Angela Lambert: The worldwide, online flea market

Remote villages, islands in the middle of the ocean, mountain tops, ice-caps - it's all one to eBay
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The internet auction site eBay is globalisation made real and universal; it epitomises the best of capitalism and the best of democracy. As the company's mission statement puts it, "eBay aims to provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything". Or, as the "vision statement" (what's the difference?) says, "eBay is a world where people can overcome geographic, social, technological and economic barriers and fully participate in the benefits of the global economy."

The internet auction site eBay is globalisation made real and universal; it epitomises the best of capitalism and the best of democracy. As the company's mission statement puts it, "eBay aims to provide a global trading platform where practically anyone can trade practically anything". Or, as the "vision statement" (what's the difference?) says, "eBay is a world where people can overcome geographic, social, technological and economic barriers and fully participate in the benefits of the global economy."

Now, that's an ambitious claim - yet it's true. People who live in isolated places - remote villages, islands in the middle of the ocean, on top of mountains or amid ice-caps - it's all one to the eBayer. Be they buyers or sellers, all they need is a so-called "eBay user ID" ( to protect their privacy) and a secret password and hey presto! the magic carpet of the internet wings their offerings or choices to 40 million members worldwide. Social? It matters not in the least whether you're old or young, lovely or hideous, handicapped, disabled, rude or retired - all the prejudices that turn people off unfairly count for nothing on eBay.

Technological? One of the joys of eBay is the marvellously simple logic behind it. All commands or queries are in short, simple language, and it cunningly anticipates your progress through the business of buying. Anyone who has ever laid fingertips on a computer can do it.

No wonder eBay has been called the WalMart of the internet ... the flea market of the world. In nine years it has grown from a small good idea to being the most-used site on the web. Its potential for undermining "ordinary" shopping is as great, I believe, as was that of the huge out-of-town supermarkets. "Real" shops simply cannot match the prices obtained for items from the most mundane (second-hand kids' clothes) to the most rarefied (seventh century BC gold and intaglio rings from ancient Persia or, a bit later, Rome). I know because I looked.

I first stumbled on eBay about eight months ago when, finding the engraved Georgian wine glasses I wanted astronomically expensive in London's antique shops, I tried it out. Here's how it works - for those who, like me, have heard of it but never ventured online. Having signed in (quick, easy, free) you select a category - in this case, Glass and Pottery - and type a brief description of your wants. Wine glasses, engraved, antique, I said.

Lo, it listed 40 or 50 - complete with a photograph of each item (which can be enlarged to show every detail), the seller's ID, time left before the auction ended, number of previous bidders and current price. Most of those shown were thoroughly unsuitable (eBay counts the Fifties as antique: so American!) but three were perfect. I bid on them all, assuming that my modest offer would be far too low, but in fact I won all three, and at a breathtaking price - they cost less for three than the one I'd seen in a local shop.

I received an e-mail within hours, informing me that I'd won and should now pay the seller. This is easily done through an associated eBay company called Paypal, and days later the glasses arrived ... beautifully packed and exactly what the descriptions promised. Perhaps the most ingenious feature of eBay is the section called Feedback: a list of comments by other buyers about the seller - and vice versa, giving an uncensored and truthful picture of how reliable your seller is.

eBay claim that only one auction in 40,000 is fraudulent - that's 300 a year out of at least 12 million. But conventional auctions can also harbour fraudsters: my partner put a beautiful dinner service left by his father with a local auctioneer, who sold it and disappeared with the proceeds. There are crooks everywhere, but eBay goes to great pains to screen them out.

What, then, is the downside? The downside is that it's addictive. Seriously, dangerously, expensively addictive. As I discovered when, marooned for a month on top of a hill in remotest France ("getting on with the book", as I told concerned friends who couldn't imagine me surviving for a whole month alone, without a car) and in need of something sociable to do in the evenings, I thought of eBay.

Not that I wanted anything specific but it might be fun to search ... say, Hermès scarves. Bought new in a shop, they now cost an inaccessible £180 or so. But on eBay? I went to Clothes and Accessories and typed 'Hermès Scarf' into the search box, to be dazzled by a profusion of them, of every vintage, design, and colour, at prices ranging from about £8 (true, these looked pretty elderly) to £150 for brand-new ones. I found one I'd been looking for - though until that moment it hadn't occurred to me that I really wanted, let alone needed it.

Still, a little bid couldn't hurt. With luck it would be dirt cheap.

For the next four days, until the auction ended, I checked the site half a dozen times a day, tracking its progress, putting in an occasional bid. By the end I was bidding twice if not three times the amount I'd first thought of as my highest offer. From a tentative £15 I escalated to £70 - £85 - £92.61 (an old trick from real-life auctions this: bid a few notches above a typical offer; thus, £2.61 above the standard £90; 11 pence above the more usual £92.50).

Fortunately I didn't know all the tricks, and was outbid in the closing minute in a tactic known as "sniping" whereby a new bidder keeps silent until the last moment before dropping in a bid just fractionally higher than the previous one, and wins the item.

Next morning I was horrified to think how close I'd come to spending nearly £100 on something I mildly coveted but would never normally have considered buying. Yet - and here's where the addiction comes in - it didn't stop me going back to "Hermes scarves" and trawling through acres of proffered scarves. I didn't bid on any more, but it was a close-run thing. Instead I switched to Ferragamo sandals, since my old and treasured pair were coming to the end of their walking life. A month later, I have four pairs of Ferragamo sandals, all a bit too small, but two wearable at a pinch.

Two more are on their way - the right size this time. Now to track down a certain classic handbag I've been wanting for years ...

I am not a shopaholic; I am not addicted to designer goods. Yet eBay has me hooked. There's hardly been a day in the last six weeks that hasn't ended with my staring at the section called "Items I'm bidding on", wondering whether an extra £5 will secure me that dirt-cheap Vuitton roll-on cabin case.

So yes, it is a marvellous thing that Pierre Omidyar created in California and launched in September 1995. eBay provides amazing bargains and unites people with extraordinary speed. (I got into e-mail correspondence with someone about to go in to a retirement home and forced to sell a lifetime's collection of antique glass. "I hope it goes to good homes," she wrote mournfully.) Sales are still growing by leaps and bounds - 51 per cent in the first three months of 2004.

As a social phenomenon, it has the potential to end the snobbery that boosts many "exclusive" products. eBay makes nonsense of fashion's crazy prices: why pay £400 or more for a top with a designer label that in three months' time will be offered on eBay at a tenth of the price? Why submit to the hype of department stores, logos and labels, when you can buy the same things anonymously at auction at a price dictated by world-wide demand?

eBay is a great leveller, putting everyone on the same footing. But caveat emptor - look out: eBay really is addictive.

angelambert@compuserve.com

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