Thursday, September 27, 2007

N+1 and eBay

Ask any avid cyclist about "N+1" and I bet they'll know what you're talking about. "N+1" is the answer to the question, "How many bikes do I need?", assuming the number of bikes you have now is "N".

N+1 has led me to my first experience in buying something on eBay. Why waste time figuring out how eBay works by buying a shirt or a toaster when you can dive in head first and start bidding a couple thousand smackers on a shiny new bike?

Here's what I learned about eBay, particularly when it comes to buying something like a high quality bike.
There are a lot of bikes for sale on eBay. It takes awhile to sort through the list of hundreds of bikes to filter it down to a manageable list of bikes you're actually interested in. Then you need to look not just at the bike, but at the seller, too. Being new to the eBay experience I was pretty leery about who was doing the selling. When I came across a great bike, but the lack of details in the description made it clear that the seller knew nothing about bikes, I steered away.

I think an eBay seller of something costly and specialized, like bikes, would be well served to break through the inherent anonymity of the web and tell their prospective buyers exactly who they are. When I finally got serious about bidding on a bike, I was a bit suspect of the seller. He had a very limited history in doing business on eBay, so there was very little feedback for me to use to judge his character. To me he was just "xyz1234" (fictitious as to protect the anonymity of the anonymous). He'd bought a few things on eBay in the past, but had never sold anything. Now, he had several bikes for sale. Not much to go by, but he gave just enough details on his bike descriptions that I trusted he at least knew bikes. But, still, I was a little nervous. I was committing to send a couple thousand bucks to a guy I didn't know and trust that he was going to send me the brand new bike I saw in the picture, professionally assembled and packaged to arrive at my doorstep without damage.

Once I won the auction, I got access to a bit more info on the seller, like his real name and email address. Through some clever Googling, I was able to figure out that "xyz1234" is a real guy named Mark who owns a bike shop in Colorado. I was able to find the website for his bike shop, where I saw his picture with this lovely wife Kathleen. I learned he is referred to in the shop as "The Head", and his wife is "The Real Boss". Without any detriment to Mark's privacy, I learned that the guy I was dealing with is a real bike guy, a community businessman with a reputation to uphold. It's not a lot of information, but it's a lot more than I had when I was bidding, and it's the kind of information that gave me dramatically more confidence that the seller was likely to be a trustworthy, stand-up kind of guy.

Imagine if all the bidders for his items on eBay had that added level of confidence beforehand. It would go a long way to attracting more bidders, and higher winning bids. If I was ever going into online selling, I'd take this experience with me and take advantage of it.

I also learned about "reserves" on eBay. A seller can set a "reserve" which is the lowest price the seller is willing to accept for the item. The problem is, the reserve amount is unknown to the bidders. The result is a lot of wasted time. People start bidding at a fraction of the value of the item, and the system tells them they are the high bidder but the reserve has not been met. To win the item you have to be highest bidder and your bid must be at least as high as the reserve. Until the reserve is met, all the bidding is just a waste of time. I think sellers would be much better served by forgetting about setting a reserve, and instead simply set the starting bid at that price so the buyers know where the real bidding needs to begin. I think a seller who has set a competitive and reasonable starting bid is more likely to attract serious buyers earlier in the auction, which is likely to lead to an actual bidding war and a higher winning bid. With reserves, most of the auction time is spent by bidders just nudging their way up to the reserve, and by the time the reserve is met most of the auction time has already passed, leaving little time for the auction to attract a bidding war above the reserve. That's what I think, anyway.

But, as it is, I think I got a good deal on a great bike. The lowest prices I've been able to find on this bike at the big online retailers is $600 to $800 more than my winning bid on eBay. So, according to my man Mark, my N+1 bike is set to be shipped out of Colorado today.

2007 Scott CR1 Pro, my "N+1"

But, why? Why on earth do I need a new bike? Because right now, I only have "N", that's why. Seriously, though, what I wanted was an actual road bike. I already have two bikes you might think of as road bikes, but each of them has a very specific geometry for triathlon, commonly referred to as a tri bike. My original tri bike is now my dedicated "trainer bike". It pretty much stays in my basement, attached to my trainer for indoor riding during times of foul weather, like winter. My newer tri bike, much nicer and more comfortable than my first one, is the one I use, and will continue to use, for triathlon racing. Tri bikes are great for triathlon racing. They are designed to put the rider in a very aerodynamic position, allowing them to minimize the key nemesis to going fast on a bike...wind resistance. But, for just regular road riding, exploring, off season training, or riding in groups with other riders, a tri bike leaves a bit to be desired. That aero position is not the most comfortable for long rides, particularly in the, uh, crotch region. And, if you ever ride in a group, other riders view those aero bars sticking out in front of a tri bike as weapons, like a knight's jousting lance. If a crash were to happen in a group, they don't want to see those aero bars heading for their internal organs at 30 mph.

Not that I do a lot of group riding, but, well....N+1 requires some reasons, right?

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