If you want to get a taste of what it's like to live in Internet time, don't go to work for Netscape or any other Web-centric company. Just bid in an online auction.
Web auction sites are appearing faster than subpoenas from the Office of Independent Counsel. By some estimates, there are more than 50 such sites, predominantly for computer and consumer electronics products. The granddaddy is Onsale (www.onsale.com), which got its start in 1995 as an outlet for overstocked, discontinued, and reconditioned computer goods. Since then dozens more have appeared, including sites for person-to-person auctions, selling everything from sports collectibles to clothes to excess Home Shopping Network merchandise.
Nothing is too weird to be auctioned. A recent transactional tour found a bevy of Beanie Babies (www.auctionuniverse.com), Riven collectibles to raise money for Oxfam America (www.nonprofitauction.com), PCI controllers for computer manufacturers (www.fairmarket.com), Vermeil cubic zirconia bracelets, Suzanne Somers butterfly exercisers and the "Light Her Fire" video program for men (www.firstauction.com), Horse Lover curtains (www.ebay.com), a resort timeshare for $12,900 (www.cityauction.com), and even honeymoon trips (www.theknot.com)—spouse, presumably, not included in the auction package.
Many of the sites succeed thanks to the basic human drive to find a bargain. This month, Onsale announced its first $1 million customer, a buyer at a software services firm stocking up on servers and PCs. Onsale estimates 47 percent of its bidders buy for business purposes and 16 percent for resale.
But don't rule out home consumers: Market analysis firm Jupiter Communications noted last month that consumers spend more time—sometimes twice as much—on auction sites than other shopping sites.
Online auctions aren't for everybody, especially those who don't do their price homework. I've bought a stereo receiver, computer monitor, speakers, and CD-ROM drive from Onsale, admittedly placing a bid while researching this column. When I forgot once to factor in shipping costs, I wound up paying "retail." And there's a psychological cost for some: If you compulsively dial into the Internet every few minutes to check your e-mail, fearful you might miss something, the uncertainty of an online auction might be equivalent to Chinese water torture.
It's the pace that sites seem determined to step up, replacing fast-talking real-life auctioneers with fast-moving ones. Over the past few months, First Auction, Onsale, and Egghead's Surplus Auction (www.surplusauction.com) have instituted one-hour auctions, compressing the usual several-day time frame into a 60-minute frenzy of nervous clicking. Forget gambling, porno, and other online vices—these Web auctions are both legal and potentially the most addictive, creating a new kind of e-adrenaline junkie.
Ironically, the rapid acceptance of online auctions may be a sort of retro victory. Just as e-mail has led to a resurgence of personal "letter" writing, online auctions may revive another ancient art—that of haggling for the best price.
Among the Internet's many advantages: Even a tacky product can be brought to market at the speed of light. Mere days after the Clinton/Lewinsky story broke, the California-based Presidential Kneepads Co. set up shop on the Web (presidentkneepads.com), selling what it describes as "a kneepad emblazoned with a red, white, and blue logo and the word 'Presidential' scrawled across the front," for $16.95 per pair. On the Web, there's one born every nanosecond.
America Online's announcement last week of a $2 increase in its monthly rate for unlimited use, starting in April, is fascinating in light of a chain e-mail that made its way to AOL members in late January. "AOL IS TAKING AWAY UNLIMITED ACCESS AT THE END OF MARCH," blared a poorly spelled missive signed by "EX-AOL GUY." When questioned, AOL spokesperson Wendy Goldberg swore it was a rumor, hoax, and completely untrue, and that AOL would keep a flat rate. But she never said which flat rate. Even columnists sometimes fail to ask the right questions.
Ticketmaster says Ticketmaster Online (www.ticketmaster.com) is bringing it significant new business: 22 percent of buyers surveyed at its Web site wouldn't have bought tickets through Ticketmaster without the online purchase option. And though online sales were only 2.5 percent of Ticketmaster's overall business in the past three months, that accounts for 400,000 tickets worth $16.7 million dollars—of which at least a few million aren't from convenience charges.
Frank Catalano, a Seattle-area analyst for interactive multimedia and software companies, can be reached at email@example.com.
Complete Byte Me archives are available at www.catalanoconsulting.com