eBay Reservations Triggered By Futureshop

Ever pick up a book that you love at the beginning, and then, the more you read, the more you realize that you don’t love it, and that in fact you completely and violently disagree with the core values upon which it’s based?

Such was my experience with Futureshop: How the New Auction Culture Will Revolutionize the Way We Buy, Sell, and Get the Things We REALLY Want by Daniel Nisanoff. When I initially started reading this book many months ago, I found the message incredibly smart. Nissanoff, a successful entrepreneur whose company Portero helps sell luxury goods online, caught my attention with his argument that the continued explosion of activity on eBay will have huge implications on the way people buy, own, and sell products that have high degrees of emotional attachment, particularly high-end branded products. “Auction culture” will grow in influence. In fact, this Inc. article builds on Nissanoff’s point.

As more individuals become comfortable buying (and key to his argument is that many more will be more comfortable selling) on eBay, Nissanoff says, owners will shift to thinking about their ownership of things as increasingly temporary. An initial retail price for an item merely represents the down payment for some months of use, at which point a large percentage of the initial purchase can be recouped through the liquid market that is eBay. Therefore people can consider the true cost of ownership to be far less expensive than previously considered, and they can become more steward-like with their products, rather than considering them to be disposable.

Intriguing—especially for me, since I’ve been selling goods on eBay lately and find the whole world fascinating. And yet I found myself turned off by Futureshop as I made my way through the book. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at first. But the more of this book that I read, the more that my sense of discomfort over the pure lust for big-ticket luxury branded goods grew. This is the dark side of Trading Up, writ large. The prevailing ethos of this book ultimately became too loud and powerful for me to ignore. The principle that eventually repelled me is that we construct our identities and self-esteem through the branded goods we purchase.

Once again I confess to having fallen under the spell of eBay myself, albeit on a personal amateur level. Other writers have touted the communitarian, self-organizing principles: the agora as a huge civil community where individuals pursue their passion, network with like-minded souls, and lay the basis for a benign online community. I’ve really enjoyed learning to sell stuff on the site, and have been constantly surprised at the benevolence of others to date.

But Nissanoff’s awe is much more about the goods, baby. He’s a reverse-Grinch: in his world, it’s always Xmas, only without the religion or goodwill. It’s all about the toys. He touts a world of mindless consumerism in which you build your self-esteem and identity through the things you buy. Consider this passage: “Temporary ownership is an exciting new way of thinking abut our connections to objects, a way of thinking that will empower us to enrich our lives by making purchases that we find more satisfying overall.

“Embracing temporary ownership means just saying no to second best and letting yourself reach for the things that will thrill you the way your favorite birthday gifts did when you were a child or the way you feel when you go shopping for a new outfit or a new piece of technology. In this new culture, you can have that thrill over and over and over again, and have permission to do so—guilt free.”

Or this material touting the benefits of second-hand luxury goods making their appearance on eBay: “Now fashion- and budget-conscious consumers can live the LV (Louis Vuitton) lifestyle before they have the disposable income to fully support it, and they’ll be well-indoctrinated customers when they can finally combine ownership with the experience of buying a bag in an LV store.”

I guess that my response to this can be boiled down to….eeuw.

The book that appealed to me was the one with an intriguing message about the way that the web-enabled growth of eBay has changed, in what could be an important manner, the nature of our relationship to our things. What were once disposable items can now have a much fuller second and third life, supported by a cool new ecosystem in which individuals meet and swap over common interests. The book that repelled me was the one that took over—the unseemly homily towards what Dirty Rotten Scoundrels lyricist David Yazbek calls “Great Big Stuff.” Mindless veneration of Hermes Birkin bags, Rolex watches, and yes, a Duxiana mattress that the author bought for $7500, leading him to say, “seven years later I think of it as one of the best investments I ever made.”

Now, in all fairness, Nissanoff does point out the potential benefits of the trends he describes, one of which is the potential for secondary ownership to provide opportunities to high-end brand wanna-buys. “One of the most appealing—and also the most economically powerful—features of the new robust secondary-goods marketplace is that more consumers will be able to own the higher-quality goods because they can buy previously owned versions or get money back from selling them after a few years of use.”

Still and all, this hopeful assertion about turning back the continued gap between super-wealthy and the rest of us feels so trivial when I think that last week the Nobel peace prize was awarded to Muhammad Yunus for his work on microlending—the practice of doling out loans smaller than $100 as a means of teaching entrepreneurship and self-sufficiency in some of the poorest regions of the world.

Granted, it’s profoundly unfair to compare anybody’s work to the guy who just won the Nobel Peace Prize. So my point is simply this, and it’s a personal one. There are times when my excitement about an entrepreneurial dynamic feels quite naïve in retrospect, and this is certainly one of them. There are times when we get so excited about the big potential changes wrought by new markets that we lose sight of what really matters, and this book feels like that to me. The same capitalism that can create small communities of heretofore impoverished individuals who support one another in creating small but robust wealth is the system that strengthens the markets for mattresses that cost more than what it would take to feed a village for a year.

Posted by tom at October 17, 2006 12:43 PM
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