Matthew JC. Powell: Retail therapy — better on ice?

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This article appeared in the 12 November, 2007 issue of CRN magazine.

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Matthew JC. Powell: Retail therapy — better on ice?
There’s an ad doing the rounds on TV at the moment for eBay, the one-time Pez-dispenser-collectors’ swap meet which has grown into one of the behemoths of global e-commerce. That growth, of course, has meant diversification. You can buy many many things on eBay now, ranging from collectible memorabilia to cars, electronics to music, clothes, appliances, toys, real estate and even — believe it or not — Pez dispensers.

The ad to which I’m referring features a crowd of people diverse in age, ethnicity, culture and lifestyle, bound only by the fact that they all seem inappropriately attired for standing around a luge track. Which would be okay, except that they’re also running up a snow-covered hill, taking positions along a luge track.

The next thing we see is a young woman enthusiastically grabbing a shopping trolley, leaping into it and setting off down the luge track. Twisting and turning, throwing up great sheets of shaved ice on the inappropriately attired spectators, she reaches the bottom, clutching a coffee maker.

Then the slogan: “Like five million Australians, experience shopping on eBay — Make Shopping Exciting”.

Several things strike me as odd about this. For a start, I believe the number of Australians who would ever have experienced, or even watched, a luge event in progress would be quite small. No wonder they dressed so inappropriately.

For another, what exactly is eBay saying? Shopping on eBay is a startlingly unfamiliar experience? That it’s a shock not merely to your cultural sensitivities but to your thermal regulation system?

No, it’s worse. eBay is saying that shopping using its online bidding system is “exciting” in the way that the luge is exciting. In other words, it is utterly terrifying, totally unpredictable, extremely cold and may result in injury or death. If, at the end of it, you are alive, intact and the owner of a coffee maker, you’ll not know where the heck it came from.

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I go shopping I like it boring. I take my currency, I exchange it for goods and services, I get my change and I leave. There’s no snow, ice or potential for catastrophic brain injury involved.

eBay should be pushing the “you can get stuff” side of its business, not the “you might get hurt” aspect. But what do I know?

I can kind of see what eBay’s getting at with this ad, but it misses its own point on numerous counts. Part of the “excitement” of eBay is the competition to “win” the item by outbidding your competitors. In the ad, there’s no-one on the track trying to stop the woman getting the coffee maker. For that matter in luge there’s only one person on the track at any one time. eBay isn’t like that.

Here’s my idea: There’s a rugby game (more familiar to Aussies). Through an exciting series of missed tackles, rucks and mauls and scrums and a mad dash for the line, one player overcomes the defence to cross the line, triumphantly holding aloft a coffee maker. Now, that makes me want to buy Pez.

Matthew JC. Powell has a great fondness for little squares of candy extruded from the throats of plastic toys. Contact him on

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