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SnakebyteXX
12-30-2004, 06:33 PM
By Kevin Maney, USA TODAY

If you look at America 2004 through the lens of eBay (EBAY), maybe it really is about the Virgin Mary cheese sandwich.

That would be the 10-year-old grilled cheese sandwich marked by scorches that seem to look like the Blessed Mother. Its owner says the sandwich helped her win $70,000 at a casino. It was bought on eBay in November for $28,000 and the buyer was an online casino.

That sandwich listing appears to capture so much about 2004. In it is the hope for some force to deliver us from the economic, political and cultural sourness of the past 12 months.

It also shows that people these days see what they want to see whether it's a face on food, or the way the reds see red, the blues see blue and never the twain shall meet.

Then again, there are slightly more scientific ways to look at what eBay tells us about the year. For the second year in a row, USA TODAY asked eBay to slice and dice its database of transactions, looking for trends and oddities that helped define 2004. In other words, it was a search for the year according to eBay.

And eBay tells us that people are returning to their childhoods for comfort in discomforting times and that we are captured once again by dreams of space travel.

There also is a sense of consumer wariness. As job growth has sputtered the past fewyears, top searches on eBay have shifted away from expensive designers and toward more generic terms, such as "pink" and the Old Navy brand.

As the population has aged toward retirement, the No. 1 search term has shifted from Gucci (2002) and BMW (2003) to this year's leading term, RV short for recreational vehicle. The kind you buy when you sell the house and tour Florida campgrounds in a Winnebago.

Why use eBay? The Web site has become a mirror of our times. More than 125 million people use it; $1,060 worth of products flow through it every second.

It's a societal seismometer. When events happen, they show up instantly on eBay. When Ronald Reagan died, 6,000 Reagan-related listings popped up on eBay within 48 hours. The Boston Red Sox won the World Series in October, and listings of Red Sox paraphernalia tripled.

No executive decides what eBay sells. Millions of people post items in response to the shifting marketplace. It's organic. That's what makes it unlike any repository of commerce and culture in history. "EBay really does show us what's going on in the world," says Lynn Dralle, inveterate eBay seller and author of The 100 Best Things I've Sold on eBay.

Analyzing a year through eBay is not a perfect science, of course. But it's more fun than trying to do it by reading the Federal Reserve's "beige book."

What, then, does eBay reveal about 2004?

Web surfing isn't enough we want high-tech entertainment. The past few years, eBay users mostly sought electronics products that would get them on the Internet, such as wireless home-networking equipment. This year, the hottest tech products included satellite radio (dollar value of products sold rose 266%), flat-panel TVs (up 255%) and the big winner iPods (up 475%).

The iPod proved so explosive that eBay created an iPod subcategory within consumer electronics. On a typical day in early December, there were nearly 4,000 iPod-related listings.

The entertainment electronics trend is confirmed on the Internet as a whole. The top three Internet searches for the past month were for PlayStation 2, Nintendo DS and iPod, according to Internet-tracking firm Hitwise.

Americans love American muscle cars. You might think that high gas prices drove a rush to hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius. But when it comes down to it, we don't want wimpy little enviro-friendly Matchbox toys. We want to go 90 miles an hour and make big rumbling sounds.

The top three cars sold through eBay Motors in 2004: Ford Mustang, Chevrolet Corvette and Chevrolet Camaro.

On the total opposite end of the scale from muscle cars, the nation has gone pink. In past years, pink wasn't even on the radar. It just broke into the top 40 in 2003 and had been nowhere to be seen in 2002. In 2004, though, it's the eighth-most-searched term on eBay.

"Pink is the new black," says Constance White, eBay's style director. (There's a job you probably didn't know existed.) Pink has become a fashion rage for both men and women. Designers have been pushing the color. But White has an interesting explanation for why it's catching on like crazy now.

EBAY BY THE NUMBERS

More than 560 farm tractors and parts sell on eBay every day
More than 900 MP3 players are sold on eBay every day
A diamond ring is sold every 2 minutes on eBay
A book sells every 2.5 seconds on eBay
A Ford Mustang sells every 34 minutes on eBay Motors.

Source: eBay


"I think it's partly the war," she says. "Pink is a very sweet, childish, optimistic color. Perhaps subconsciously, it's part of its staying power this year."

That jibes with what author Dralle sees in the demand for the thousands of items she sells a year. "What's selling best is anything that reminds us of when we were kids" such as vintage lunchboxes or 1950s furniture, she says. "Americans really are looking to their childhoods."

The Red Sox finally broke a curse in 2004 and it had nothing to do with Babe Ruth. Since eBay started compiling stats, listings of New York Yankees-related baseball items have outnumbered Red Sox listings by at least 2-to-1 often, 3-to-1.

When the Sox beat the Yankees for the American League championship, then won the World Series for the first time since 1918, Red Sox listings moved past Yankees listings. In October, Red Sox listings stood at 43,383; Yankees, 42,603.

The four major Florida hurricanes in 2004 killed 117 people and caused $22 billion worth of damage. But after the news cameras left, the rebuilding showed up on eBay.

In the weeks that followed hurricane season, listings for generators spiked 579% compared with the same period in 2003. The "lumber, plywood, molding" category jumped 138% vs. the previous year. "Windows, screens & hardware" zoomed 490%.

A new generation has fallen in love with outer space. Early in 2004, NASA landed its rover on Mars, igniting interest in the red planet. July was the 35th anniversary of the first manned moon landing. SpaceShipOne won the X-Prize for taking a civilian to the edge of space and landing safely back on Earth. So "moon" made it into the top five search terms in 2004. In previous years, it wasn't even in the top 50.

Maybe eBay knows more about pending election results than either the polls or the pundits. During the summer, when both parties had their conventions, George Bush listings and John Kerry listings were about even.

From that point on, Bush pulled ahead. By the election, Bush listings were about double the number of Kerry listings.

EBay was a better predictor than the Web. Kerry's Web site commanded a bigger market share than Bush's throughout the election season, Hitwise says.

EBay as economic indicator?

Perhaps Alan Greenspan should consider eBay as an economic indicator.

For most of 2004, government numbers have painted a picture of a so-so economy.

From July to September, gross domestic product grew at a slightly faster-than-expected 4% annual pace. Butconsumer confidence fell in November for the fourth month in a row to the lowest level since spring, though it perked up in December. And the dollar fell 10% against major currencies since May, making imported products more expensive. Job growth stayed at a pace of about 112,000 a month, which economists say is short of the 150,000 jobs that must be created each month to keep up with the increase in the labor force.

How does that show up on eBay?

Designers are kaput. Among the top 10 search terms on eBay in 2003 were four designer brands: Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Coach and Prada. But in 2004, only one has stayed in the top 10: Louis Vuitton. The other designers have dropped down the rankings.

The trend is even more pronounced in the "clothing, shoes and accessories" category. In 2003, four of the top five searches in the category were designer brands: Vuitton, Coach, Hollister and Prada. The fifth was a high-end retailer, Abercrombie & Fitch.

In 2004, Coach and Abercrombie remained, but the other three of the top five were midrange brands: Victoria's Secret, Old Navy and Gap. EBay found that consumers ratcheted down their spending.

Then there's that other powerful economic trend: globalization. It certainly shows up in eBay's statistics.At the end of 2002, about 35% of the total value of goods bought on eBay were bought outside the USA. By the third quarter of 2004, that figure had risen to 46%.

Weirdness factor rises

If there's a disconcerting conclusion to be drawn from eBay's statistics, it's that people are getting weirder.

In 2003, about the oddest item sold on eBay was a tissue used by Paul McCartney.

The past year brought an explosion of the bizarre on both the seller and buyer side. That's in addition to the cheese sandwich bought by Internet gaming company GoldenPalace.com, which plans to take the sandwich on tour.

Earlier in December, a woman listed her father's cane, along with her father's ghost. She wrote in the listing that her son had been afraid of her father and that after the father died, the boy was afraid his ghost would stick around. So she got rid of the cane and the ghost along with it on eBay.

GoldenPalace bought that, too for $65,100.

ABC gum from Britney

Other listings on eBay in 2004 included a piece of gum chewed by Britney Spears, which fetched more than $500, and rocker Bryan Adams' unwashed socks, left behind after a gig, which went for more than $1,000.

"What it tells me is there's a market for anything," says Paul Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University who studies eBay. "It demonstrates the power of eBay, that it can create a global market for people on the fringes doing weird stuff."

Which means that 2005 ought to be even more interesting.

link (http://www.usatoday.com/tech/news/2004-12-29-ebay_x.htm)