The inanity of auctions

You might have seen the story recently of an Enid Blyton going for $1500 or so, chap found it in a garage sale in NZ, put it on line, everybody went crazy, fuelled by the kind of media reports best ignored. It was signed, but nonetheless, its ‘real’ value can’t have been more than $300-$500.

What you won’t necessarily know is the end to the story. All the bidders pulled out: Book owner cross as sale dips into fiction. The predictable punning headline: when is that going to go out of fashion. P-lease make it soon!

We’ve all seen live auctions with interesting results due to the hotheadedness of the moment, or some special circumstance, such as a feud between two bidders – it happens, really. But online? Presumably the same sort of hotheadedness no longer applies and the crazy results are due to the fact that they can always be retracted.

The problem with Paypal

Early in January, Paypal, not for the first nor last time, was reported for practices so mind-boggling in their consequences that I continue to think we do the right thing in not being part of their organisation.

The story goes like this, quoting from Digital Trends

Erica was in the process of selling an antique violin that predated World War II, to a buyer in Canada for $2,500. But when the buyer received the violin, they disputed the label on the instrument. Erica asserts that this is a common thing in the world of antique instruments — and a quick Google search can verify that it is indeed commonplace. On top of that, she also confirmed that it was appraised and verified by a legitimate luthier.

The buyer wanted a refund, which Erica was willing to provide, but then PayPal got involved. In order to issue a refund, PayPal demanded that the violin be destroyed, as the company had somehow decided that the instrument was counterfeit–despite any actual investigation into the piece itself.

The buyer then sent Erica a picture of the destroyed instrument. She contacted PayPal, who strongly defended its actions. In the Terms of Service for PayPal, there is a line that reads “PayPal may also require you to destroy the item and provide evidence of its destruction.”

In many ways, this may seem like a justifiable move on PayPal’s part to protect its customers, at least until you start to think about it. First, PayPal is in no way a legitimate source for the authentication of antique violins, especially since the bulk of its interaction was handled by phone and email.

Second, for some reason PayPal immediately seemed to side with the buyer. From an impartial point of view, there is no particular reason to assume the buyer is telling the truth while the seller is not. Perhaps the PayPal reps just trust Canadians.

Third, even if this were a scam there were better ways to handle it, none of which include PayPal anointing itself as the arbiter of a product very few people in the world are experts on. Now, without actually having the shattered violin analyzed by an expert, there is no way to confirm that Erica is telling the truth. But even if she was trying to sell a counterfeit, it was not PayPal’s place to decide that, especially without concrete evidence.

If Erica is telling the truth, thanks to PayPal she is now out a $2,500 violin, and a rare antique has been destroyed. All because of a policy that had no business being cited in this situation.

PayPal has said that it is investigating the matter. end of quote.

All of these sorts of sites operate on the basis that the customer is right and oddly, the customer is the buyer, not the seller, even though it is the seller who is the actual paying customer of the organisation. Indeed often the organisations only exist because of the good will of the seller in deciding that organisation should be supported rather than another.

I do not find this acceptable with either cap on.

As a buyer I stopped using ebay long ago as their sellers are treated atrociously. I watched seller after seller, good people who I had spent money with over a period of years, pull out of ebay as a consequence of this business of overprotecting the customer whilst giving no such comfort to the seller and eventually I wrote to them and said I was boycotting their site until their practices changed. I had spent what I considered to be a lot of money on that site: tens of thousands of dollars, but I did not even merit a response, let alone a change of practice.

As a seller we find ourselves on these sites, giving them their good name, whilst getting nothing in return for that. In the case of an issue with a customer who had ordered a book via a large online database and fraudulently attempted to get a huge discount on it, at no point during the unfolding drama did that organisation offer any support whatsoever: we were the presumed criminals. As a business who has operated since the mid-1970s with a fine reputation, this was hard to take. Only when we were actually threatened with violence by this man did the organisation take any interest in our position. Eventually, in order to continue his attempted scam of us, he sent us back what he told the organisation was the book we’d sent him: a heavy, expensive art book, for a refund of the book and shipping: he claimed the book had been damaged in transit and we had disputed this from the start. If you are a customer reading this, you will know that our packaging is more or less indestructible, even if one was setting out to cause damage.

In fact the customer did not send back this book, but a book instead which wasn’t worth so much as a dollar. I guess his idea was that this was his word against ours, that the organisation would continue to treat us, not him, as the wrongdoer and would come down on the side of him. We, after all, had no way of proving that he hadn’t sent back the book. Maybe we were lying ourselves. It is hard to believe that in this situation that the seller has no fallback whatsoever.

Ah, but we did, we realised in the end. The book the customer had sent back weighed only a fraction of the book we’d sent him. We still had the insurance form from the initial transaction, so we had proof that this couldn’t be the book we had sent. Phew! We ‘won’ but only at the expense of much time and angst and a feeling from then on that those sorts of organisations are not our friend. This is a shame, given that we (and others like us) made them what they are in the first place!

End of gripe.