, NOVEMBER 23, 2006
  (STAR) PENMAN By Butch Dalisay - OK, enough of language and literature for this week; letís have some fun talking about another subject I canít have too much of Ė shopping. (Thatís right, shopping Ė see my Penman piece on "Men Who Shop" in my blog.)

With Christmas bells (sounds more like cash registers to me) ringing from Mandaluyong to Milwaukee, youíve got to be thinking of presents for others to justify all those presents for yourself, so let me help ease that burden by walking you through what could well be the final frontier of shopping for most Filipinos: eBay. Weíll boldly go where few Pinoys have gone before Ė the growing galaxy of online shopping, a world filled with amazing discoveries and bargains, but also fraught with three-headed monsters just waiting to feed on the trough of your bank account.

With eBayís partner PayPal just having opened for business in the Philippines (and Iíll tell you more about PayPal in a minute), Filipinos can now participate more freely in this truly global market. Thatís just a statement of fact; I donít know if thatís good or bad. I suppose that if your wife or daughter went on eBay to acquire a dozen pairs of Blahniks charged to your account, then thatís bad; if you bought yourself bound copies of the 1960s Playboy magazines that fueled your pubescent imagination (but letís call them "collectorsí items" now, shall we?), then maybe thatís good.

But seriously (aw, do we have to?), thereís more than a few good things out there in that bottomless cornucopia we call eBay. My noblest and most sober purchases have included:

ē A DVD containing the copyright-free texts of 47 important works of Philippine history and literature, including the full Blair & Robertson series, the Derbyshire translations of Rizalís novels, a trove of Philippine folk tales, and Mary Feeís recollections of her life as a Thomasite Ė all for about P1,000;

ē A colorful selection of 29 Philippine stamps from the late 1800s, for about P150;

ē A complete copy of one of the earliest issues of the Philippine Collegian, from December 1922, for a few hundred pesos; and

ē A 2-oz. bottle of Pelikan 4001 fountain pen ink in brilliant brown, for about P350.

But lest you imagine that I spend anxious hours and gouts of money in a valiant effort to preserve the tattered remnants of our glorious past, think again. On the more mundane side of things, Iíve also picked up:

ē A Banana Republic blue linen blazer for about P1,000;

ē A brand-new iBook G4 battery for about 2,000; and

ē A four-disc CD set of instructional videos on badminton for P450.

Iím not even going to tell you how many pens, watches, computers and parts thereof, digital gizmos, and esoteric items (key fobs stamped with the Apple logo, VW car keys, a Suzuki steering wheel) Iíve dragged home from my periodic trawlings and dredgings of eBay. Suffice it to say that eBay Ė founded in September 1995 as AuctionWeb Ė got its present name and form in September 1997. By December 1997, I was an eager member, happily claiming a 1950s Pelikan fountain pen from a seller in Germany. When the pen arrived unscathed in the mail, I was convinced that eBay was humankindís greatest invention since, well, the Internet, and I was hooked for life.

At any given time, there are millions of items up for auction or direct sale on eBay. (You want shoes? At this very minute, you can choose from 96,884 womenís pairs, and 39,658 menís. You need a wristwatch? Take your pick of 102,139.) Its Wikipedia history tells us that since it put up its digital shingle a decade ago, eBay has grown to a $4.5 billion company with 11,600 employees. It makes money by charging sellers a percentage of their sales. (Potato chips? Get 60 bags for $18)

Whoever thought of that business model deserves all the potato chips he can get his hands on. Thatís a French-Iranian-American guy named Pierre Omidyar, a disgustingly young (39 years old) immigrant who, at one time, helped write the software program MacDraw for Claris, an Apple subsidiary (I knew there had to be an Apple connection somewhere).

Why do people shop on eBay? Itís convenient, itís cheap, and itís exciting. The auction format introduces an element of competition Ė heck, of gambling Ė that you simply donít find strolling down the aisles of department stores, staring at fixed prices. Iím an inveterate bargain hunter, and Lord knows how many exquisitely useless things Iíve bought on eBay because they were too cheap to pass up. If youíre like me and you canít be stopped from firing up that computer and typing in www.ebay.com (or its local version, www.ebay.com.ph), keep a few pointers in mind:

Know what you want. To be honest, this often has very little to do with what you need. But you could save a lot of time looking if you can narrow down your search term to something as specific as "Pelikan 140 pen 1952" or "Apple logo sweatshirt XL" or "Bulosan America first edition" or "watch strap leather brown 20." Of course, what often happens is that while looking for something else, you stumble on that one thing you absolutely donít need but just gotta have; I think of nice words like "serendipity" Ė whatís your excuse?

Know your size. We Pinoys typically see the world in terms of S, M, L, and XL, but one manís large could be another manís medium (just ask the women). And there are crucial differences as well in the way sizes are measured in the US, the UK, Europe, and the Philippines Ė not to mention between men and women. For example, my size 9.5 shoes would be 10.5 in the US and 43-44 in Europe. The most common sizes youíll need to know are those for your shirt (collar) and shoes, but itíll help to find out such arcana as your hat size and your prescription for your lenses.

Know your product. While eBay and its sellers may offer some limited guarantees, youíre basically on your own and taking chances. Caveat emptor! This shopping paradise is full of snakes and apples. Thereís no telling if that designer bag or perfume is truly what itís advertised to be, not until you get it. Some things may still be better bought at the mall (plus you get instant gratification, instead of having to wait for weeks).

Read every little detail of the specifications, inspect the pictures, and be just as aware of what youíre not being told or not being shown. (For example, Iíll never buy a pen that doesnít show its nib Ė nibs are easily bent or broken, or exchanged with another penís.) Along this line, know your acronyms: NOS (new old stock), NWT (new with tag), NWOT (new without tag), NIB (new in box), EUC (excellent used condition), etc.

Know your seller. The closest thing you have to a guarantee on eBay is the sellerís reputation, here measured in terms of the sellerís feedback rating. This is the compilation of the comments left behind by previous buyers Ė positive, neutral, and negative. I wouldnít touch a thing from a seller with a positive rating of less than 95 percent (like students evaluating their teachers, some buyers can also be capricious or vindictive). If you want a quick check on a sellerís neutral and negative feedbacks, go to www.toolaus.org and type in the sellerís eBay ID. Although it takes some doing, feedbacks have been known to be faked, so you might want to check on whoís posting them as well.

How reliable is this system? Well, in around 150 transactions over the past nine years, Iíve received everything I ordered, except for one item, for which I claimed and got a refund from the seller in Hawaii. I donít want to sound discriminatory here, but I will, anyway: there are certain places and countries around the world I will never buy from on eBay, given their reputation for scams.

Rule of thumb: if sounds too good to be true, stay away. If a seller is offering a new MacBook announced just last week by Steve Jobs for half the official price, stay away. Laptops are among the most popularly scammed items on eBay, by the way Ė so again, know who youíre getting it from.

Know your limit. Auctions are competitive by nature, and thereís nothing like knowing that someone else out there wants exactly the same thing to get your hackles up. Do some product research Ė review current market prices or completed auctions Ė and set a clear, firm limit on how much you want to pay for that milkmaid figurine or that World War II canteen before you even make a bid.

But instead of putting that figure down right away, you might want to start with a low bid, just enough to leave a personal marker on that item Ė then do your best to be there, finger at the keyboard and Internet connection humming, in the last three minutes of the bidding. (Donít forget that eBay time is officially Pacific Standard Time in the US. Go by their clock, not yours.) This is the all-important part of any eBay auction Ė the last few minutes or seconds, when everyone around the planet comes out of the woodwork to "snipe" the others. This is when you punch in your absolute limit. If you lose, donít worry Ė given eBay, thereís probably another one just like it, or there will be one soon.

Iíve seen silly bidding wars erupt over, say, a Parker pen that cost me no more than $20 but which fetched $112 in another auction. It might feel good to win such tussles, but youíll feel sorry and sick to your stomach afterward. (An eBay bid is legally binding Ė once you bid, you commit to buy.)

Now, having just won that bruising battle for that lost Da Vinci drawing or that 14K pussycat pendant, what next? You pay Ė and hereís where PayPal comes in. PayPal is eBayís in-house payment system, which requires separately registering a credit card or bank account against which eBay payments can automatically be drawn (see how easy they make it for you to lose your money?). After steering clear of the Philippines for ages, PayPal finally relented and now lets Filipino eBayers pay locally for their global purchases.

Take note that foreign sellers will also often give you the option of paying by credit card, by personal check (in US funds drawn on US accounts), or by money order Ė but all of these take extra time and fees to process. Iíd be very, very wary of sellers who insist on getting paid only by telegraphic transfer such as by Western Union. WU itself is an old, reliable company Ė but scammers have used that same efficiency to get you to send them money across the void.

Is PayPal safe? Again, itís not absolutely foolproof if youíre paying a scoundrel on the other end, but I havenít lost a dollar yet in all these years (I set up a US account years ago), and for securityís sake, I opened a small, limited bank account just for this one thing.

So there you go Ė and I havenít even said a thing about selling on eBay, which is what you just might end up doing with all that junk youíre getting. Happy hunting! (And just to make things clear, I offer no guarantee against your losing your shirt or your wits on account of reading this article.)

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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