A day in the life of eBay

The online auction house has banned the resale of Live8 tickets following a huge public outcry. So what IS being offered for sale in the global bazaar that celebrates its tenth anniversary next week? Jonathan Brown and Michelle McGagh investigate
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The Independent Online

At 9am each morning, Jenny Syer logs on to her computer from the premises of her novelty gift shop Click-T-Click in Norwich. This is the most exciting point of the day, the moment when she finds out how many people are bidding for the items she is offering on eBay.

Ms Syer specialises in a bewildering range of ephemera, with 150 different product lines available at any time. Her biggest sellers are the £40 personalised wedding-cake toppers, bespoke look-a-like figures of the bride and groom that grace the top layer of the nuptial cake. Yesterday she was pinning her hopes on a mini desktop golf ball set. "An ideal present 4 fathers day!" said the posting on eBay. So far only one of the 150 million registered eBay users worldwide had expressed any interest. In the past seven days the golf ball set had attracted a single bid of just £4.99.

It is a typical eBay transaction. The founders of the company, which celebrates its tenth birthday in San Jose next week, believes in free trade and the open market. Everything has a price - it is just a question of finding the right buyer out there.

This sentiment is not shared by Bob Geldof who reacted with characteristic passion on Tuesday after learning that 400 tickets to his Live8 concert were being touted for profit on eBay. Blasting the company as an "electronic pimp", he called for consumers to boycott or sabotage the site. eBay initially stuck to its free-market guns. By dinner time, however, it was forced to withdraw the tickets for sale.

The eBay community now numbers more than the population of France, Spain and Germany combined - making it an increasingly significant player in the growing market. Goods sold last year were worth more than $40bn. In the United States, the longest established eBay market, 500,000 traders now make their living online. Britain is rapidly catching up.

Ms Syers, 21, gave up her job as a shop assistant in Norwich - where, according to eBay, 44 per cent of the population is registered with them. "I always wanted to work for myself and this was the best way of doing it." Two years later she has bought a shop to accommodate her online selling which accounts for 90 per cent of her turnover. In a good month she can make as much as £3,000.

Each day there are more than three million live listings on eBay in 13,000 different product categories. At 10.04am a Pashley Princess Retro bicycle reaches the end of its auction time. Ten years old, with a sit-up- and-beg frame, it has reached its reserve price on £100 in just two bids. The seller from Redhill, Surrey, has had to answer three e-mailed questions during the course of the day from potential buyers covering matters concerning its size, age and whether or not it will fit in the back of a VW Polo (N reg) with the seats folded flat.

Fourteen minutes later, an Emile et Rose designer babysuit fetches £8. It comes complete with labels and designer wooden coat hanger. The seller from Stevenage, Hertfordshire has a feedback score of 160 with a positive feedback rating of 100 per cent. In other words she has a good reputation among the eBay community.

Honesty underpins the eBay concept - the assumption is that those who participate are basically straight. The feedback rating is achieved by compiling the satisfaction marks given by the buyer and seller at the end of each transaction. Regular traders can build formidable reputations.

At 11.20, the virtual hammer falls on a reproduction of Hoth Wampa - the snow monster who nearly kills Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back. eBay is a vibrant market place for such memorabilia. Yesterday the site offered 1,345 different Star Wars-related items ranging from action figures to jigsaws. Many of the items command very low prices - the Hoth Wampa fetched only £2.91.

The most expensive item ever sold on eBay was a Gulf Jet Stream private jet which achieved $4.9m. In Britain, Lady Thatcher's old handbag fetched £103,000. One in three of the items sold is now offered at a fixed market price. MRI scanners now sell alongside music studios. Eminem's Detroit Studio 8 that he used to record The Slim Shady LP was put on eBay for $215,000 last year. An MRI scanner recently fetched $100,000.

At midday Miss X checks her e-mails at a secret location in Scotland. She has taken the liberty of advertising on behalf of her friend Adam for a woman to accompany him on a date to this summer's T In The Park festival in Kinross. The website displays a blurry image of an 18-year- old music student who is seeking a date with a "lady between 17-20". His virginity is not for sale and male bidders are only welcome if they are offering Adam as a gift for a female friend. So far, after 16 bids in 10 days, the grand total stands at £43 - not bad, considering the "winner" must supply their own £97 ticket. Miss X is in the top 10 "most watched" items on eBay - the mechanism that allows sellers to monitor the scale of interest in their wares.

But as well as questions, Miss X has fielded death threats. This is the reason, the company says, why it goes to great lengths to preserve real identities and addresses until the transaction is complete.

At 1.08pm, a seller who calls herself littlemissshopaholic from Addlestone, Surrey, closes the deal on a Schiaparelli hat. She is parting with the 1920s designer headgear for £30. The "very delicate material" is in need of repair but she enthuses that the item looks "fabulous when worn". Half an hour later, morpheus enigma beats off 11 bids to bag a pearl-grey granite memorial stone for £310 from a monumental mason in Didcot, Oxon. It comes with a 12-year guarantee and will be fitted for free within a 100-mile radius. The company will even suggest a suitable epitaph.

At 2.52pm, totalspeedster becomes the lucky owner of a brand new pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, bought from a seller in Aberdeen. Still in their original box, they were purchased in Saks Fifth Avenue in Orlando for £320. Despite receiving 29 bids, they sell for only £165.

Music has become one of eBay's most profitable lines. A CD is sold every seven seconds. Many of them are sold by professional wholesalers, but an increasing number are from music fans who have transferred their record collections to MP3 players. Music is broken down into 28 categories from jazz to hip hop to military brass band. The new Coldplay album X&Y, currently number one in Britain, is commanding as little as £3.19 by early afternoon with 17 hours still to bid - half the price it is on Amazon.

The website lists 944 concert tickets and related items for sale - though obviously none from Live8. The bidding closes on a pair of Oasis tickets for the band's sold out gigs at the City of Manchester Stadium in July. The standing-only tickets have met their reserve of £72 - earning the vendor a measly profit of only £2 on their face value. Meanwhile, tickets for U2 at Dublin's Croke Park are commanding upwards of £300. REM in Manchester this weekend is going unbid at an asking price of £80 as is Donny Osmond at the Brighton Centre (£30) in October. Concert memorabilia is also shifting slowly. A ticket stub from a Rush concert at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1980 has one £3.50 bid with only hours to go. There is slightly more interest in a 1978 Yes Live! Tour programme and ticket stub valued at £9.99.

By 3pm, a pop art oil and acrylic painting entitled Pete Doherty - Babyshambles (featuring the "trouble-making troubadour in a characteristically enigmatic" pose) has reached the dizzying final total of £195.0. The 100cm x 65cm picture of Kate Moss's boyfriend had an opening bid of £15.

A few seconds later, the deal on a holiday home in northern Bulgaria is clinched. The auction is ended early with a Buy It Now offer of £3,750. The proud new owner styles himself as starwarsukcollector. His new three-room bungalow, near the town of Ruse, is just 50km from the River Danube. It boasts electricity and running water as well as a 1,500m garden. The website advert warns that while foreigners can buy property in Bulgaria, they must go through a local company if they wish to purchase the land.

"This is not a problem as anyone who buys in Bulgaria gets this set up, and then the property and land can easily be transferred to you," the seller says.

By 3.45pm the auction closes on one of the 652 new Sony PSP portable Playstations at £195. The console is not yet available for sale in Britain. In the United States, it costs $350. It is one of the burgeoning number of "grey market" goods which have proved so amazingly popular on the site. Cross-border sales now account for 15 per cent of all transactions on eBay. Yesterday there were more than 692 PSP players and related cases, leads and games offered for sale.

Similarly sought after is the Apple I-Pod. chengchengshuma, a Chinese-based vendor with a feedback score of just 11, was offering 22 of the machines yesterday. A fourth-generation 40gb version fetched £41, a snip compared to the £339 it costs elsewhere on the net. The seller has only been a member since February, but eBay is spending $100m in China to promote itself to new buyers and sellers in the booming Asian economy.

The success of modern brands means designer goods are among the most sought after. There is a dizzying selection of reproduction Chanel, Prada and Louis Vuitton handbags for sale. Few are genuine originals, despite being labelled "authentic" or "reality" products. At 4.29pm, however, a genuine, secondhand Hermes "Plumes et Grelots" scarf achieves £155. But not everyone is so lucky. Four Arne Jacobsen Ant chairs were still awaiting a buyer at £400.

As the trading day reaches a climax, before new goods come on line in time for the after-work evening browse, goods start selling quickly. At 6.30pm, a 1997 Volvo V40 metallic blue estate is sold for £2,700 after 40 bids. eBay never expected to sell used cars on its website. Now they are the most valuable category, worth $13bn this year so far. Dealers find it an effective way to move a vehicle which is clogging up their forecourt. In a flurry of late bidding at 6.49pm, a Gibson Les Paul cherry sunburst guitar is sold for £790.

Meanwhile, Adam's romantic future is still uncertain.The bid has refused to climb from woodie_2005's offer of more than a week ago. On eBay, he's just another deal.

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