City tries online auction to unload old equipment

Computers, books for sale

sparse bids, 25% fee disappoint official

June 19, 1999|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

A local Internet auction company has teamed with Baltimore's purchasing bureau to sell old city goods, allowing the world to buy $50 used computers and $10 barrels of books.

The city and Classified had hoped to make money off the partnership. But after two weeks, the city has auctioned only $250 worth of secondhand equipment, and the auction site is struggling to find users.

"I'm selling $20 items for $15, and that is on the verge of ridiculous" because of the size of Classified's 25 percent commission, said Joseph Zissimos, buyer supervisor with the city's Bureau of Purchases.

For years, Baltimore has tried to offer old city equipment -- from textbooks and computers to firetrucks and lampposts -- to buyers at fire-sale prices in its 2801 Edmondson Ave. warehouse.

The city holds a live auction annually to sell city vehicles. But, because the city could not afford paid advertising, school desks, conference tables and computers -- all dating to before computers with Pentium processors were sold -- remained stored for years amid dust and disorder in the 63,000-square-foot warehouse.

Enter Larry Makowski, a 24-year Maryland auctioneer, and his business partner John Brown, who planned to launch Classified in Hunt Valley to compete with eBay, a successful Internet auction site. They contacted the city after hearing that housing department officials were having trouble selling 17 metal detectors in March.

Begun in April, the Web site began showcasing city books, office desks and filing cabinets this month.

For 10 days, wares were up for bid; this week, the winning bidders were notified.

"I was in need of furniture," said Michael Burke of Lutherville, who bought a file cabinet for $20.

Classified does not charge users to bid on or post goods on its Web site, but it is charging the city a 25 percent-per-sale fee to digitally photograph the merchandise. "We threw it on the table, and it was up to [the city] to decide what they were willing to pay for our services," Brown said. "They gave us a very positive response."

Zissimos said the 25 percent commission fee was imposed by Classified and is too high.

He plans to renegotiate the city's contract or seek another Internet auction company. The contract allows the city to end it at any time, he said.

"At this rate, it really does not encourage me to keep doing it this way," Zissimos said, noting that the site is visited 500 times a day, compared with more than 50,000 for other auction sites.

Classified officials said it is too soon to judge the success of their company.

Meanwhile, Brown said, Classified has contracted with California-based, an electronic auction marketing network, which might help increase the city's sales.

Burke said he will buy more through the auction site because using Classified is simple. "You don't have to spend your Saturday in an auction house," he said.

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