- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Unwanted presents piling up at online-auction houses

T he chocolate fondue set seemed fine, complete with a ceramic bowl, forks, iron base and candle. Yet its owner ruthlessly posted the unwanted Christmas gift on EBay two days after the holiday with the comment, “Not really our thing.” The online-auction industry is hoping January brings a wave of such goodies to the Internet, even if that means encouraging the rapid, unsentimental disposal of Aunt Tillie’s gift.

In early signs that consumers are starting to buy into the idea that it’s OK to resell what you receive but don’t really want, Yahoo Auctions saw a 19 percent spike in listings the week after Christmas. The I Sold It chain, one of many EBay drop-off businesses helping people sell stuff on the online site, claims sales in its established stores rose 40 percent that week.

Overall, online retail had a big holiday season, with sales rising 30 percent from the previous year to a total of $30.1 billion, according to a report by Goldman, Sachs & Co., Nielsen/NetRatings and Harris Interactive. With more consumers comfortable buying online, auction-site operators believe more people will consider selling there, as well.

And they have not been shy about suggesting consumers dump the duds. At Over-stock.com, a banner display asks, “Polyester sequined pants not your style?” A quick click takes the user to information on how to sell unwanted holiday gifts on the Web store.

In late December, EBay put out survey results that claimed more than half of Americans admitted to giving away unwanted gifts and suggesting that selling the items on EBay might be a polite alternative without the risk of getting caught.

The idea of being discovered making money off presents holds no fear for some. A search of EBay listings turned up 40 items that claimed to be unwanted Christmas gifts. That didn’t include several gift cards up for sale.

One Iowa mother claimed to be selling a T-shirt, complete with tags, that was given to her 17-year-old daughter by a grandmother. “I am not sure of its age, as grandma tends to pull gifts from her attic,” she wrote.

“Wanita1221” from Rexburg, Idaho, had nothing bad to say about the woman’s slack suit that she was offering. With the typos typical of many auction-site listings, she wrote, “This bid is for a gorgeouse creamy white European suit set. This suit is elegent and comfortable. Tags say its a size 13 but Im a ten and it fits great.” Maybe she was selling it for a friend.

More than one mystery present still in its wrappings was up for bid under the EBay tree. And more than one seller claimed the item was given to a wife from someone she would rather not get anything from. Some sellers claimed they would give the money to charity while others merely played up the treasure-hunt aspect.

Online-auction professionals generally advise buyers to be wary of such offers, even if they sound like a fun take on the office grab bag. It can be hard to tell if such offers truly represent a shot at a valuable gift or are just scams.

It also can be hard to tell just how much of the merchandise offered for sale online after the holidays comes from rejected gifts and how much is just items found in the garage during a New Year’s cleaning. “We don’t take anybody’s deposition or anything,” said Ken Sully, chief executive officer of ISold It, a Pasadena, Calif., company that has more than 160 franchise stores.

Bob Irwin, owner of the ISold It franchise in Glen Burnie, Md., said the store has received dozens of unwanted gifts.

“It does happen after the Christmas holiday because the items are generally new and boxed. They do retain their value well enough so that the seller may be able to get maybe 65 to 70 cents on the dollar,” Mr. Irwin said. “They actually do sell quite well.”

Most of the unwanted gifts are collectible items such as Lenox china or Department 56 Snowbabies and other figurines.

“Things of that nature are very attractive, high-quality pieces, but they’re not for everybody,” Mr. Irwin said. “Sometimes people buy things because they like them, not necessarily because the expected recipient likes them.”

A trend seems to be developing in which auction traffic rises just after strong periods of retail sales, said Rob Solomon, vice president of Yahoo Shopping Group. Online-auction sale totals likely won’t rival the numbers produced by preholiday retail, of course. Some people actually liked their presents.

• Washington Times staff writer Kara Rowland contributed to this article, which was distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

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