Is eBay moving beyond auctions?

Following a growing trend, the online-auction pioneer is asking its users what they think about fixed-price sales

The online auction giant has been questioning some of its "power sellers" about trying out a new selling method: fixed prices.

The survey questions sellers about a few other methods, too: shorter auctions lasting only one day; sales in which the first person to bid on an item wins it; and a "buy now" option, i.e., bid $2.50 (£1.55) or buy now for $5 (£3.10).

eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said the company hasn't made a formal decision yet about the new pricing plans.

"There's never, up until now, been a very strong appetite for fixed-price services," he said. "But the marketplace changes."

Pursglove said the survey was sent out based upon questions and comments sent to eBay by its users. The company regularly polls customers about new business practices and other issues.

"What goes on any time we do one of these surveys is that people in customer support are getting questions from users. The only way we can get a sense of how the community is feeling about it is getting a questionnaire," he said.

eBay has forged its name and reputation -- and essentially launched a new business model for Web retailers -- with auctions. The site was the first to popularise person-to-person auctions and is now used by many small businesses as a major selling market.

Other retailers have copied eBay's lead and added auctions to their sites. This new method would allow eBay to compete with those sites in the more traditional retailing modes.

Many retailers offer combinations of auctions and traditional sales through their sites. Amazon.com's zShops program, for instance, allows sellers to offer items for sale through Amazon. Prospective buyers, in turn, can search through those items on Amazon's main site.

Egghead.com's Onsale site offers a combination of standard auctions and "SurplusDirect" sales, which offer a limited number of items for a fixed price.

And several auction houses offer features that let buyers end an auction immediately by agreeing to pay a price preset by the seller.

Amazon calls this its "Take-It" feature, while Yahoo! allows buyers to sell items with a preset "Buy Price."

Indeed, different pricing schemes seem to work better for different types of items.

"If you sell an item or class of items (say, clothing or CDs) which you have a lot of and which you list and sell at a predictable price, then take-it prices make a lot of sense," said Dave Michmerhuizen, who sells postcards on eBay. "A bidder is often willing to pay a few dollars more to eliminate competition and get the item sooner."

But for more individual or rarer items, the auction model works out best for the seller, he said.

"If you sell collectibles, take-it prices make less or no sense. Often these sellers have no good idea what an item is worth. Instead, they just start it and let the auction format determine the worth," he said.

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