You wouldn't guess it to look at Los Angeles, but there just aren't that many auctions for Frank Zappa memorabilia.
That was the sad world Tom Brown inhabited until the Zappa-phile joined the computer age. There, he discovered online auctioning, a beautiful new world of Zappa plenty, value and excitement.
In the three months since he found Ebay (http://www.ebay.com)--one of the Web's busiest online auction sites--he's outbid scores of other collectors for Zappa posters, photos and records. Even now, he checks the site daily for Zappa products.
"It's a slight addiction," jokes Brown, a 52-year-old Venice resident who has parted with $1,200 for collectibles of the deceased rocker. "I knew when I found this site that this was a bad thing for me, a very bad thing."
Brown is part of an explosion of online auction participants who in less than five years have helped spawn about 1,000 Internet auction sites. This year alone, the sites have served as the portal of exchange for tens of millions of dollars for a seemingly endless list of mostly midpriced goods that include everything from collectibles to computers.
The auction sites have created a vast new marketplace, inexpensively hooking up millions of buyers and sellers who otherwise would never have known each other, business analysts say. Suddenly, the "junk" in someone's attic in Duluth has become the treasure in someone else's house in Downey.
"It used to be collectors had to go to an auction or a convention," said Efraim Turban, a professor at Cal State Long Beach who has studied online auctioning. "But what if there wasn't one to go to in your vicinity? What do you do? Fly to Chicago or New York and find one?"
As with most things online, visitors bid on items ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. Last week, a 1963 Mercedes-Benz 220SE convertible opened at $5,500 and ended up selling for quadruple that price. Meanwhile, a Scooby Doo Pez dispenser started at $2.25 and sold for a price seven times higher.
Although auction sites vary somewhat, most work just like traditional auctions. Sellers usually describe the item they want to sell or scan a photo of it, and name a minimum starting bid. Buyers then make bids equal to or greater than that amount. The highest bid wins.
Once a bid is accepted, the buyer and seller make arrangements for payment and delivery. The auction site then collects a percentage of the purchase price.
"It takes two brain cells if I can do this," Brown said. "I've had no problems."
But unlike old-style auctions at which the bidding may close within a few frenetic minutes, online auctions allow much more time to think about potential buys. Online auctions impose time restrictions, but they range from hours to weeks, depending upon the value of the item on the block. The extra time tends to make for a more considered purchase, experts say.
"On the Web, there's nobody beating you over the head," said Alex Talalayevsky, a professor of information systems at Chapman University in Orange. "Consequently, you see much less of the irrational buying behavior that can occur when someone is screaming 'going, going, gone.' "
Still, many online participants have stories of being caught up in a bidding war and usually for items they didn't really want. Gerard McCallum learned this painful lesson in his early days of online bidding several months ago. Now, the Los Angeles pastor has an electric air freshener for his car to show for it.
"I thought what a great idea, but it really doesn't even work," said McCallum, 36, who "won" a back-and-forth contest for the item. "I basically threw $30 out the window."
The episode, though, provided a valuable lesson for McCallum: Do your homework, and bid with your wallet not your ego. Sometimes, McCallum can comparison shop right on the Web; other times there's enough time before bids close to check store prices.
It was McCallum's wide knowledge of computer products that originally got him hooked on online auctioning in the first place. He landed a terrific price on a laptop that was well below what computer stores charged.
Since then, McCallum believes he's saved hundreds of dollars getting good deals on computer software, home stereo equipment and top-quality steak knives.
"Still, you have to be careful," he added. "There's a lot of out-of-date merchandise for sale out there."
Despite its unregulated nature, the auction sites have been surprisingly free of hassles, experts and consumers say. Many sites, like Ebay, solicit comments from buyers about each seller, then post the results. If too many complaints are logged about a particular seller, he's barred.
"There's a lot of implicit trust in this kind of community," said Rakesh Sood, a Wall Street analyst for Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York. "Feedback ratings can enhance the reputation of buyers and sellers, and they seem to work pretty hard to keep those intact. There's been some fraud, but it's been fairly limited."
Added Talalayevsky: "It's about as safe, if not more safe, than ordering from a mail-order business."
Experts say online auctioning is only going to get bigger. Other online auction companies are bound to hit the Internet after witnessing the amazing performance of Ebay's stock during the last few months. Since its debut in September, Ebay's stock has skyrocketed from $18 a share to well more than $100 today.
"The success will keep coming in waves as more people continue to get online," Sood said. "There's tremendous room for growth before this phenomenon loses strength."