Government Garage Sale

Oregon uses eBay to sell off a variety of goods--and is helping other governments to do the same

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

June 5, 2003

4 Min Read

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- John Specht grinned like a garage sale shopper as a forklift hoisted all sorts of government surplus items onto his pickup truck: boxes of notebooks, metal shutters, five typewriters and even some ocean paintings.

"One hundred bucks is all I paid for the stuff," Specht said proudly to his wife, Ann, who smiled as she lodged a typewriter between cardboard boxes onto the back of their bulging truck.

The Spechts purchased the goodies from the state of Oregon through eBay. Since 1998, Oregon has used eBay to auction off all kinds of things--from cars confiscated from drug dealers to surplus office equipment.

The auctions--which grossed $7.3 million in sales in 2002--are considered such a success that the federal government and the city of Lynchburg, Va., have enlisted Oregon's help in selling off marketable stuff.

Oregon's virtual auction is selling heavy equipment and cars for the U.S. Department of Interior, as well as fire trucks and Jeeps for Lynchburg.

Other states have begun to follow Oregon's lead.

California is selling surplus state goods on the Internet. Officials from Michigan, Colorado and Texas have visited Oregon to study putting together their own programs.

"They (in Oregon) are on the cutting edge," said Scott Pepperman, president of the National Association of State Agencies for Surplus Property. "The way they do it all is very efficient."

Oregon was the first state to sell goods on eBay, an Internet auction site with over 60 million viewers. Gross sales for the state office that runs the auctions--Oregon Surplus Property--went up by 250 percent the first year, and Oregon became a model for other states.

Most of the goodies sold by the Oregon auction, kept in a 72,000-square-foot warehouse, are owned by state agencies and county and local governments.

Thousands of Swiss army knives, nail filers, and tweezers, all confiscated at Portland International Airport, take up large tubs.

There are also bicycles, computers, office chairs, skateboards, chain saws, water skis, horse saddles, belt buckles and pairs of long underwear. For those with deeper pockets, there are Camaros, motor homes, and BMW motorcycles.

Some of the items are confiscated. Others are pieces of stolen property that were recovered by police but never by the original owner. Many of the large items, like office furniture and police cars, are hand-me-downs from federal and state agencies.

In 2002, the program sold $7.3 million worth of items and gave about 84 percent of the money back to the sellers, said Stacey Oller, the program's business manager.

"We don't take money from the state," Oller said. "We give it back."

Oregon acts as a middleman for the Interior Department and Lynchburg, Va. For example, a car to be sold on the East Coast isn't driven across the country. Instead, digital pictures are taken and sent to Oregon Surplus Property.

Oregon Surplus Property puts the car on eBay, collects the cash from the buyer and keeps a small fee for processing.

Oregon has a ready-made infrastructure capable of handling online sales, including cyber savvy accountants and business managers, digital cameras and an intricately organized warehouse that takes up a square block.

Oller, the program business manager, says groups across the country are constantly inquiring about having Oregon sell their goods. But the program--it has only 16 workers-- has to be careful not to take on too much.

"As with any business, if you grow too fast you'll disrupt the infrastructure," Oller said. "Taking new agreements is done on a case-by-case basis."

Prospective bidders can visit the Salem warehouse during the week. If they find something they like, they can bid on it on eBay by using computers in a corner of the warehouse.

Before Oregon started using the Internet to sell in 1998, bargain hunters visited the warehouse and made sealed bids. The highest bidder took home the treasure.

Some locals speak with nostalgia about those days.

"I got stuff cheaper then," said Lorin Lewis, who owns an electrical shop in nearby Keizer and for years has gotten parts from the surplus program. "The Internet is good for the state, though, no doubt about that."

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