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Amazon auction launch boosts shares

Shares continue to climb today at the online retailer delights Wall Street by opening its auction service.

    Shares of Amazon.com rose again today on news the company launched its online auctions, a move that could drastically alter the competitive landscape in one of the fastest-growing areas of e-commerce.

    Shares closed at 164.6875, up 15.0625 on the day. Yesterday, the stock rose almost 8 percent on the auction news and Amazon's investment in e-commerce site Pets.com.

    Amazon has been steadily expanding the selection of goods it sells, and raised $1.25 billion in a debt offering last month to finance its transformation from a bookseller into a retail powerhouse. It began by simply adding new products, such as music and video, to its store, but has moved into other areas through strategic investments.

    The site, which includes person-to-person and small-merchant auctions, includes thousands of items for auction by more than 100 merchants. One of the items up for sale is a chair from the dining room of the "Titanic" set.

    "Anybody can post anything in 800 different categories," Curry said. Those categories, Curry added, do not include firearms or "hardcore pornography," but do include alcoholic beverages.

    eBay's profitable model, and its almost 3 million users, have made auctions a "must-have" element for e-commerce sites, according to industry analysts. Yahoo added auctions to its portal site last year, and just last week, eBay and America Online signed a four-year, $75 million pact that will place eBay auctions across AOL's Web sites and proprietary services.

    Amazon's decision to add auctions to its successful book, video, and music businesses ends weeks of speculation about where the company, which raised $1.25 billion in a debt offering last month, would go next.

    On Wall Street, rumors have circulated that the company may team up with popular auction site eBay. Curry said Amazon has developed its auction capability in-house, and is not working with eBay.

    On Friday, analyst Alan Braverman of NationsBanc Montgomery Securities suggested that Amazon.com may add an online auction service to its offerings. Amazon.com issued a one-sentence press release about its online auction plans late yesterday.

    Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos is hoping to emulate the success of eBay, which has seen its shares rise ten-fold in the past six months.

    Amazon's auction service could be as big as eBay's current business by the end of the year, Merrill Lynch analyst Henry Blodget said. eBay generated $47.35 million in sales last year, compared with $610 million for Amazon.

    "Amazon's advantage is that it has 8 million customers versus 2 million that eBay has, and it has a proven ability to switch into other categories," Blodget said.

    The auction service is a companion to the retailer's "one-click shopping" brand.

    Amazon integrates auctions into its existing stores by rotating relevant auction offers through pages as an individual shopper visits the site. Auction offers are targeted to shoppers based on their interests and buying histories.

    In addition, Amazon guarantees any purchases under $250, meaning that if a buyer pays for an item and the seller doesn't deliver it, Amazon will pay up to $250. But individual sellers are still responsible to ship their own sold goods--Amazon doesn't handle shipping.

    Like eBay, Amazon.com charges sellers a sliding percentage of the sales price.

    The company is taking a strict stance on fraud, and will require credit card information from all buyers and sellers. "That creates some accountability rather than anonymity," Curry said. "To the extent we're providing a trustworthy auction experience, it will increase the number of people participating."

    There have been some cases of fraud on eBay, which does not require that members provide credit card numbers to participate in auctions. The site's Verified eBay User program, however, provides proof of identity for those members willing to provide additional personal information, including a Social Security number. Amazon auction participants are able to rate other members, a feature eBay introduced.

    Bloomberg contributed to this report.