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April 27, 2006

Selling Pitt stuff on eBay

Need a fireproof wastebasket? A used overhead projector? Some antique oak map drawers? Now may be the time to go shopping at Pitt’s Surplus Property department before millions of other potential buyers get a chance to bid on line for University equipment once available to few beyond the Pitt community.

The University recently has begun offering select surplus items on eBay for the same reasons many individuals use the on-line auction site: It’s an opportunity to make money on items that no longer are wanted or needed.

Tucked into a maze of back rooms at Pitt’s department of Parking, Transportation and Services’ Point Breeze facility, the Surplus Property Department is a repository for computers, office furniture, electronic equipment and other items that have been culled from departments across the University. Each year, Surplus Property employees refurbish and recycle hundreds of items including file cabinets, bookcases, chairs, computers and furniture to other departments within the University at prices half or less than the cost of buying new.

On line (at or in person on Wednesdays or by appointment, Pitt faculty, staff and students can browse the surplus property stock in hopes of finding a used chair, desk, computer monitor or VCR for home or office use at a bargain basement price.

Now Surplus Property is expanding its horizons well beyond the University community in hopes of maximizing the return on some of the more unusual items that find their way into its storage warehouse at the Lexington Technology Park complex on North Lexington Avenue.

After hearing success stories at a recent University Surplus Property Association conference, Pitt has begun selling on line using eBay.

“It’s another method to market used University furniture, equipment and such in addition to our Pitt web site,” said Surplus Property manager Tom Heidkamp, who’s accustomed to thinking up unique ways to pair up new users with used University equipment.

He’s quick to send an e-mail to contacts throughout the University when items of interest arrive. Perhaps it’s used dorm furniture being retired from the Pittsburgh campus that could be attractive to one of the regional campuses. Or, maybe a smaller college or university would find a bargain in still-usable equipment being replaced at Pitt. When an odd piece of equipment arrives that might be useful only to a very narrow audience, Heidkamp might send out a message to colleagues at other schools, asking if they’ve ever sold something similar, and if so, to whom. The goal essentially is to recycle unused items to new users who want and need them.

“Using eBay gives Surplus Property access to a much larger market for items that do not sell locally,” he said. “The bidding process used on eBay also can result in a much higher selling price than we may have been able to obtain locally.”

While Heidkamp’s goal is to list one or two items each week on eBay, not everything in stock at the warehouse is posted for sale on line. For instance, medical equipment isn’t put up for bid, simply to avoid potential liability issues. Such items typically are sold to specialty equipment dealers. With regard to more ordinary items, Surplus Property’s primary mission remains focused on the University community, who essentially get first dibs as items arrive, Heidkamp said.

But because other schools such as Penn State, Oregon State University, University of Wisconsin, Arizona State University and Michigan State University all are using eBay, Surplus Property got the Pitt administration’s approval and decided to give it a try for unusual items that fall into their hands.

While Pitt remains new to the on-line auction world, Heidkamp is developing a feel for what will sell, and posts selected items after getting approval from the department’s assistant director. He chooses items based on their uniqueness and their market appeal. “Once you put an item on the web, it opens it up to literally millions of buyers,” Heidkamp said.

Among the eBay offerings recently posted by the University: a set of four vintage oak chairs, a multimedia projector and even a carved wooden mermaid that once decorated a University food service area, but had been gathering dust at Surplus Property. It sold in February for more than $200.

Items selected for the on-line auction come from across the University and are things that might have been marketed to local used equipment companies or sold to warehouse visitors.

For instance, Surplus Property is posting overhead projectors and specialty fireproof waste receptacles on eBay to see how they sell. Some antique oak map storage drawers no longer needed by one of the University libraries recently arrived in the warehouse and are potential candidates for on-line auction if a local buyer doesn’t take them first. A link to the University’s current eBay offerings is available on the Surplus Property home page.

So far, Heidkamp said, results have been mixed, but the items that have sold have brought a higher price than they would have at the warehouse. He intends to continue offering items on line and expects business to grow, he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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