Go with a smile!

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Adventures in eBay

Sometime around 3 years ago, I realized that it was really easy to get good CDs on eBay. In fact, it’s often cheaper than paying iTunes for it. I used to shop a lot for music when I was a teenager, and there were so many CDs that I wasn’t able to buy because I had to budget my pocket money carefully. CDs used to cost $25 in 1990, and that fell to around $20 by 2000, but it was still expensive. By 2009, there were so many CDs on sale in second hand shops like cash converter – they were around $5 each. Imagine: you bought them at $5, you ripped them, then sold them elsewhere on eBay at $5 – your net expenditure was practically nothing!

Well, not exactly nothing, because there are a lot of times when you will buy CDs and you won’t be able to get rid of them at the price you think you can. I’m sure that there are a lot of people my age, or in the late 30s who think they can all do the same, so they just buy 2nd hand, rip and sell, and they will never get caught because there’s no downloading involved. You can ever only get caught if you download copyrighted material.

So I’ve been kinda busy doing a lot of buying and selling over the weekends. I set up my processes. A lot of this doesn’t really make sense in the US, because there are a lot of CDs that you can get for, like 5 cents. Literally. It’s just that the standard US$3 for postage will kill you. In Singapore, in contrast, you can sell CDs for $5 to $10 because the market is small, and it’s still less than what you have to pay for real music. If I select my CDs carefully, I’ll be able to flip them at a small loss or even a slight profit.

One of the most wrenching things in my life was when I moved house 10 years ago. OK, I didn’t move house. My flat was being renovated, and we relocated to the 5th floor. I had to throw out things, and I chose to throw out a whole load of cassettes that I had accumulated over the years as a teenager. I found CD copies of my favourite stuff that I threw out - very often at prices that were even lower than what I got the tapes for. But it was a very sad day. In any case, I made a list of all the stuff that I threw out, and a special mark for those that I wanted to get back some day. I'm still trying to find some of those things.

There are a lot of people who think that the CD format is finished. I don’t think so. So long as this black market is still alive, and so long as people can always exchange music this way, I don’t think that it’s dead. It would probably be dead in the sense that people aren’t likely to buy CDs anymore from say HMV. But people would still be clearing out their CDs, and putting them out on the market, and I think that CDs will still be circulating around for quite a while. So I’m trying to take advantage of this temporary second hand market while it lasts.

Now, there is the internet phenomenon called trolling. It’s what happens when you are on the net, there’s something about the internet that makes people behave rather nastily towards each other. And I’ve also had this problem before on eBay.

First case was when I found a U2 CD for $4. I put it up on sale for $7. (I have to do that to recoup my losses on other CDs). Somebody asked me for it and bargained it down to $5. I gave him my bank account number and he paid $5 for it. Around the same time, somebody else bought it through eBay for the buying price of $7. I had to make a decision, do I sell it to the first guy or the second? I decided to sell it to the second guy and get my $7. So I emailed the first guy and told him that I was going to return him the money and if he wanted that U2 CD, too bad he was such a bloody miser. He got really angry towards me. It was totally hilarious. I can imagine that he turned blue in the face cursing me over email, but he wasn’t ever going to get that CD, so he had no choice but to allow me to transfer the money back to him. I suppose he was really stupid for not putting in a formal bid on the CD, since if he had done that, I wouldn’t be able to screw him over.

Second case was this guy who also asked for a discount when buying CDs. I said OK, but then later on I found out that he was a top accountant who lived in landed property. So I made some snide remark like, wow I can’t believe that rich people like you are so bloody stingy. He got really angry for a while before I asked him, “do you want me to cancel your fucking order so that I can sell it to somebody else who will pay full price for it?” And after that he backed down, because he did want those CDs after all. Damn, I was behaving like the soup Nazi.

Third case was this person living in Changi (think she was an expat or something) and she bought a book from me. It didn’t get delivered to her, and she wrote a lot of angry emails to me, until I told her to fuck off and check with her local post office if they had it. Turned out that they did and she had to give me a groveling apology.

There was another case when somebody bought a CD from me over half.com. Now only people in the US are allowed to use half.com, but I listed a US address there, so I was still able to sell things on half.com. Somebody ordered something from me, and I sent it. After a really long time, they mailed me, and told me that they were getting a refund from me because they didn’t receive it. They were pretty rude about it, and they gave me negative feedback. A month or 2 later, I had that package returned to me, and apparently it got all the way to America and back, and the receiver turned it back, not realizing that it was the parcel that they ordered.

I thought that was extremely strange. Until I realized that the people who ordered it from me were also merchants who were using half.com to fill in their orders. Somebody would order something from them over the internet, probably at a higher price. Then they would order it from me over half.com and pocket the change.

I was still sore about that. 1 year later, they ordered stuff from me again. I told them that I was cancelling the order immediately, and if they didn’t like it, they could fuck off. Additionally, if they tried to do something funny, I would write a rude letter to their customer and said that it was from them. I would report them to eBay and ask them to investigate. This time, they meekly stepped down. That felt good.

Fifth case, somebody bought a book from me over ebay. I had accidently listed it twice, so somebody else bought a book from me. I had to disappoint one of them so I wrote and said that somebody else had snapped it up first and I ran out of inventory. It is a very common thing on eBay, but she posted negative feedback for me over that. So I wrote her back, using a lot of four letter words and told her never to use eBay again. I think she deserved it: a seller not having inventory is really not something that deserves negative feedback.

This took place after they made some changes in the feedback system of eBay: previously, buyers and sellers could give each other negative feedback. Now, sellers were not allowed to give buyers negative feedback. Otherwise I would have given her negative feedback. At that time, I was a seller of a lot of CDs, so this impacted me very badly. Later on, when I moved to the States, I became a net buyer instead of a net seller, so I had my revenge.

There was this seller who was very impatient with me. He emailed me 2 hours after the end of an auction (yes, they still use auctions in the US, as opposed to Singapore where they more often use buy it now) to pay up asap. Then as I was watching another of his items, he threatened to give me negative feedback (obviously he hadn’t been ebaying for a while so he didn’t know about the rule change). I got sick of receiving an email every day so I didn’t respond. I just paid up at the end of everything. He tried to give me negative feedback but obviously he couldn’t, so he was just stuck with saying that I took a little long to pay. At this point, I thought I was going to fuck him over and I did. I bought 3 items from him, and I gave him 3 negative feedbacks. Out of a total of 100 that he received in his lifetime, this was a pretty heavy penalty. I got an angry email from him soon afterwards, and he demanded to know why he got negative feedback since he had fulfilled his obligations. I told him it was because he was an asshole, and more importantly, I had to teach him the proper rules, otherwise sellers would never learn: I can take up to 2 weeks to pay for it, and if you don’t like it, you can fuck off. The only thing I compromised on was that the first draft of that last email to him had plenty of f words in it: I edited them all out when I finally wrote to him.

Then there was another problem with eBay: they censored my listings without telling me. Of course, ebay.com.sg is free, so I suppose they think they have the right to censor my listings. The most infamous case was when I put this album up for sale:
This was in 2000, when eBay was new and they hadn’t got all their shit together. So it got reclassified under porn, which was wrong. I wrote to them. I suppose that particular album gave them a headache. One day, I uploaded 200 listings onto eBay, and found out that when I did a search on my listings, only 196 appeared. I hunted down the missing 4, and I found out that some of the listings did not appear if they contained 4 letter words or something. Therefore I changed my listings to avoid spelling out those 4 letter words, only to find out that the last listing got censored for no explicable reason at all. Eventually I got mad and wrote an expletive laden letter to eBay to complain.

Then there was this other time I was in the states. I had 1 or 2 bank accounts from my time in the US, and some were frozen, some had old addresses. It took me a while to untangle everything and undo the damage. I used one of them to pay for a whole stack of CDs I bought from an eBay seller who was probably the person who pioneered the idea of listing all your CDs on sale and putting the initial price at 1 cent, so that everybody who saw them would bid the price up. I spent a fair amount of time bidding for those CDs, and sometimes I had to do some sniping. Sniping means you put in a bid 10 seconds before the auction closes, so that the previous high bidder gets caught unawares and you snatch the product from under his nose. eBay knows that it pisses people off, but they probably can’t be bothered to do anything with it. So I paid for those CDs with my Paypal. However I paid for them around the time that I was changing my address from the East Coast to the West Coast, and it got marked out as something suspicious. Eventually I wasn’t receiving my stuff, and so I wrote in to the seller. Her response was pretty shocking. She said, “your email address said that you are from Snowy Hill, you want me to ship the CDs to University of Mexico, and you have an Asian name. Don’t you expect me to suspect that something is wrong?” My God, that was one of the most racist things I had ever heard in the US. Unfortunately even if I had the power to give her 20 negative feedbacks, she gets around 100 feedbacks every day, so it very quickly got drowned out. So I was wasting time getting angry with her.

My interesting encounters as a merchant (if I may call myself that) aren’t limited to eBay. There was this fellar who set up a website to sell second hand books. I saw that website and I trusted it, and even before it was really user friendly, I spent a lot of time and effort using that klunky interface to put my books online. I had sold around 20 books that way so I wasn’t complaining. At the same time I noticed that they listed their own books online as well. Not only that, but when they featured their advertisements, they only put their own books in the advertisements.

There was one transaction where I bought a book from them off their website. For some reason, they listed it auction style, so I had to wait another 1 week for the auction to end before I got the book. So I wrote in to complain: why bother with the auction when your traffic is so low that I will never get a second bid? And why are all your advertised slots filled in with your own stuff? To my surprise, I got a very surly response, something to the effect of why are you so judgemental? Well it was my turn to get angry, and I said that first those were legitimate questions. And second, I was an early adopter of your website, and I placed my trust in that website much earlier than most other people. (At that time I was their biggest user of the website: I used to be ranked number 2 on this list). I was the one who got their website off the ground and you, you ingrateful wretch, are talking like that to me in this manner? Well she backed off. Eventually I had a chat with her husband, who was the real person setting up the website, and he seemed like a much nicer fellow than she was. I can't use their website now because I'm in the US. But I think their little project is surviving very well and I'm glad for them. It's surviving especially well now that so many of the top bookstores in Singapore have closed down and people are forced to buy books from second hand dealers now.

Well, there are a lot of interesting stories that take place when you’re in the business (actually it’s not a business – just a hobby of mine, together with actually listening to the music) of trading stuff. So it’s kinda interesting in its own ways.


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