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Local, niche auctions aim at eBay

With eBay beset by size-related problems, smaller auction sites aim at particular locales or particular products.

    Auction sites that target geographic regions or specific markets, such as stamps or rare books, are cropping up all over the Web in an attempt to carve niches out of eBay's dominance.

    Recently, EBay's rapid growth has created some capacity problems for the site. Network and hardware upgrades have kept many members from reaching the site during the last two weeks and message boards are rife with complaints about the declining quality of eBay auctions.

    Offering a haven from the gigantic, virtual flea market that eBay has become are sites like Mobilia.com, which caters to car enthusiasts, and Bargoon, a Canadian company that is quietly launching local auction sites.

    Eric Killorin, the chief executive of Mobilia.com, says eBay's popularity among collectors was a wake-up call. He saw the collectibles trading on eBay as a direct threat to the classified ads business of his magazine, Mobilia, and prompted him to launch the auction site. Mobilia is targeted at collectors who find it eBay increasingly unwieldy.

    As an example, Killorin says, a search for the word "Lotus" on eBay turns up almost 470 auctions, from copies of Lotus 1-2-3 software to lotus vases. Lost in the shuffle is the one item related to Lotus automobiles, a 1967 issue of Car and Driver with a feature on the Lotus Europa.

    Mobilia.com is strictly for the auto collectibles enthusiast, and Killorin intends it to stay that way. "The broad-based online auction is a rummage sale, with a lot of junk, inferior sellers, and dispassionate buyers," he said.

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The high price of auctionsBargoon, which runs auction sites for the Canadian cities of Halifax and Toronto, is also hoping to ride eBay's popularity but combine it with the security of trading with people in a local area. The advantage of trading locally "is that you can drive over to a person's house and have a look at the item" you're buying, said Andrew Wilson, director of business development for Bargoon, which is based in Halifax. Bargoon also includes listings for homes, land, and commercial real estate.

    Bargoon is hardly a threat to eBay. The Halifax site is little more than a month old, and Toronto was just added in February. But it can list certain items, such as homes, land, and commercial real estate, that make little sense in an environment like eBay. And Wilson said the ultimate goal is turn Bargoon into a local portal, by teaming up with newspapers and radio stations to provide not only auctions but a wide variety of content.

    Bargoon has formidable competition in CityAuction, which is owned by TicketMaster Online-CitySearch. CityAuction allows users to search for an item only within a local auction site, or nationally. "A local market has a community that a national market may not have," said Andy Rebele, who founded CityAuction. [CityAuction is partner of Snap, which is partly owned by CNET, publisher of News.com.]

    But Rebele doesn't agree that eBay's transformation from a community of collectors to an "everyman's site" is a bad thing, and he attributes user complaints to sour grapes from people who have unsuccessfully tried to auction inferior goods. To beat eBay, CityAuction is trying to provide a better experience, he said, like allowing users to view auctions by location and including subtitles that give users a better sense of the product up for bid before they click to enter the auction.

    Ultimately, Killorin believes, people will gravitate toward Web sites for the same reasons they read magazines and join clubs. "You'll go to a place that caters to your sense of community, which is lacking on eBay," he said.