eBay vs. the Traditional Swap Meet

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The Portland Swap Meet bills itself as the largest auto parts swap meet on the West Coast. This year’s event was the 44th edition of the show which is always held during the always rainy month of April. And it is huge, with a gate of over 50,000 and 4,200 vendors, without the benefit of a scooter, a Segway or a golf cart, it’s tough to see everything. Although with the emphasis of Big Three parts, one has the feeling of seeing “everything” long before one actually sees everything.

Highlights included the 2/3 scale replica of the Great Pyramid of Giza constructed entirely out of ’55-’57 Chevy hubcaps and the very rusty ’39 DeSoto with a sign on it that read: “Thinking about a divorce? Buy this car, presto, you got it!”

The biggest question on the minds of the three SCM staffers who attended the show is “to what extent has eBay affected the traditional swap meet?” eBay Motors is a colossus not just in vehicle sales, but in parts sales as well. According to Steve Haas, a senior manager at eBay Motors, at any given time, there are 2,000,000 auto parts for sale on eBay and one part sells every second. The total category sales are over $18 billion. On top of that, it’s dead easy for all but the functionally illiterate to find a part on eBay Motors. So how do swap meets compete with that?

Swap meets do still have a lot going for them not the least of which is the fact that they get you out of the house and the thrill of the hunt is still a big draw. Nevertheless, swap meet organizers could take a few pages from the online playbook to make the events a bit more user friendly—web sites with printable maps of what vendors are where and a summary of their wares would help people planning a trip to a swap meet.

But the impression one gets is that many swap meet vendors are hardcore Luddites and technophobes unlikely to spend the time uploading even the barest description of their stuff. If that’s the case, as the computer literate generation takes over, swap meets may eventually find themselves going the way of the drive-in theaters that so many of them now inhabit.