Economic pain and dot-com suffering can mean joy for online auction fans.
A tide of new sellers and a burst of online competition has lopped 25 percent off the average price of collectibles sold on eBay, the world's biggest Internet auction house, in the past year.
A year ago, a search of G.I. Joe collectibles on eBay would have found 1,500 listings with an average price of $26.93. But a recent search turned up 14,000 items with an average price of $19.85.
Analysts say online shoppers have a much better chance of finding a bargain today than at any time since 1995, when eBay was launched as a trading platform for Pez dispensers.
"These days, consumers are getting exposed to all kinds of great deals through various channels they never thought possible before," said Larry Jordan, vice president of marketing for AuctionWatch.com, an online auction resource.
There are more online auctions, fixed-price Internet stores, and even "reverse" auctions where buyers post what they want and let sellers compete for business.
Just this month, eBay took a step toward transforming itself into an online shopping mall, offering high-volume sellers their own Web storefronts.
"We're seeing a lot more sellers, especially a lot more businesses such as liquidators auctioning off their inventory on the Internet," Jordan said.
Terry Kovel, co-author of the annual Kovels' Antiques & Collectibles Price List, said lots of items just aren't bringing the prices they used to.
Kovel and others claim that the lure of quick cash has drawn so many collectible plates, autographed baseballs, and various other goods to the Internet that prices can't help but drop.
Indeed, the Internet has blossomed into a virtual flea market where people can find anything they could possibly want.
A Georgia resident can find old Atlanta maps, Georgia Bulldogs snow globes, and even a chunk of the now-demolished Atlanta Fulton County Stadium.
In fact, online auctions are sometimes the only places consumers can find certain hard-to-get items.
For example, eBay lists tickets to the sold-out Broadway hit "The Producers," impossible to find unless Mel Brooks owes you a favor.
The growing selection and shrinking prices have supercharged the growth of online auctions.
Sales of products via consumer online auctions is expected to jump to $6.4 billion in 2003 from $1 billion in 1998, according to Forrester Research. While online auctions were built on the popularity of collectibles, today more than half the items sold on eBay are "practicals," items such as cameras and computers - and even cars, which now supply 13 percent of the company's revenue.
Experts say this is an area that offers big savings for consumers.
David Steiner, president of Auctionbytes.com, an online auction newsletter, said shoppers could find practical items online at prices 15 to 20 percent lower than at brick-and-mortar locales.
"Consumers can find some spectacular deals in this area," he said.
eBay, with 30 million registered users and $25 million in sales a day, remains king of the auction sites, but sellers have an ever-widening choice of online auctions and fixed-price sites.
Amazon.com and Yahoo! have started their own auction sites, and a slew of niche sites such as PotteryAuction.com have been launched in recent years. Big companies such as Disney also are worming their way onto Web auctions with their own inventory.
All this is good news for bargain hunters.
Auctionbytes.com performed the study of G.I. Joe toys and 30 randomly chosen collectibles, and found that prices had dropped from between 9.5 percent to nearly 34 percent on average over the past year.
To help find those bargains, auction search engines such as AuctionWatch.com have sprung up. They will explore about 30 auction and fixed-price sites for items, so that prices can be easily compared.
For example, plug in "yo-yo," and you'll get what's for sale at eBay and any other site auctioning yo-yos.
eBay officials agree that some small sellers may be making less money and that prices on at least some antiques and collectibles may be falling.
But they insist the site's average selling price in all categories is increasing, although officials won't discuss specifics.
"The price of antiques and collectibles tends to fluctuate. But, in general, our marketplace remains quite vibrant," said Kevin Pursglove, an eBay spokesman.
Analysts say strategic alliances and expansions will only expand eBay's reach.
A recent agreement with Microsoft Corp. calls for the software giant to incorporate eBay's auctions into some MSN Web sites.
This could help bring eBay's auctions to pagers, Web-connected televisions and handheld computers, as well as to new places on the Internet.
Already, eBay enjoys an agreement with AOL, first forged in 1998, that has eBay links popping up on various AOL sites.
eBay is also adding features and expanding on its own.
It has begun letting sellers add a "Buy It Now" link to auction listings, setting a fixed price for the item above the minimum bid.
It recently acquired Half.com, a site that lets members sell used books and other goods for half their original price, and has launched eBay Stores, designed to make it easier for buyers to shop for merchandise from a particular seller on the site.
"We're looking for sellers with good track records to operate our eBay Stores," Pursglove said. "This is just another way for buyers to find the items they're looking for."