Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Penny Auction Paradox or Why Users Flock to Swoopo

In earlier posts I began to flesh out ideas of safety in numbers and group dynamics surrounding the penny auctionosphere ("penny auctionosphere" term coined here and now by me: Thursday, July 30, 2009) and how the economic idea of pooling is present and how this concept makes auctions safer but also harder and more expensive to win.

The idea that the QWERTY keyboard, Blu-ray dvd players and English as the language of business have evolved to be (virtually) universally accepted is because certain products or situations require that all users behave the same way; this is the idea of pooling. The QWERTY keyboard has been proven not to be the most efficient layout of keys for quick typing, so why don't we change to a more efficient layout? The reason is that re-training millions of people to use the new keyboard would be more trouble than the gains are worth. Why Blu-ay as the standard for high definition DVD? Because electronics companies don't want to have to make a DVD player for each new format (remember HD DVD, It lost), consumers don't want to have to worry about getting the correct disk from Blockbuster, and content providers don't want to worry about making the correct number of each format, exc., exc. English has become the "universal" language because the world needed one and as the largest economy and most influential country, the US probably seemed like a good choice. I don't know the specifics on how English came to be the "universal" language, but it did, maybe it has to do with all that colonization. In penny auctions, a kind of pooling is also starting to take place. However, this pooling is less like Blu-ray and more like Ebay and Craigslist, perhaps the two best examples of "e-pooling." If you want to sell your old coffee table you post it on Craigslist. All people who want to sell old furniture sell on CL and all who want to buy also look there. There is no other practical way to sell used furniture anymore (newspaper classified are dead). Ebay is the same way.

With penny auctions the market is still highly fragmented (37 sites in the US and counting at last check) however, Swoopo is without doubt the standout industry leader. But this is an industry still in its infancy, so will the kind of expansion we have seen over the past year continue, or will one or several penny auctions come to dominate the industry? I think one would be hard pressed to argue that penny auctions require the type of pooling seen in Craigslist and Ebay, however there are benefits to going with the industry leader that are becoming more apparent.

Users flock to Swoopo because the site has a professional layout and is perceived to be trustworthy, especially when compared to many of their peers who's penny auction sites look like they are being run out of a garage in Mexico. I won't name names here but just go down the list in the directory on and you will see what I mean about quality. With Swoopo, users can feel safe that they will get their products and that the site is not manipulating or gaming the system on the back-end to cheat them - others have been accused of doing so. In this sense, Swoopo represents a type of pooling, one based on safety in numbers.

Yet the concept of safety in numbers in the penny auctionosphere is kind of ironic because the more users who to go to Swoopo, the harder and more expensive it becomes to win auctions. There are deals to be had at the lesser known sites, like RockyBid selling a car for little more than $1, but there is also risk. So does herd mentality make sense in penny auctions? Sure, humans always do what others are doing when they know no better, but the key to being successful at penny auctions is finding the credible and less popular sites. How does one do this? I just analyze the market, I don't play the game.

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