New Zealand's favourite auction website faces innovative competition.
Two months ago United States magazine Newsweek called online auctions a dying breed. More precisely, they were referring to the recent surge in demand for fixed-price sales on eBay the US version of Trade Me.
Apparently the American public is no longer interested in the thrill of the hunt and the heat of the auction battle. If true, it has taken 13 years of auctions for the public to tire of the format.
The same trend may occur in New Zealand. Admittedly Trade Me has not made the number of mistakes eBay has, and testament to its popularity, Trade Me has won the Netguide Best Trading Site award for the past three years.
New Zealand's favourite website, which is owned by the same company as The Press, has been running strong on the auction format for nine years, but now faces inspired and innovative competition.
Zillion was runner-up in the 2008 Netguide trading awards, and is the self-proclaimed auction alternative to Trade Me.
Three of the better features that emerge from the two pages of comparisons with Trade Me include the streamlined buying system, a "Wanted" list and that auction starting prices are the reserve prices.
The streamlined buying system is refreshingly simple. As soon as an item is won through auction or bought via Buy Now, the buyer is directed through a payment process that begins by selecting shipping method and address and ends with payment details.
The buyer is prompted at each stage of the process, circumventing the relatively long-winded back and forth exchanges that are familiar to Trade Me users.
Fortunately, there is still an option to contact the seller in case of communication breakdown.
Zillion's Wanted list, as the title suggests, allows users to post items they want to buy.
For serious sellers it can be an effective market-research tool to quickly survey the current demands of the market. The Wanted list ranges from the common to the extremely rare. Due to the nature of wanted lists, the success of posting is predominantly left to chance.
Sellers' fees on Zillion are also considerably cheaper than Trade Me, but for all of Zillion's progressive work in making auctions simpler, quicker and more cost effective, it lacks the critical mass to challenge Trade Me.
At the moment there are simply not enough users and auctions to offer the range and variety of products on Trade Me. Unfortunately it is an endemic problem when there is one entrenched and dominant competitor in the market.
Sella, second runner-up in Netguide's 2008 awards, boasts no fees to list or sell an item. Sella's free policy also extends to property, motoring and flatmate listings, making it a highly attractive option for those wishing to start buying or selling quickly.
Because there are no fees for selling there is no accreditation fee, which in the case of Trade Me and Zillion is used to pay for listings and listing features.
Sella, formerly sellmefree.co.nz, is a slick-looking site, borrowing a lot from the Web 2.0 aesthetic.
It uses a thumbnail view as default rather than the list view favoured by other auction sites, and overall the site is a pleasure to browse.
Because there are no fees for images, every product is accompanied by at least one photo. The interface is also user-friendly most auction options, such as watching and bidding, are one-click jobs that do not take the user away from the gallery screen, which is great for searching through a large number of items quickly.
Again, like Zillion and the rest of Trade Me's smaller competitors, there is a paucity of users.
Happy Sheep is a classified site that combines event notifications, flatmates and flat rentals, a personals section, jobs and services and a for-sale section.
Happy Sheep has borrowed the vast majority of its features from its immensely successful American counterpart Craigslist and European equivalent Gum Tree.
Happy Sheep is at the forefront of the movement towards localisation. After registering, users are asked to pick the city closest to them from the five major centres, ensuring that the classifieds available for viewing are relevant to the user.
Happy Sheep has the unique ability to allow users to build a real community around it, which is the real strength of the site. Like Sella, posting an advertisement is free.
Unfortunately being yet another new venture, Happy Sheep is yet to acquire the support it will need to become genuinely useful.
Unsurprisingly, Auckland has the highest listing numbers (339 last Friday). Christchurch had 121 last Friday.
Buy Sell and Exchange is the online incarnation of the Buy Sell and Exchange classified magazine, and has a firm focus on Canterbury.
The site has more than 17,000 different classified advertisements for the Canterbury region.
For a site that relaunched on July 1, this is an impressive pick-up rate and can be attributed to its strong base of print customers from 17 years of publication.
Advertising on the online Buy Sell and Exchange is free and advertisers can post unlimited photos to accompany their listings.
The Buy, Sell, and Exchange has real potential to become a force locally and is looking to expand nationally.
At the moment the major downside to all of the Trade Me alternatives is a lack of public support, a factor that will change as the brands become more recognisable.
All markets benefit from a number of competitors and there is certainly no shortage of ideas, features and improvements for the online trading industry in New Zealand.
* Jamie Hanton is a Christchurch technology writer.
- The Press