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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 October, 2003, 10:05 GMT 11:05 UK
Liberate your bookshelves
By Paul Rubens

It may not have turned out the way retailers expected, but online shopping has transformed your bookshelf into a goldmine. No longer need books - and other items - gather dust; today a host of websites allow us to sell our unwanted goods to other net users.

The internet has turned me into a barrow boy. Who would have thought that e-commerce would come to this? It was meant to revolutionise the way we shopped, offering a previously unimagined choice of goods to buy at very competitive prices.

The new breed of web retailers wouldn't have to spend their money on a High Street presence, so would be able to pass on the efficiencies of the internet to their customers. But as is so often the case, things have turned out quite unexpectedly.

Take Amazon as an example: for the past 18 months the giant web retailer has allowed its users to sell new or used goods - often at very much lower prices than it sells them new.

Auction room
Websites offer the same drama - and odd bargains - as an auction
If you are looking for a particular book, you can choose between buying it new from the retailer or cheaper from someone else. The company also handles the financial side, taking customers' credit card details and passing the cash on to the seller's bank account after taking a small commission. All the seller has to do is pop the book in the post.

And it's not just booksellers that help us offload second-hand goods. Auction sites such as eBay and QXL exist solely as marketplaces for users selling anything from books to dolls houses to aeroplanes. On any given day, eBay has a million items for sale in the UK alone: a mobile phone is sold every minute, a laptop every two minutes and a replica football shirt every five. Last year a staggering $14bn worth of goods changed hands worldwide on the auction site.

Online car boot sale

The internet has paved the way for individuals - rather than tech-savvy companies - to become a retail force to be reckoned with, simply by enabling us to sell unwanted clothing, sports equipment, toys and other bits and pieces quickly and cheaply.

It's not only commercial sites that can become marketplaces. Students, for instance, have traditionally recouped part of the cost of expensive textbooks by posting For Sale ads on notice boards; today many sell on the book exchange pages of their university's website instead.

Harry Potter book launch
Buy it, read it and sell it again
And the ability to sell online may shift our attitude to ownership; the distinction between buying and renting becomes blurred.

When I fancied watching The Italian Job a few weeks ago, I bought a used copy online, watched it once, and sold it again within 24 hours on the same site. I even made a small profit on the deal.

Given the choice between keeping books and displaying them on bookshelves or selling them and using the money to buy more books, many readers choose to own temporarily.

And there's now there's no reason to wait for a book to come out in paperback. Quite the contrary - the sooner you buy a new hardback, the more likely you are to be able to resell it before it loses value when the paperback edition comes out. Until a few months ago, I had never read a hardback in my life - now I don't read anything but.

It's all a far cry from the early days of the internet when online retailers aimed for virtual showrooms and fancy graphics.

Who would have thought that the web would be responsible for turning many of us into virtual market traders, flogging off the contents of our homes? (And if anyone wants a little-used three-wheel baby stroller, I've got one going cheap.)



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