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Can Social Media Make Online Auctions Exciting Again?

When it comes to online auctions, most people visualize the lengthy, commonly humdrum (at least until the last few minutes) auctions found on eBay. But in the past year we’ve seen several more exciting action in the space. StuffBuff is a new site that’s taking an unusual approach: it’s objective is to merge the real-time nature of sites like Twitter with conventional auction sites like eBay.

A typical StuffBuff auction (called a ‘Live Haggle’) looks somewhat similar to a chat room, with a few significant differences. The top of the chat window shows a ‘time left’ indicator that keeps you informed of when the auction ends, and there’s a bidding window beneath the chat box where you enter the amount you’re willing to pay (entering a bid is deemed binding). Whenever you set up an auction, you’re responsible for staying active in the chat as viewers come online to bid and ask questions (consequently, auctions end in a matter of hours or minutes, as opposed to days on eBay). And because of the open nature of the chat everything is transparent — you don’t have to worry about back channel negotiations.

Aside from the real-time nature of the auction, what sets StuffBuff apart from established auction sites is the potentially viral nature of their auctions. Any time you create an auction, you can embed it in your website to share with friends. Guests will be able to bid on these auctions directly from your site (they’ll be able to use Facebook Connect or Twitter OAuth to sign up, though these aren’t implemented yet). Payments are made through Paypal’s payment platform.

There's a second kind of auction from StuffBuff called ‘Blink’ that does have a number of similarities to Swoopo. The auction invites users to watch as the price of an item drops. The more people viewing, the faster the price falls, until someone buys the item. These can be embedded as well.

StuffBuff makes money by charging approximately 25-50 cents to create an auction (which is significantly less than eBay), $1.50 to set a reserve, and then 5% of the final value. The pricing of the Blink auctions is still to be established.

To make creating auctions less complicated than on some other services, StuffBuff has done some remarkable things. The site has a feature that allows you to either plug in a USB barcode scanner or use your computer’s camera as one: aim it at a product, and StuffBuff will enter it into your sellable inventory. When you’re prepared to sell an item the site will attempt to pre-populate your auction’s details with known information about the item, like size and weight.

StuffBuff has an appealing idea, but there are a few hurdles that immediately come to mind. Founder Michael Langer states that he wants StuffBuff to be like “eBay 2.0?, explaining that he sees eBay’s 95% marketshare as an opportunity given that the site hasn’t changed much in years. But establishing an auction site is complex — it’s going to take some time to get users to trust these embedded widgets enough to actually start handing money over to them. My other concern involves the real-time nature of the auctions. Because auctions only last a few hours, unless you have some apparatus to really spread them virally (say, through a popular Twitter account) it seems like it would be difficult to get more than a few people bidding, and even then they may well be your friends, who aren’t always the greatest people to do business with. That dilemma might go away once the site has a substantial user base that will expose your auctions to strangers, but StuffBuff needs to get over that first hump.


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