U.S. consumers fall into two camps: Those who have used eBay, and everybody else. Most of the first group—whether regular users or not—are fairly enthusiastic about the experience. In a July phone interview, Laurence Toney of eBay said the company’s customers make the whole thing work and even lead the company in new directions.

“If you look at our history, you see an evolution,” he said. “Initially, the site was for people passionate about collecting; you could find Beanie Babies, for example. Then, these same people asked, ’Can we use this for other things?’ That took us into all kinds of products ... consumer electronics, TVs, appliances, even automobiles.

“Now we’re at the beginning of the next evolution. People who are comfortable using eBay for things in everyday life have asked, ’Why can’t we use this in our business?’”

Toney, who has been with with eBay for less than a year, is the senior category manager for industrial supplies and MRO (maintenance and repair organizations). Not only are electrical items part of his realm, but of the site’s more than 19,000 early July industrial/MRO listings, more than half were electrical items (counting motors and industrial automation equipment).

Why does electrical dominate? There are plenty of buyers of electrical items, including commercial building maintainers, industrial plants and government facilities. And, oh yes, contractors.

More than $1 billion of business-to-business transactions took place on eBay in 2002. Much of this was computers and other office equipment. In 2003’s first half, sales in Toney’s industrial domain ran at a $350 million annual rate. “We’re growing at about 100 percent over 2002 sales, month after month,” Toney noted. “Electrical, though, is growing at about 120 percent.”

The “electrical” category is not defined on eBay the way it is elsewhere. For example, it does not include testing and measurement equipment.

So the site’s sales of new and used Fluke meters, for example, are not included in the 10,000-plus electrical items noted. While he’s not responsible for them, Toney is aware of their status. He pointed out that a Fluke 187 digital multimeter, with a $390 list price, was for sale on the site at that moment—“new and in the box”—for $205.

Contractors could be buyers and sellers on eBay. Unused installable items could be posted for sale, as could used equipment. But can you trust sellers? “One of the things we do to mitigate risks for people who are new—new to eBay, or new to a particular seller—is to guide them to take a look at the people they might purchase from. We put together a system, called ‘Feedback Score.’ It’s the seller’s score, with ratings from previous buyers.”

Essentially, this boils down to electronic word of mouth, “but this word of mouth doesn’t fade away. It’s permanent,” Toney said.

Not many months ago, Graybar Electric had an eBay link on its Web home page that took a visitor to Graybar’s site on eBay. A recent Graybar site redesign moved the link off the home page and onto a “how to order” page.

On July 29, Graybar’s “store” was auctioning seven Hubbell products (18 items total), with posted price from $7.95 (for a luminaire) to $85 (for a 50W metal halide wallpack with photocell). Each was for sale in a seven-day auction. With the auction set to expire in 24 hours, none of the items had drawn a bid.

Graybar, the nation’s largest electrical distributor, is no doubt limited (by supplier agreements) as to auctions and sales prices. That’s not true of others selling on eBay; here’s a quick sample of what we saw on July 29:

• Lamps, lighting, ceiling fans: Listed for sale in this “consumer” category were 13,320 items. There were 1,510 chandeliers, 624 ceiling fans, 28 ceiling fixtures, 765 scones and wall lamps, 86 track light items, 1,534 “lighting accessories,” 1,613 “other” lighting items, and other categories of desk, floor, table and lava lamps. The business site’s “lamps, lighting” category, on the other hand, had 25 items.

• Tools: The business site had 419 drills, of various types, for sale. Doing a search (of the 1,200-plus consumer listings) on the word “drill,” we came up with 10.

• Industrial automation: This is where those drives and other items can be found, with 3,120 of them in our visit. The top-ranked item was an Allen-Bradley Controllogix processor module with a listed retail price of $2,430. While the seller’s identity was masked, the listing noted that this was a “never-used” module, “new in the box.” The minimum reserve bid was listed as $999; with more than a week to go, zero bids had been posted.

• Electrical equipment: Some 2,225 items were for sale under this heading. A single Square D 800A heavy duty safety switch (Series E4, Model HU367) was up for auction sale with a minimum bid (posted by seller Texan Reliable Products) of $1,999 and a “buy it now” price of $2,199. The listing claimed the item retailed for $4,800. With more than six days in a seven-day auction left, the item had not yet drawn a bid. EC

SALIMANDO is a Vienna, Va.-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. He can be reached at jsali@cris.com.