Travels & Traditions: The Future of Shopping - #506

BURT WOLF: The earth is surrounded by a mass of air we call the atmosphere…oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen and dozens of other compounds that make it possible for us to live on this planet. The word atmosphere is also used to describe the physical and emotional environment of a particular place on the planet. But in addition to the atmosphere we are surrounded by the world’s most intense Buyosphere.

The buyosphere is made up of opportunities to buy stuff. It’s a place to see what you can get in exchange for money. It invites us to reward ourselves for all the annoying little things that we put up with in life.

The idea of the buyosphere comes from Thomas Hine, the author of I Want That, How We All Became Shoppers. He pointed out that sellers try to give special meaning to their products. A special meaning that makes you want to have that product as part of your life. The buyosphere welcomes us, and offers us the opportunity to change our lives in exchange for money.

We are shown what we could be, if only we purchased that product. We are overwhelmed with variety. And, of course, that is precisely what a democratic society is all about. Our number one sovereign right, and I mean this in the most positive way, is our right to shop, and to change our lives in the process. Of course you do end up with an invoice they don’t call it the bill of rights for nothing.

We tend to think that people buy things in order to compete, to say that my stuff is better than your stuff. But in fact, most shopping is done in order to show our association with a group. We shop to belong.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Historians tell us that our original thirteen colonies held together because of their belief in freedom and we usually we assume that meant political freedom, but in fact it might have been the freedom to shop. The colonies were big buyers of British goods. But when the British imposed taxes on those goods without giving us the right to vote we responded with a consumer boycott. And it looks like that consumer boycott might have actually held the colonies together.


BURT WOLF: T. H. Breen is a professor of American History at Northwestern University and the author of a book that explains how consumer politics shaped American Independence.

T.H. BREEN ON CAMERA: There were so many ways in which the Colonists were divided. Anyone would have predicted at the time that they couldn't possibly have gotten together to form a country. Their labor systems - in the South, because of the slave system in the North, because of free farm, animal husbandry, religious divisions were extremely important. Ethnicity - a great German population that was already changing the character of Pennsylvania. These people would have been divided by economics and by their religious heritage, by their language. But they didn't. They managed to pull it together.

By the 1740s and 50s, most of the people ... most Americans went to stores for sundry items - everything from clothes to glassware to metal goods, and all of this stuff was manufactured in England. 

The most original idea that the American people had, was a new strategy approach, that’s called the consumer boycott. What most Americans, including historians of the period, overlook, is that there was a ten-year experiment, a tradition, of using consumer goods to affect political protest, an ever-tightening interruption of the consumer marketplace, until by 1774, the Americans had truly caught the attention of the British, but more important, they caught each other's attention, because a boycott is something that you can monitor, you can read about, you can see if the other guy is cheating, and out of these experiences came a sense of trust, which allowed Americans to pull together at key points, when military options came into question.

Boycotts are a very interesting mechanism of protest, if you think about it. We're talking about a world, a Colonial world, a late Imperial world, in which, wealthy white males, voted, and all the people that, were in the legislatures, had come out of a rather narrow base of power and experience. But suddenly, you have a consumer boycott, and if the only people who are boycotting are these fellas in the Legislature, it's going to fail. They don't buy enough stuff, and there's something about a boycott that immediately is more politically inclusive, many of the consumers then, as now, were women. Women made this market go along. In fact, many of the merchants were women. Now, they didn't vote - they weren't allowed to be judges or generals, but when boycotts were mounted, if these women hadn't come forward, the political side would have collapsed. 

BURT WOLF: Bottom line -- in the past, the American family that shopped together, revolted together. And it looks like these days America’s technological skills may revolutionize shopping.


WOMAN INTERNET SHOPPER ON CAMERA: I just found a Chinese Hong Kong silk jacket and it includes a set of pants. Starting bid is 8 dollars and 88 cents. It looks pretty interesting to me, but I have to check the shipping, that’s the most important thing.

There’s one bidder. It’s my size, size 36, and I like to look at the close up shots. And I like to make sure there are no damages to the item. This one is in perfect condition. I can put a bid in for $9.38, so I can go in front of this person. So I’m gonna put a bid in of 15 dollars. And that’s my proxy bid.

The proxy bid means that I enter a maximum amount that I will give to eBay to know only and they will go and bid for me.

Now when I put my bid of 15 dollars into the system it will only record the next one up.

Enter it. I’m the current high bidder. Good. 

I’m considered a poacher and a sniper. Meaning, I will look at my inventory of items that I want to buy. Keep them in my favorite eBay area, and then a few minutes before the auction ends I will go in there and bid quickly to try to take the item from someone else. So what I tend to do is watch items for several days and just bid at the last few minutes. 

A lot of people don’t like people like me, but I’m a bargain hunter so most of the time it does work for me.

BURT WOLF: At the end of June 2004, eBay had over 114 million users, buying and selling in more than 50,000 categories. At any given time there are about 28 million items available, and three and a half million new items are added each day. The value of the things that are sold on eBay each year is about 25 billion dollars, which makes it a very serious place to shop. 

Diane Hamill is one of the hundreds of thousands of people who earn their living selling things on eBay. 

So how did you get started in this business?

DIANE HAMILL ON CAMERA: We’ll about 25 years ago I started a small antiques and collectibles business. And I sold at local antique shows outdoors. And in the late 1990’s I started to hear about something called eBay. And I did a little investigating and asked questions and I realized there was a very big change coming in the American antiques and collectibles market. And in early 1999 I decided it was time to move my entire business onto eBay.

I sell the things I had always sold. Mostly vintage collectibles, antiques, used books, and it’s working great. My market is all over the world and I get much better prices. I go out to estate sales, moving sales, yard sales, garage sales. I go to about a thousand a year. And I buy things like a tea set that I think I can resell on eBay. And one of the very first things I do is what I’m doing now, photographing it. I upload my photos to the web so other people can see them. I write a description of my item, and then I use eBay’s sell item process to list my item. And people will see my listing and bid on it. The auction ends at an exact time and whoever is the highest bidder at that time wins my item. When I receive a payment I pack it all up and take it down to the post office and mail it you know.

My best buy was an Arts and Crafts copper Jardinière. A Jardinière is a big decorative pot you put a potted plan in. And I bought it at a garage sale about four blocks from my house. And I turned it over and I recognized the mark. It was a very famous San Francisco artist Dirk van Erp. And the price sticker on it said a dollar. So I shoved the dollar at the lady and took it to my car and about a month later I sold it on eBay to a collector up in Berkeley for over $2,100. 

eBay has changed my life because it has made the selling process much more flexible. I used to be tied to the schedules of the antique shows. Now I can do this at 6am or at midnight. And I go to the post office a whole lot more than I used to.

It’s fun because I never know what I’m gonna get for things. And I love to watch my auctions and see how much interest there is in them. And who’s bidding on them so it’s a lot of fun.

BURT WOLF: Over 430,000 people already make their living selling on eBay part-time or full-time and every year thousands of users get together to talk about what’s happening.

MEG WHITMAN ON CAMERA: There are 715 eBay employees here today and I know they cannot wait to meet you. Spending time with you during the next few days will motivate everyone at eBay for the rest of the year. eBay Live is perhaps our best opportunity to hear directly from you about what we do right, yes we want to hear that part. But just as importantly it’s a great opportunity for us to hear directly from you what we could do better.

BURT WOLF: In 1998, Meg Whitman was hired as president of eBay. Meg was a senior vice president of marketing in consumer products at Disney, director of global management and marketing at Hasbro Toys, President of Stride Rite Shoes, and President of FTD Florists. Understanding how people buy and sell is her specialty.

MEG WHITMAN ON CAMERA: So eBay was started on Labor Day of 1995 by a young computer scientist by the name of Pierre Omidyar. And he wanted to use the web this whole new technology to enable individuals to connect with one another and do business. And he was interested in the sort of notion of efficient markets and that’s why he launched with the auction format.

Today I would describe it as a community anchored in commerce. It is an online marketplace where buyers and sellers get together every single day to do business and then connect with each other about the items they are selling or the topics of the day. And obviously the amount of trade that is taking place on the platform is far beyond what Pierre or even I in the early days could ever have imagined.

One of the early, early founding principles was eBay was designed to be a level playing field where your next door neighbor has an equal chance of success with a large corporation.

So your next door neighbor pays the same fees to eBay as does a large corporation and their items compete side by side. 

It is a dynamic self- regulating economy you know some times we call it the eBay economy because with this auction format and with buyers and sellers breaking down the barriers of time and distance. Whatever that item sells for that minute that day on whatever part of eBay is the market price for that item. It is real time pricing on things, that never had a real time market before.

We thought maybe in the early days that this was a uniquely American concept. But really by the time I got here in 1998 we had users from over 100 countries. And they were using in English. And that was sort of a tip off that maybe this concept was extensible to other countries.

Today we have localized eBay sites in 31 countries outside the United States. Those are contained communities they trade with one another, but they also trade across the boarder. And it’s now a very big part of our business. It’s almost half of our eBay business. It’s these eBay trading communities outside the United States. And it’s a totally unique marketplace that was developed only because the web came into being. It isn’t a land-based concept that got put onto the web like so many businesses. This was a business that could only exist because of the web. And it’s that very special intersection of commerce and community. And I think most of our users around the world find it to be entertaining and fun and exciting. And they can find items that they never thought they could find. And items of a real value.


BURT WOLF: The existence of a community, a group of people with shared interests and beliefs is central to the story of shopping, and the larger the community the greater its economic impact.

Communities are not new. Tradeshows are communities by trade; the diamond district in New York is a community.

Women who buy shoes by Manolo Blahnik are a community. They wear them. They seem to collect them.

Community is also at the heart of shopping in cyberspace. When eBay was launched it created a community of users who included their e-mail addresses so they could communicate directly. There was even a message board on the site so any one person could communicate with everyone else.

In 1996, Jim Griffith was working as an administrative assistant to a non-profit arts organization in West Rutland, Vermont. And he was looking for an unusual type of computer chip. When he found it on eBay and had the winning bid at 10 dollars his life began to change.

JIM GRIFFITH ON CAMERA: So what happened from there is that whole summer of 1996 I was spending more time everyday on eBay as opposed to doing things like finding a job or finding work.

So by the end of the summer I was spending about 90 hours a week on the site.

What I ended up doing was spending a lot of time on this chat board that the founder of eBay Pierre Omidyar put up where people could talk and share information. And as people, new people, would come on I would welcome them and show them how to list pictures, how to write a description, how to deal with customers and get them up and running on eBay.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: What are you doing now?

JIM GRIFFITH ON CAMERA: Telling people how to list items, how to take pictures, and it’s still a lot of fun.

BURT WOLF: Eventually, Jim came to work at eBay and wrote The Official eBay Bible. A how-to manual for everyone from a first time user to someone who wants to run a business on eBay. 

JIM GRIFFITH ON CAMERA: Well PayPal is an online payment service which allows buyers and sellers to send funds to each other through credit card funding or bank account funding without ever giving away the details of each others financial information.

It’s safe and it’s secure, it’s very quick. It’s easy to set up a PayPal account, and then when you find something you can pay for it using PayPal and then it’s just a few clicks away. And once the seller has the money they’ll ship the items to you. So it really speeds things up the whole transaction process.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: From the very beginning it was set up to be a “virtual” business, no inventory, no retail outlets, no warehouses. Just a group of like-minded people hanging out in cyberspace. The founders believed that most people were honest most of the time, but just to encourage them in that direction they set up the Feedback Forum.

JIM GRIFFITH ON CAMERA: Feedback’s really interesting. See if you go to any listing you can find a seller or a buyer. Everyone on eBay has a feedback. Let’s just open up an item and look at some of these feedbacks. This is their user ID. You’ll see the number that indicates the number of their current score of feedback. And then underneath it a positive feedback rating, which this seller is excellent. If you want to read the actual feedback profile just click the number in the parentheses. This will show you their feedback score and profile. They have no negatives to speak of. They have had eleven positives in the past month. And you can view what people have written by just scrolling down and looking at the comments. These are ordered chronologically in the order they are received.

BURT WOLF: Many of the early users of eBay were collectors…stamps, pottery, antiques, coins. They were part of a community and enjoyed talking to each other and buying and selling within the group. Once again, community was an essential part of shopping. 


BURT WOLF: Ebay was also interested in any area where they could make the market more efficient like automobiles.

Simon Rothman, was a strategic planner for eBay and had a strong passion for cars. 

SIMON ROTHMAN ON CAMERA: If you go back to early 1999 eBay was a collectibles only site. We were looking to expand beyond that. And as it turns out while we were thinking and analyzing and doing all the business stuff you do, the community themselves were actually already starting to buy and sell cars.

If you looked in the dye cast toy category, right next to the toy 355 Ferrari dye cast you saw a real Ferrari being sold on the site.

We launched the business in mid 1999 and it evolved from there to exotics and high line vehicles and today it’s a place where every day people can buy and sell everyday cars.

BURT WOLF: New cars, used cars?

SIMON ROTHMAN: Used cars, we sold this year on the run rate of doing about 10 billion dollars and we sell about a car every minute.

The same concept that works here in the U.S. in terms of buying is working very well internationally. The consumers wanting to be in the center of the industry, having a level playing field, having a fare price and broadening the scope of the market place. All of those play really well internationally. 

BURT WOLF: Adam Cohen is on the editorial board of The New York Times and the author of The Perfect Store -- A Case Study of eBay.

ADAM COHEN ON CAMERA: e-Bay has a fine line to walk, is it started as this very idealistic, really anti-authoritarian site. And that has always attracted people to it. You know, even the strange colors of its logo, everything about it is a little bit funky and anti-authoritarian. And people have loved it for that. The challenge e-Bay has always had is to keep that, communitarian values and so forth, while also making it a rigorous business that meets the quarterly earnings requirements of Wall Street. 

e-Bay remains the most successful thing to come out of the dotcom revolution. It is growing by leaps and bounds. Its stock is doing incredibly. And its globalization is remarkable. The idea that everywhere from Germany to China, people are buying and selling on e-Bay. This is really the culmination of Pierre Omidyar 's dream, which was to create a global market place, e-Bay is now a global marketplace.

BURT WOLF: From the ancient markets of Europe to cyberspace…shopping is constantly evolving.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: How you shop can express who you are, or who you want to be, both as an individual and as a society. Shopping can be the basis of your own evolution or your society’s revolution. For Travels & Traditions, I’m Burt Wolf.