October 07, 2004

The Sofa From Hell, or, Envisioning a Post-eBay Future

At Web2.0 this week, I heard search guru Louis Monier, who's been at eBay for several years, speak in a panel session about the future of search. At one point John Battelle asked him a question along the lines of, does eBay foresee a threat from the local search services Yahoo and Google are building? At some point you could find goods locally through those search services, and not touch eBay at all. Is eBay worried?

Louis surprised me with his answer. No problem, he basically indicated, after all, we're eBay. It was a we're-the-8000-pound-gorilla, we're-a-global-monopoly, who-could-possibly-be-a-threat-to-us kind of answer.

I think it's time for eBay to consider that the long-awaited two-guys-in-a-garage "next eBay" may be here sooner than they care to think.

But first, the sofa from hell.

Back in 2003 my wife and I decided to finally sell this very expensive ultra-contemporary Roche-Bobois sofa we once bought back in the mid-90s for the house we lived in then. As The Dude might say, "it really tied the room together, man!" Thing is, we no longer live in that house, and that room is long gone. So the ultra-contemporary sofa wound up in some decidedly non-contemporary living rooms in the subsequent years. Sometimes it barely fit in the room --- tied the room up, not together. By 2003 we decided, enough's enough. Somebody will buy it. Won't they?

We tried listing it on eBay. Took tons of nice digital color photos. Wrote a nice long description. Not a single bid.

Re-listed it. No bids.

So we posted it, along with all the nice photos, on craigslist. It sold in a couple days, to a nice retired couple.

Fast forward to today.

One of eBay's main selling points for years has been: trust and safety. You're gonna be fine if you buy or sell on eBay, even if the other person in the transaction is a total stranger halfway across the world. And that is true. Most of the time, things are fine. Fraud happens occasionally, but the vast majority of the time, even big transactions like computer and car sales go smoothy.

But now think 2005. Why might we need eBay less and less?

Consider craigslist with RSS, or, better yet, a notification service tied to RSS or email. "Notify me when a sofa with the following attributes and in the following price range and in the following general geographical area goes on sale."

And maybe hours or days or weeks or months later, you get that notification, and your dream sofa is for sale, by someone you don't know, but who lives nearby.

Why do I think it might be nearby? Consider for a moment how much PC/Internet household penetration there is now. And how much high-bandwidth penetration there is now. There's a much better chance in 2005 that a whole lot of people who live in your own neighborhood or general vicinity will have stuff you want, and you certainly will have stuff they want, and both of you will have ways to find out about each others' haves and wants. Does eBay's trust and safety cushion still offer as much value in such a world? If it turns out a neighbor around the corner wants to buy your sofa, would eBay need to be involved in the transaction? If the market shifts locally because there are now enough people nearby to buy stuff you want to sell, or sell you stuff you've been thinking of buying, who needs eBay? Why not just use a "smart craigslist" system instead?

And maybe the question should also be, do we even need craigslist in such a world? What happens if you can just post lists on your blog of things you want to sell and things you want to buy, and hang them out there in RSS feeds waiting to be scooped up by Technorati-style bots, who in turn notify people who live within driving (maybe even walking) distance of you? If they can come over, inspect the thing you wanna sell, and then fork over real hard cash, carry the thing out to their car, load it up, and drive away, who needs $50 billion intermediaries anymore?

Posted by brian at October 7, 2004 09:25 PM


Speaking about this in person, I was skeptical. But I'm convinced now. My biggest reluctance to buying things online is that I can't see it, touch it, or try it out beforehand. With new stuff you can check it out at your local Best Buy before buying online, but with used merchandice you are inherently trusting someone you don't know to fairly and accurately describe it.

A local "online sales broker" would completely eliminate my hesitation. It would work simply by connecting buyers and sellers, much like classified ads do, but it could also provide additional services like allowing purchases to be completed via credit card or PayPal.

Posted by: Chuck at October 9, 2004 01:02 PM

That sounds suspiciously similar to the semantic web stuff Tim Berners-Lee keeps talking about. Someone would publish a for-sale RDF with a lat/lon and your agent would notify you that it was available within x miles.

Posted by: George at October 18, 2004 11:57 AM

Still think an intermediair is needed, whether or not you buy locally. Furthermore: isn't the advantage of buying on-line that you can buy something that is not available in your neighbourhood?

Posted by: Chil at October 21, 2004 12:35 AM

I don't really understand why this would be any different from the classified section of your local newspaper, other than the fact that it is automating the search?

Posted by: flameproof at October 21, 2004 06:07 AM

These posts are great. I now know why I keep coming back. Thanks!

Posted by: Steve Davis at November 25, 2004 06:44 PM

There are not living 50 million potential buyers in your neighbourhood. Ebay is the biggest neighbourhood in the world, isn't it?

Posted by: Kees at December 2, 2004 10:27 AM

The local newspaper and Craig's List will always be the best sources for large pieces of furniture, and also, probably cars. Unless you have an sofa that is fresh out of Pottery Barn that will ship for less than what it is currently selling in the store, or if it is rare, there is no want for it on Ebay.

But for unique items of clothing, rare perfumes, 18th century iron, discounted office supplies, designer handbags, an old book that you treasured as a child, and so on and so on, the best source will always be Ebay or another auction site. You have to consider what is being sold. It is highly unlikely that someone in my neighborhood has the unique items that I covet. I agree Ebay is the world's largest neighborhood.

Posted by: Keen at December 3, 2004 09:36 AM

brianstorms is Brian Dear's weblog. Non-spam email:

Be sure to take a look at these other fine websites:

Copyright 2002-2003 Birdrock Ventures. brianstorms is a trademark of Birdrock Ventures.