|A mouse invasion has devastated half a century of tradition at the Oregon State Agency for Surplus Property, and neither the agency’s staff nor the state’s taxpayers would have things any other way now.|
When state government departments in Oregon have surplus items to clear out, they used to hire an auctioneer or ask for sealed bids. Now the auction gavel largely has been replaced by the computer mouse, resulting in a productive, efficient and innovative surplus agency, thanks to sales through eBay, the global online marketplace.
Oregon’s surplus property agency (www.oregonsurplus.com) has been moving away from traditional governmental sale tactics since 1999, when it began selling on eBay; and one of its biggest successes has been the auctioning of surplus cars and trucks through eBay Motors. The state of Oregon began listing vehicles immediately after eBay Motors was founded in 2001. Today, the surplus property agency’s presence on eBay Motors has become so extensive that they sold 1,809 units in 2003.
“We grew right along with eBay,” said Nole Bullock, coordinator of online sales for the agency. “As new categories emerged, the state of Oregon put different types of property online.”
Bullock said program manager Skip Morton has been the driving force behind the growth the agency has experienced by selling on eBay Motors.
“Skip was the visionary that originally suggested we ‘test the waters’ with Internet auctions back in 1998,” Bullock said. “He personally posted 90 plus percent of the vehicles we sold in 2003."
The agency now has separate eBay IDs for its different types of sales, including one specifically for surplus, seized and recovered vehicles. It has an identity that has won the respect of consumers in Oregon and throughout the nation. In nearly four years selling under that ID, the Oregon state surplus agency has accumulated a 97 percent positive feedback rating from purchasers. It’s received 1,756 positive feedbacks, some coming from buyers who left multiple positive messages on the eBay Motors site.
The scope and rapidity of the agency’s success in switching to online sales might have seemed unlikely to those bound in traditional surplus-disposal methods. An online auction went against the approach many other governmental agencies in Oregon and across the country have used for decades: the gavel and the sealed envelope.
“They’ve been doing it the same way for 50 years,” Bullock said. “But Oregon’s always been different, and we started doing auctions online. We wanted to reach a new audience, and we’ve been able to do that.”
After discovering the power of moving surplus through eBay, the Oregon state agency began selling items not only for State of Oregon departments, but also for cities and counties within the state. Then it went even farther a field, advising other states, cities, counties and governmental agencies all around the United States of the advantages of using the Internet. It has entered into numerous agreements with these government units.
“About 12 years ago we branched out and started selling more than just the state of Oregon’s property,” Bullock recounted. “We started selling the city of Salem’s property and the property of the county we’re in. Then we picked a half a dozen more cities, four or five more counties and the special districts and water districts. We’ve got agreements with over 400 different political subdivisions from all over, federal, local and some states, to help them dispose of their surplus property.”
Bullock noted that the department is working with other agencies from as far away as Virginia. In fact, the federal government itself has discovered the value of Oregon’s eBay Motors-based system. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, has been selling its surplus vehicles through the Oregon Department of Administrative Services since October 2000. It averages five or six vehicles sold per week, including pickup trucks, SUVs, fire trucks and bulldozers.
“Government surplus is an old and archaic business,” Bullock said. “It would literally take an act of Congress to change it. But a lot of people don’t consider using the Internet and just how easy it is.”
The state of Oregon is proud of its agency’s innovation, as evidenced by the description of the program on the state’s Web site:
“The State Surplus Property Program exists to provide a central distribution point for surplus, seized and/or recovered public property for State Agencies and political subdivisions. While emphasis is placed on reutilization of property within the public sector, the Program has received national acclaim for its innovative use of the Internet in advertising its post-reutilization property to the general public.”
More Vehicles for More Places
The variety of vehicles that pass through the Oregon State Surplus Agency from the multitude of state agencies is remarkable. They turn up in areas requiring very specialized equipment as well as on highways and in neighborhoods. Bullock said the team at Oregon Surplus Agency often will receive very seasonal items, and a large spike in supply occurs when the seasons change. With eBay Motors, the agency never worries about the seasonality of an item; it’s able to reach multiple climates across the globe.
One of the agency’s most unusual listings involved an ARFF fire truck. This particular sale was an unusual one of a specialty nature. Designed for fighting jet-fuel fires, the vehicle is the size of a city bus and is constructed almost totally of steel to be heat-proof.
“Unless you own an airport, you’d have no reason to buy one, but we thought we would put it on eBay to see what we could get.” Bullock said. “We ended up selling it to some guys in the Midwest who are going to make it into a monster truck. Without eBay, we’d have never found those boys.”
Bullock noted that while many vehicles are picked up locally, the agency also ships cars and trucks all around the country. Being able to reach this national audience has resulted in a number of key advantages for the Oregon state surplus agency in terms of expanding its market and increasing demand.
“We aren’t victim to the number of people who show up at an auction,” he said. “We can reach the entire country. eBay has helped us to eliminate the supply-side economics of local auctions. Before it all had to do with attendance, and your supply would outlast your demand. Since we started selling on eBay Motors, we can’t out-supply our demand. You don’t fall victim to the supply chain. Never again will we have more cars than people.”
The Oregon agency is learning how to build that demand, along with customer satisfaction, even further. For example, throughout its years listing on eBay, the agency continuously has been able to mainstream its auction listing process. Today, employees all have specific roles within the sales process, from listing the items or taking pictures to answering user questions or accounting.
“We used to all be generalists,” Bullock said. “But with everyone having other duties as well, we realized that not everyone can do everything at once. We had four people answering questions for hundreds, sometimes thousands of items on eBay, and there was no consistency in the message.”
Bullock said when the agency had a staff reduction, personnel were reworked into specific roles to fit within the eBay listing process.
“Out of four generalists, five support people in the office and five specialists on the floor, we created a bunch of specialists.”
These specialists follow a set process so that all listings are the same format. Because it’s a state agency, Bullock said, the agency cannot directly endorse a vehicle’s condition; instead, it relies on pictures.
“We don’t want to be like the one picture you see in a classified that shows just a good side,” he said. “We want to show everything about the vehicle. We want to show the scratches so that the customer knows what he or she is getting. We’d rather have a clean sale than a disappointed customer.”
This policy of full-disclosure and consistency is enabling the agency to build a solid reputation online. Customers are delighted, as evidenced by the agency’s nearly perfect feedback rating and the comments left online.
One satisfied buyer who purchased a Pontiac Grand Am said, “Beautiful car! Nice price! Thanks again Guys!”
Another consumer, who bought a Dodge Ram, appreciated the agency’s understanding of the process: “Good experience. Oregonmotors obviously has a lot of experience at this.”
Yet another customer stated how comfortable the agency had made the sale: “The people at the payment center went above and beyond to help make a smooth transaction.”
A broadening market and a growing base of happy customers are allowing the surplus property agency to use eBay Motors to move vehicles rapidly and to better serve its constituents, the taxpayers of Oregon.
“We can get vehicles to market more quickly, and we don’t have to eat the hidden cost of sitting on a vehicle for a long time,” Bullock said. “We can easily take one car and put it in front of millions of people. That saves us a lot of money.”
Oregon’s bid for a way to revolutionize surplus property disposal is winning fans rapidly, and eBay Motors is becoming the “auction house” of choice for governments large and small across the United States.
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