Wired !

by… Steve Perrault
Copyright © Check the Oil! magazine

Collectible cans from eBay

Things have changed. The order of my life is a bit different now and it's because of something called eBay. It all began back in January 1998 when I showed up early on set-up day for the monster "Big E" automotive swap meet in East Springfield, Massachusetts. I quickly discovered that a few of my vendor friends were less than enthusiastic about being there.

Please understand that the mid-winter Big E event is a killer show and the usual January snow and ice storms do not deter the hardy (and hungry for a fix) New England swap-meet patrons. If you are lucky enough to have a vending spot, you WILL do very well.

Why my friends appeared less than excited about the show was a mystery to me. For the most part these guys are a tight-knit group of quality memorabilia vendors that pretty much keep in touch between shows. By myself and occupied with setting up, I restrained my curiosity until late in the day. I then discovered that almost to the man, they would have preferred to be home on the Internet selling their wares on "the Auction".

Shell wristwatch from eBay for the price of a TimexInternet…? Auction…? Wait a minute! Good buddies, as they are, I would have bet my Suburban's tailgate door that most of them could not even (like myself) type with any degree of efficiency. You do have to type to be on the Internet, don't you? Besides, I was equally convinced that a few months earlier when we were all at the Hershey meet, none of them even owned a computer. What was going on here? What happened?

Well, it was all because of a 3-year-old on-line auction company named eBay (the company's preferred use of letter case). This West Coast-based company organizes, coordinates and facilitates Internet-based auctions. "Person-to-person commerce" is how eBay prefers to label it. The collectable-packed Internet site just happens to include a hefty category, simply called "gasoline".

At this point in my story (January, 1998), eBay was listing about 500,000 items and a fair-sized chunk of them fell within our domain of interest. It appeared that the mere existence of eBay was responsible for disrupting the normal course of events for some of us at this huge automotive and memorabilia swap meet.

As it turned out, one of my vendor friends had stumbled across eBay's Web site one night while visiting an acquaintance that had Internet access. He caught the bug "bad", ran out and bought his own computer, got online and signed up with eBay.

Now some of these guys think nothing of driving 100 miles on bitter cold February mornings to share coffee and hot cakes with their buddies at a favorite New England diner. Try as they may, they have a tough time keeping anything from one another. The word quickly spread. "Our stuff is popular on this site and it sells well." On THE auction…on eBay, petroliana was red hot!

I happen to live in Maryland, pretty close to the Mason-Dixon Line. If I travel to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, or for sure, Connecticut, Rhode Island, or Massachusetts, I'm identified as a Southerner. When I travel to Virginia or the Carolinas, I am always labeled a Yankee. So probably because I am at least half Yankee and had a piece or two that some of my New England friends were interested in, they eventually shared ALL they had learned about this newly discovered phenomena with me during the course of the next two days. Between doing a brisk business and discussing eBay with other vendors, it was anything but a boring weekend. Talk about sensory overload!

Like many of us I had been putting off purchasing a computer for some reason I can't remember anymore. I was still relying on my 11-year-old word processor for occasional correspondence and to peck away at the stories I was writing for Check The Oil. Within 30 days after that fateful weekend, my small 10' x 10' office was home to a new Dell computer, a HP scanner and a color printer.

A few days later, I was on the Web with America On Line as my Internet service provider and registered with eBay as a buyer and seller. I was now equipped with my new eBay "user I.D." (Gasbash), "wired" and ready to market my substantial inventory of automotive and petro-related wares in cyberspace.

What is for sale on eBay? Simply put, you can find just about anything! Books, coins, boats, motorhomes, records, toys, tools, clothing, boats, houses and of course oil cans and bottles, signs, and road maps. These are just a few of the types of items ALWAYS found within their 1,026 categories. Currently as I write, there are more than 1.7 million items for sale.

Fast forwarding an entire year now finds me with fewer goodies to sell, a little more spare change in my pocket, a lot wiser, and writing this piece for you. If you are one of the many that have "been there, done that", that's great, but hang in for awhile, there may be some information here that is new for you. If you are one of the 12 or 13 people left in this hobby that are not wired yet (but considering it), I strongly recommend going to your local library and plunking down at a web-linked terminal for a few hours. That is if you can get the super-surfing 12-year-old out of the command chair. You'll get a good sense of how the Internet works and how to "drive" the mouse. Typing…? If you don't type well, don't worry. Typing ability is really secondary to this entire process. Hunt and peckers do just fine, thank you.

Next go anywhere that computer-related books are sold and buy at least one book. Super-educated as I am with a late-in-life quasi-Bachelor's degree, I opted for "The Internet for Dummies", but "Internet and World Wide Web Simplified" is just as informative and much more graphic. These resources actually explained to me (among many other things) the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web, a question I had been asking my computer "expert" brother-in-law for several years to no avail. Performing these two steps (assuming you read the book), before you actually buy anything else, will save you many hours of frustration.

An additional tip would be to get a back issue of November, 1997 Money magazine. In their monthly "Smart Spending" section, there is an article called "Grab the Best Deal on A New Home Computer". Devoid of doubletalk, tech-speak and jargon, this is an excellent and extremely reader-friendly guide to making a first purchase. The only thing that dates the piece a bit is the fact that the prices are a lot less and the (chip) speeds are much faster now. If your local library doesn't have a copy, ask your doctor or dentist; they probably still have a copy laying around the office that you could borrow.

eBay's World Wide Web "address" is "ebay.com". Just type it in right after the "http://www" address prefix on your Internet startup screen. Looking at the site is easy. Anyone with Web access can do it, but buying or selling requires registration. Once registered with eBay (a simple, on-screen process), you are able to list items for sale or make purchases. For now, I'm going to address mostly selling. Buying is another story.

As a seller you will quickly discover that you have a lot of choices to make. First, you want to strive to ensure that your item has a high probability of showing up in an item-request search performed by a potential buyer. Next, you want to maximize the chances that he "clicks on" the title of your listing as he browses the search page or the selected category (i.e., Texaco, Shell etc.), rather than continuing to review the other offerings. Clicking on the title "opens" the file and provides more item and seller information, an image (if provided), and a bidding form.

The title design needs to incorporate as many of the key words that a potential buyer is likely to use to generate his search request. This will greatly increase the likelihood that the buyer will "hit" on your listing during his search. The catch is that you have only a very limited amount of space for your title description. I have learned that the most desirable aspects of the item you are listing MUST be presented in your title. For example, "1929 Conoco Kansas map" or "Early Conoco map w/ touring car" is better than "Great (or "cool" or "perfect") old map of Kansas", as some people search under a year, a brand, or often the word "early". Many people search for maps with great graphics so the words "touring" and "car" could be helpful when the buyer is searching. No one will search under "great", "cool" or "perfect", so they are wasted words in the very-limited title space.

That brings us to my second point, which is that you want to ensure that potential buyers open your listing once they've searched or browsed for it. Your listing is likely to be on a page or pages with many others. That "Great old map of Kansas" is most likely to be from 1956 when you open the listing to look at it. I've looked at a few "old maps" that were even from the sixties and seventies. Good title design serves to ensure that your listing will be opened.

The meat of your listing is the actual description. This is what allows you to clarify details and describe condition and history once your listing has been opened. While most buyers tend to look at the picture first, don't neglect this important aspect of your listing. The pictures rarely display the item to its full advantage and are frequently of mediocre quality. They can often leave many unanswered questions about condition, age, authenticity, etc. The description can be used both to enhance the appeal of your item and to rectify any weaknesses of the picture. I always look critically at the picture I am posting in terms of what I'd like to know more about if I were a potential buyer. I then write the description to include that information.

The description is also the area where shipping and payment details can be addressed. You may want to limit your auction to U.S. buyers if you have an item that would require customs declarations. Check-off boxes are now provided that cover these issues, but it's still best to include the information in your narrative. Even though eBay makes a brief statement to this effect, it's prudent to specify that foreign money orders are drawn on U.S. banks if you do choose to offer your wares to the international audience.. You don't want to get paid in Mexican pesetas or Japanese yen and have to worry about the exchange rate.

Last but not least, an image (scanned photo or direct scan) is important because many people simply will not bid on an item unless a picture exists, poor quality or not. There have been only a few items that I have sold successfully without providing a picture. For the most part, these were automotive technical manuals where condition is less important to the buyer than content and completeness.

Today's scanners give you the option of the degree of definition. Better is not necessarily good. A high resolution image may take minutes to "load" for the viewer and many crazed eBay shoppers don't want to waste minutes looking at one image when there are thousands they may want to view. A fair-to-good resolution setting will usually get the image on the screen in less than 10 seconds. I usually opt for this setting range.

A few thoughts on buying. As a buyer I know that the deals are there. A few items that I scored, some of which now belong to the CTO archives, are depicted here. Often, great items are listed under the "wrong" category, i.e., road maps under "atlas", map racks under "displays". Often the image is so poor that it turns people off. Lastly, the auction for a particular item may end at an odd time of day or night. If not too many people are on-line to "grab it" in the final seconds of the bidding, a nice piece can often be had for a bargain.

Weekly or even monthly posting of listings on eBay can be a lot of work, but the extra income is attractive to many. As a bonus it enables personal contacts to be continued outside of the swap-meet arena and new cyberspace friendships to be made. All and all it is great fun. It will never replace a swap meet, but I bet you'll see more lap tops at Columbus and Iowa this year. See you on the World Wide Web. Watch for "gasbash" on eBay.

The following are some photos purchased through eBay for the Check the Oil! Archives.

Photo for CTO! archive found on eBay

Photo for CTO! archive found on eBay

Photo for CTO! archive found on eBay

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Article and accompanying images
Copyright © 1999, Used by permission, all rights reserved
Steve Perrault
Check the Oil! magazine

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Online March 25, 1999