Balto. County doesn't get mileage out of Net auction of motorcycles

eBay inexperience noted as reason for weak bids

January 30, 2003|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Even Triple-A bond ratings, it seems, can't help an eBay seller with no feedback history.

Hoping to clear out its garage the 21st-century way, Baltimore County government made its first foray into Internet commerce this week by putting six used 1999 1450cc Harley-Davidson police motorcycles up for sale on the popular auction site eBay.

But despite the color photos, assurances of low mileage and descriptions of the loving care that Baltimore County's finest paid to their former mounts, the motorcycles generated less excitement than a third-rate Beanie Baby.

Four of the auctions ended this week without a single bid cast, and the other two ended yesterday with one bid apiece, allowing the buyers to win without going over the opening price of $12,000, which was about $1,650 less than the book value of a motorcycle of that year and model with substantially higher mileage. The county will try to auction the four remaining bikes, but it is unclear how it will do so.

Probably the most obvious eBay error was the county's failure to use the words "Harley-Davidson" in the titles for three of the bikes. They instead were listed cryptically with just their model number, ": FLHTPI."

This is a particular shame, said eBay spokesman Kevin M. Pursglove, since "Harley-Davidson" is one of the Top 15 search terms on the site.

"Either the motorcycles or the paraphernalia associated with Harley-Davidson are quite popular," he said. At the time county's auctions ended yesterday, eBay had 446 pages of listings for Harley-Davidson-related products.

The Internet auction site, www.ebay.com, has nearly 50 million registered users and offers the chance for people to buy and sell virtually everything, from toilet paper to real estate. Sellers create individual Web pages for their items, usually including pictures and detailed descriptions.

The site works like a blind auction. Buyers search for items and enter their maximum bids. Whoever has bid the most at the end of an item's auction period - usually 10 days - wins. The buyer pays the seller with a check or credit card, and the seller typically ships the item for a small additional fee.

Police spokesman Bill Toohey said the department usually sells its Harleys at a traditional auction after a few years to avoid maintenance costs.

When these six 1999 bikes, with mileage between 13,000 and 17,000, were scheduled to be sold, Cpl. Al Friedman, a senior member of the motorcycle corps, suggested eBay as a possible way to get more money for them.

Police Harleys have some cachet, Toohey said, because they, unlike other models, have air-cushion seats that can be inflated or deflated for optimum comfort.

Had the department sold the motorcycles at a traditional auction, it would have gotten about $10,000 for them, after the auctioneer's fees. The fee for listing a motorcycle on Ebay is $25.

"Basically, we give the taxpayers an additional $2,000 if we can make this work," Toohey said.

The county's Office of Budget and Finance, which handles maintenance on county vehicles, arranged the listing on eBay. County spokeswoman Elise Armacost chalked the affair up as a learning experience.

"This was our first venture onto eBay, and I think it's something we'll probably try again," she said. "We learned a little bit about how to do it most effectively and to try to get the best price we can for these items."

Sales experts for eBay who reviewed the listings offered several tips for how the county could do better.

Besides the mistake with the titles, it was probably a bad idea to sell six motorcycles at once because they flooded the market for that particular model, said Jeff Savage, a North Carolina antiques dealer who runs an eBay consulting business.

Jacqueline Brenner, who runs the Web site www.expertauctionservices.com, said the county needs to include more pictures showing the motorcycles from different angles and focus more closely on details. The layout of the listings could be jazzed up, she said.

"If you look at the counter, it says it had 410 people view it. There's initial interest, but when people look, they say, `Oh, never mind,'" Brenner said.

A bigger problem is the county's lack of feedback, Savage said. The auction site allows buyers and sellers to give feedback about each other so that users who don't know each other can gauge the reputation of the person they're about to exchange money with.

"The county has no feedback. Your average bidder is going to look at that, see no history of selling, no proof that these folks are for real, and that this really is the county selling the motorcycles," Savage said.

New sellers are well advised to create eBay pages about themselves to reassure buyers that they are legitimate, he said.

"The more information you give a possible buyer, the more comfortable they will be with a transaction," Savage said. "This is especially important for expensive items."

Pursglove, the eBay spokesman, said that other local and state governments and federal agencies have been extremely successful at selling surplus goods on eBay.

Auctioning online gives the governments access to much larger numbers of bidders and allows them to fetch much higher prices, he said.

Sgt. Robb Knapper, a spokesman for the Toronto Police Department, said police there recently started listing goods on eBay, selling everything from bicycles to a 1-ton jack.

"It's phenomenal the number of hits some of the items are getting," he said.

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