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Online gift auctions temper post-Christmas blues

By Patti Waldmeir and Ben Bain in Washington
Published: December 26 2005 20:20

From an economic point of view, gift giving ranks as one of the most inefficient of human activities. The reason is simple: most gifts are not quite what we would choose ourselves – so we value them at less than their purchase price.

But now the internet has a solution for the wanton destruction of human wealth that takes place every Christmas: online auctions. People have been recovering value from an unwanted gift since the dawn of time by re-wrapping it and giving it to somebody else – who probably also does not want it. But selling gifts online is far more efficient: the goods end up with someone who values them; and the original recipient gets cash to buy the thing he wanted in the first place.

Over the next few weeks, thousands – and possibly millions – of people will be selling off their unwanted Christmas presents online – and buying things they really want instead.

Ebay, the world’s largest auction site with 168m registered users, says the post-Christmas season is traditionally busy. A survey released by the company last week found that over half of Americans surveyed say they “re-gift” presents they do not like, will not use, or do not fit. A large number – 11 per cent – say they have previously sold an unwanted gift online. In the 25-34 age group, that number doubles to 22 per cent.

In the UK, a recent Nielsen/Net Ratings survey says 15 per cent of UK online shoppers plan to sell unwanted Christmas gifts online, and a further 35 per cent are considering it – with women more likely to do so than men.

Re-gifting online is just part of a much larger cultural phenomenon, says Daniel Nissanoff, whose book FutureShop: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell and Get the Things We Really Want, will be published in January. He says Americans are increasingly unlocking the value stored in their possessions by trading them in secondary markets – and that has important implications for the makers of new goods.

Trading secondhand goods – on Ebay, Amazon.com, Craigslist and other online sites, as well as in charity and thrift shops, car boot sales, and yard sales – has risen sharply in recent years. Ebay itself – where many of the goods are actually new, but sold outside primary retail channels – now has 168m registered members. Ebay says 750,000people use the site as a primary or secondary source of income.

Mr Nissanoff predicts that, as online secondary markets grow in popularity and liquidity, they will transform the US from an “accumulation nation” to an “auction culture”. He runs a secondary market for luxury goods at portero.com, and says this is happening already. “We are beginning to accept, and will soon vigorously adopt a new lifestyle, one predicated on the norm of temporary ownership and marked by the continuous replacement of our personal possessions,” he writes.

In much the same way that many Americans own their cars only temporarily – through popular leasing arrangements – they will also buy and use electronic, fashion and other retail goods, and then resell them once they tire of them, outgrow them, or covet a newer version, he adds.

That, in turn, will motivate consumers to choose higher-end items, with better resale value – much as they now do with cars, where there is a highly liquid secondary market. And that will give manufacturers an incentive to design goods that last. “We will be able to buy more of the things we really want, because we’ll also be regularly selling off the things we no longer want or need,” he says.

Austan Goolsbee, economics professor at the University of Chicago, and an avid trader of high-end used racing bikes on Ebay, says: “There is something to the notion that new prices have the potential to start rising because people start saying, now there is a well-functioning used market on Ebay so I am willing to pay more for the new thing.” For goods like that, he says – where the market in most physical locations will be too thin to sustain a store – “Ebay is where all the transactions take place”. And that could drive up prices for new bikes, he says, noting he is far more likely to pay a higher price for a new bike if he knows he can recoup 30 per cent of the purchase price at resale.

Mr Nissanoff says the recent pre-holiday period provided a perfect example of how the concept of temporary ownership might operate. “During the last week of November, after the release of Microsoft’s Xbox 360, individuals traded approximately 30,000 Xbox units on eBay for almost $25m” – an average of twice the retail price. “Imagine – you can buy the game console, enjoy it through the holidays and then sell it at a profit.”

But the “auction culture” will not really get off the ground, he says, until there is a better balance between buyers and sellers (he estimates that only 5 per cent of Ebay users are sellers). And more sellers will emerge only when there is a better infrastructure to facilitate selling: what he calls “drop shops” that charge a fee to handle such auctions.

The best thing about trading gifts, say Ebay fans, is that you can sell one without offending the giver. “You can do it with pretty good confidence that you are [selling] to someone who isn’t anywhere near your social circle,” says Ebay.

How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell, and Get the Things We REALLY Want

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