Boom in profits at eBay, the world's car boot sale

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Today is just another day of trading on eBay UK, which like its sibling auction sites in 30 countries around the world, never sleeps. And its restlessness has paid off.

Today is just another day of trading on eBay UK, which like its sibling auction sites in 30 countries around the world, never sleeps. And its restlessness has paid off.

Yesterday the company reported profits of £107m in the past three months from its operations worldwide, with revenue leaping by 51 per cent to £474m in the past 12 months.

If you haven't come across eBay during the five years of its UK incarnation, someone you know surely has. It's the internet's prime meeting place for people looking to buy and sell second-hand and new items, for 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Today on the UK site there will typically be 425,000 fresh items offered for sale, which will attract bids from any of the eight million visitors who go to the site each month.

"It's pretty even between the days of the week," explained eBay UK's Richard Ambrose of the site's traffic levels. "But we do see peaks - there's one in mid-morning, which we think is mothers logging on after they've done the school run. Then there's a lunchtime peak, which we think is people in offices. And then there's another from about 6pm to 8pm, when people get home."

You can sell almost anything on eBay. People have offered gum chewed by Britney Spears, some lint from the back of the sofa, and, in one instance, one of their kidneys; only the kidney was withdrawn, after protests brought it to the site's attention.

There are even people who run small businesses simply selling stuff online: "We estimate 10,000 individuals in the UK make a living from trading on eBay UK," said Mr Ambrose.

Much of the company's 51 per cent annual growth was outside the US, its original site. For it is now pre-eminent in all the countries where it is found. Other companies can run auction sites, but unless they were both big and got established first, they have been overwhelmed.

Professor Peter Klemperer of Oxford University, an expert in auction design, explained: "eBay was the first simple, user-friendly auction site. And when one auction marketplace becomes dominant, it's hard to break that dominance."

The site was born in 1995 in the living room of Pierre Omidyar in San Jose, California, initially as a scheme to aid the swapping of Pez dispensers, although the idea was always that it would be a marketplace for the general sale of goods and services by and for individuals.

But because it never holds the items being sold, it cannot vouch for their authenticity - or existence. Although there is a "feedback" mechanism for buyers to report on sellers, both can be duped by the other.

That has led to scams. Yesterday a 17-year-old boy from Pontypool in Wales appeared before magistrates over a case in which he defrauded dozens of British users of sums of up to £2,500 by offering items he did not have. In all, he defrauded a total of £45,000.

Other scams are more subtle, such as payments for items made with cheques which are then rescinded - leaving the seller without item or payment.

Another scam comes from "phishing" e-mails which purport to come from eBay, saying security changes mean the user must log in to a new site - thus revealing their security information. The scammers then use the victim's eBay identity to commit fraud on the site.

However, eBay say they never send security e-mails.


Strands of Elven Hair Item number: 6124222897 Starting bid: £0.25

For the princely sum of 25p (plus four times as much for postage), the astute internet shopper could become the proud owner of Strands of Elven Hair, which will apparently be of use to fans of the Lord of the Rings trading card game. As its 10-day auction came to a close last night, there were no bidders.

Real Toad Coin Purse! lined interior, moving eyes! Item number: 6714956528 Starting bid: £7.99

A purse moulded into the shape of an amphibian, with moving plastic eyes, may not feature high up on this year's Christmas list. This has not stopped a Nottingham-based owner from posting a toad purse on the site. No bids to date.

JAMES BROWN CELEBRIDUCK Item number: 710821907 Current bid: US $5.00

A rubber duck in the shape of the acclaimed crooner, in "mint condition", is on sale for £2.70 ($5) from its US home in Millersville. One offer received and two more days of bidding to go.