EBay Shopping: A Hard Habit to Break

Ever since eBay exploded into a cultural phenomenon in the past decade, many frequent users have wished they knew how to quit the online auction house.

Truth be told, eBay addicts often don't want to give up their habits of trolling the trading Web site for that great deal or obscure collectible they can't find anywhere else.

"There are a lot of people who are addicted to eBay," said Jim "Griff" Griffith, who works at eBay as the "dean of education" and authored "The Official eBay Bible."

The typically eBay-obsessed person, he said, "tends to be someone who a) loves to shop and b) loves to hunt, loves the treasure-hunt aspect to shopping."

The Internet auction house has traditionally been a place to find junk of all kinds, though the company has made efforts to increase the quality of its merchandise.

But numerous fans still know it lovingly as the world's largest flea market.

"It's the best place to buy crap. It's the best place to sell crap," said Rich Foulk, 38, a frequent eBay user from Ambler, Pa.

The most recent "crap" Foulk bought was a set of watches for $10. He's already sold two of them for a total of $40 and plans to auction off more.

The Web site, founded in 1995, has become the virtual garage sale for bidders around the world, with 181 million registered users.

Many of them are men, though the company is tight-lipped about the demographic breakdown of visitors to the site. Many, like Foulk, are young married fathers.

"There's an aspect to auction that involves battle," Griffith said. "That's really appealing to guys. Men love bidding against each other. It's a way of beating each other up in a nice way."

If eBay buying gets out of hand, users can sell unwanted items — which is a plus for those who live with eBay nuts and have to put up with a growing mountain of trinkets bought on the site.

"I want him to get crap out of the house," said Foulk's wife, 34-year-old engineer Helga Foulk, "so I'm happy when he sells stuff on there, but I'm not happy when he buys stuff."

She doesn't classify her husband as an eBay addict, exactly, but says he's close.

"Let's just say it would be very hard for him to give it up," she said. "It's like beer. He's not an alcoholic, but he drinks beer. He likes beer."

Part of the draw of the Internet auction house is the fact that competing for a desired item feels a little like playing blackjack or the slot machines in Atlantic City or Vegas.

"It's like gambling," said Rich Foulk, who works as a teacher when he's not perusing eBay.

But eBay die-hards say bidding is even better than gambling.

"It's almost like betting on sports, except you're betting on something you'll own," said singer/songwriter Josh Kelley, a former eBay addict. "You love it when you win."

Unlike gambling, however, success on eBay isn't unattainable, and winning isn't random. Frequent users can learn how to get better at bidding the more they visit the site.

"EBay is different from gambling. Gambling means taking risks, where you might lose really big, no matter how much you play," said Paul Boutin, a technology writer for Slate magazine. "EBay lets you be in control. The more time you spend on it, the smarter you get on how to work the system."

Those passionate about eBay generally began their love affairs when they found things on the site they'd been looking for everywhere else, but to no avail.

For Kelley, who has written a song about eBay, it was a four-track Tascam portable music studio, which he bought for $125 during his freshman year in college. For Griffith, it was a chip for IBM's ancient PS/2 computer format, for which he paid $8.

"It was something I'd been looking for for six months," Griffith said. "Having it show up in a place where I could pay a lot less than I was willing to pay for it was an instant hook. I did bid on it and I did win it. I don't remember life before that."

The high comes all over again a few days later when the coveted item arrives in the mail.

"That postal guy is constantly delivering you presents," Griffith said. "It's like Christmas every day."

And for many, the eBay experience has replaced the flea market or the garage sale because of the convenience of buying and selling on the Web site, the selection of goods available and the wide reach.

EBay regulars say they like the fact that they're doing online trades with real people rather than with a computer.

"Who wants to have a yard sale anymore, unless you want to meet your neighbors?" said Boutin. "You can get more money on eBay for less work. It gets people to empty out their closets. EBay has changed the question from 'Will I ever find this thing?' to 'How much am I willing to pay for it?'"

But one psychologist says eBay addiction is real — and is no laughing matter.

"There's a growing number of eBay addicts," said Dr. Kimberly Young, director of the Center for Online Addiction. "Usually at the point they come to me, there are marital problems. They've lied to their husband or wife about how much they've taken out of the 401(k). It's a real problem."

Young said it's common for true eBay addicts — for whom the auction Web site has become a compulsion — to dip into retirement and children's college funds or take out a second mortgage to support their habit.

They're typically lying to loved ones about how they're spending all that time and money. One woman who sought help from Young was fired from her job over her eBay use at work.

"I've had people lose $400,000 or $500,000," said Young. "The element with eBay that I find with clients is the issue of winning, like gambling: 'I beat out this other person.'"

Though there isn't a set amount of time or money one has to spend in order to qualify as an eBay addict, people who have an actual problem are those who can't stop spending money excessively and are lying about and trying to conceal what they're doing, according to Young.

She said she has never spoken to the company itself about the eBay addiction she sees in some of her clients.

"It's just an unintended consequence of the technology," she said.