eBay's wild west could return with free listings

pez dispensersFree listings on eBay -- up to 100 a month for sellers who start auctions at 99 cents -- could change the online selling world as we know it: back to the way it used to be. (The company will still take a "final value fee," 9% of the selling price or $50, whichever is less.)

It was 1999; the internet was our oyster. My ex-boyfriend and a business school classmate had an idea: contract with internet sellers to pick up returned goods and, instead of junking them or sending them in pallets to resellers, sell them on eBay. Over the next months and years, I worked with them to hone the idea and develop a scheme for selling barely used things on eBay. At first, it was a brilliant success, and it was new. We sat in rooms with leading experts on auction theory and chortled over economist's jokes. But soon every company with which we wanted to deal was selling on eBay -- my home state was selling old airplanes and windmills there -- and the bloom was off the rose. I left the company (and the boyfriend); eventually, it went through bankruptcy; about the same time, I too lost my love for eBay.

The problem with eBay, over the past several years, has been that it is no longer a democratic American dream of a web auction house. It was once a place in which you could buy a digital camera or a Princess Barbie from someone, and that someone would probably be a person much like you; selling his stuff because he upgraded, or needed cash to pay the internet bill, or had uncovered a new passion (Pez dispensers!). But lately it's become stuffed to the gills with companies offering products in eBay Stores, or only for Buy It Now prices often more expensive than the deal your favorite local shop would cut you. A recent search, for instance, for a new lens found several refurbished versions and a few brand new ones -- all sold by camera businesses. The days of scoring deals from people posting products in their living rooms -- of playing the auction theory games to get the best possible outcome -- were they over?

The company is hoping the answer to that question with the new, low-priced free listings, is "no." And we all hope that the answer to that question is, "people will post their great CDs and used camera equipment and one-of-a-kind new-in-box Princess Whatever Barbies again," and we will troll through the listings, we will post our own Boppy nursing pillows and antique butter churners (paddle only) and take part, once more, in the Great American (online auction) Dream.

Go sell it on eBay, young man!
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