bock - eBay

In this Postcard from the Digital Age, Wally Bock looks at the online auction success story that is eBay.

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"eBay Nation"

In the beginning, Pierre Omidyar developed eBay as a way for his girlfriend Pam to indulge her passion for collecting Pez dispensers. Pierre and Pam got married and eBay turned into a business. But that's not the interesting story.

In this Postcard from the Digital Age, we're talking about eBay, the extreme e-commerce success story.

Business Week estimates that this year 30 million folks will buy or sell something on eBay. 150,000 of them make a full time living there. The company is profitable and growing. But that's not the interesting story either.

I found the interesting story by accident. I was in the locker room at the gym when one of my buddies asked me what I was going to talk about in this commentary. I said I was thinking about doing something about eBay.

Immediately the other three guys in the locker room piped up with their story about eBay and how they used it. Over the next couple of weeks I found that no matter where I went, if I mentioned eBay, someone within earshot had bought or sold something there. One fellow bought a real treasure.

His grandfather came to this country many years ago and settled in Philadelphia. He was a shoemaker which, in those days, meant that he actually made shoes. He marked every shoe with his name.

Years later his grandson was poking around on eBay looking for historical items. There on the list was a shoe his grandfather had made, a piece of his family history. I asked him what he paid. "It doesn't matter," he said, "You can't put a price on something like that."

But you can put a price on other things, like cars and appliances. Dave is the Internet Sales and Leasing Manager for an auto dealership. He's sold "a couple of cars" online. But personally, he's a buyer.

Recently he bought a TV on eBay. He got a good deal, way better than what the local electronic stores wanted. He told me, "I never buy a major appliance without checking EBay."

Probably the most fascinating buyer I ran into was Pete. It was in the locker room again. Pete heard me mention eBay. "You want to see eBay," he asked as he reached into his locker.

Out came a designer shirt that he bought on eBay. Then there was pair of brand name trousers, also from eBay. So were his shoes and his socks. He tapped his chest, "I got my underwear there, too." In fact, the only thing that Pete was wearing that day that hadn't been bought on eBay was his glasses.

You can buy just about anything on eBay. I used to collect police patches so I went looking for those. 949 listings.

In the old days, serious police patch collectors depended on fat newsletters that arrived every couple of months. They were filled with grainy black and white pictures of patches laid on somebody's floor, and brief descriptions of the offerings.

Today, on eBay, the pictures are still of patches on somebody's floor, except they're in color. The descriptions haven't changed much. What's changed is the marketplace. You don't have to wait a couple of months for a fat newsletter now. Just hop online and check for new listings.

And those listings are easier to use. You can search for the specific patch you want. You can check out the seller through eBay's system for rating sellers. And you can do all of this whenever you feel like it, because eBay is there all the time.

The sellers are as interesting as the buyers. Some of them have set up a nice little side business on eBay selling animation cels or palm pilot accessories or just about anything else you can name. A business that sells diecast collectables sells on eBay as a way of capturing new customers who later visit the business's main site.

What eBay has become is an online marketplace that touches just about every part of our lives. That's the interesting story. If Pam Omidyar is still collecting Pez dispensers she'd have found 226 listings for them on eBay this morning.