In a world where wired buyers can peruse everything from a $25 million Picasso on the Christies.com auction block to a $5 Pez dispenser on eBay, it is now possible to sneak a peek at what folks across town will be selling on their front lawns.
Until recently, those wishing to clear out their attics, basements and garages could advertise in the classified section of newspapers, post signs throughout the neighborhood and hope for the best.
Today, however, even this most basic form of commerce is being transformed by the Internet. Individuals use newspaper classifieds to direct readers to their personal Web sites, which often feature more detailed merchandise lists and even photos of what's for sale.
In recent months two commercial sites were launched to match buyers and sellers of household effluvia ranging from water beds and fondue pots to crafts and collectibles.
Yardsales.com, which calls itself ''the local used goods marketplace,'' officially unveiled its Washington-area Web site last week after a test run in Atlanta. The idea for the site was born of frustration four years ago, after chief executive Peter Mechlin tried to help his widowed mother unload goods accumulated over 40 years from her Chevy Chase, Md., home.
''She had a lot of great stuff that was useful to other people, but my (advertising) options were so limited,'' said Mechlin, a former Coldwell Banker commercial sales vice president.
Last January Priceline.com's Perfect YardSale debuted in Atlanta, its only market thus far. Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes kicked things off by hawking a used color television. Perfect YardSale is part of Priceline's extended auction family, which includes airline tickets, hotel rooms, gasoline, cars, groceries and phone service.
Representing a new category of e-commerce, Yardsales.com and Perfect YardSale aim at uniting sellers and buyers of used exercise bikes, stereo equipment, furniture, clothing, toys, camping gear, linens, wedding gifts and other detritus of modern life.
This pair of Web yard-sale players doesn't yet seem to worry the two newspapers most directly affected -- the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where both sites were launched, and The Washington Post -- although their classified ads tend to be more expensive and less detailed than those at the two sites. Both newspapers already charge higher rates for certain categories of classified ads, particularly for employment, that refer readers to commercial or ''aggregate'' Web sites containing multiple listings.
Beyond the type of merchandise offered, Yardsales.com and Priceline's Perfect YardSale have little in common.
Yardsales.com sellers can list and describe as many as 50 items for a flat fee of $10. Every ad includes a map showing the way to the sale. Photos cost $2 each to post and do not require a digital camera.
''People can take regular pictures, go to CVS and have them uploaded,'' Mechlin said. ''They don't even need to have discs. CVS gives them an ID code and password, and they can attach photos to their items at our site.''
Because sellers can list their sales two weeks in advance and can be reached at their personal e-mail addresses, the Web site's ''anonymous'' e-mail system or even by phone if they make their numbers public, canny buyers can reach them as soon as the ad is posted to make a pre-sale deal.
Writing a cyber ad can be cumbersome, however. Unlike a newspaper classified ad, in which the seller offers a straightforward list, every Yardsales.com item requires a separate click and description.
Buyers can surf for free for a specific item or a roundup of every sale within a five-to-100-mile radius of their Zip code. Once the site goes national late next month, buyers can sport-shop in all 50 states, plotting yard-sale forays while on vacation or business trips.
Antiques and collectibles shops can also advertise for a fee.
To promote Yardsales.com until its June 27 nationwide rollout, all ads, maps and photos will be free, Mechlin said. And there will never be listing fees for schools, churches and synagogues promoting their fund-raising sales.
At Perfect YardSale sellers pay a placement fee for each item, based on its selling price: $1 on items priced less than $25, to 2 percent for merchandise selling for more than $1,000.
Sellers can list goods in 12 categories, including appliances, musical instruments, power tools and such ''treasure box'' collectibles as Beanie Babies and Pokemon cards. Items are described by brand, quantity, size, age, condition, color or whatever else they deem relevant.
Price ranges are recommended by the Web site, which oversees the auction. One recent promotion exhorted shoppers to ''buy a bargain today -- exercise bikes up to 88 percent off, starting at only $56,'' while urging vendors to ''sell for cash, sewing machines, 20 buyers waiting, to get $96 or more.''
Both buyers and sellers register credit card numbers with Priceline. Buyers make offers that sellers can accept or reject.
Once the parties agree on terms and arrange for pickup, a seven-day, money-back guarantee and a 30-day warranty kick in. If a buyer has a problem with a purchase, Priceline tries to negotiate a settlement, company spokesman Robert Padgett said.
Yardsales.com will keep its distance, acting only as a listing service for its participants, who deal directly with each other.
''If you are selling a table, you can say it's a Henredon, 10 years old, originally cost $700 and has wood inlays. If you are buying, you can see the table, get directions to the house and decide whether you want to go to this sale. Since all of this stuff is used, you have to go see it and touch it,'' said Mechlin.
There are certain items neither site will advertise.
Priceline.com's Padgett: ''No firearms, no pornography.''
Yardsales.com's Mechlin: ''We don't really want adult content.''
So what about a recent notice offering Playboy magazines?
''It will not be up very long. We knew it was going to happen sooner or later,'' Yardsales spokesman Douglas Larkin said. ''This is going to be a family site. We don't want kids to ever have the opportunity to see adult content.''
Mechlin was less definitive about potentially inflammatory goods, such as Nazi or Ku Klux Klan memorabilia. ''It's difficult to say where to draw the line, but I think people would be more likely to auction material like that,'' he said.
Even in its infancy, one highly motivated Yardsales.com seller is conspicuously missing from the listings: Mechlin's mother.
After moving to a condominium with her favorite possessions, she put her remaining furniture, china, crystal, silver, linens, paintings, antiques and housewares in storage because her son, the webmaster, found ''that the way to sell it was so ugly.''
She has not yet decided on a sale, but spokesman Larkin predicted, ''It will be soon.''
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