How to Speak "Craigslist"

They say that the Internet took all the fun out of collecting. Clearly "they" have not been to Craigslist.org.

Elsewhere online, a simple keyword search, a few clicks, and the collective works of Pez -- mint, and in a custom display stand -- are being overnighted to your home. At eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY  ) you can shop at electronic specialty storefronts, create watch lists, receive wireless outbid notices, and sign up for escrow services. At Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN  ) complete strangers who share your quirky tastes will expertly steer you toward similarly unusual books, CDs, and whatnots you can purchase via easy "one-click" shopping.

Not so at Craigslist. If eBay made buying a 1938 Ching Chess Chinese checkers game board as easy as purchasing new underwear, Craigslist shoved it back into a musty box in the corner of the attic to be trotted out one Saturday morning when its owner noticed that the neighbors were having a garage sale. The bare-bones, colorless community goods, services, and social life site is just one step up from your local town crier's classified section, typos and all.

Actually, Craigslist is your local town crier's classified section, only in electronic form. You won't find a "Toys & Hobbies/Diecast, Toy Vehicles/Cars, Trucks-Pressed Steel" category here. (There are 2999 items that fit that bill over at eBay.com.) Nope, you'll have to slog through the listings under "collectibles" or "baby + kids" or "general" for that 1930s antique steel Turner dump truck you want to add to your collection. Then you'll have to schlep to the seller, show up with the cash -- and hope that the item resembles the grainy camera-phone photo provided.

Craigslist brought back the thrill of the weekend garage-sale hunt and town hall meeting, all in one. Actually, it didn't really revive the old-fashioned community swap meet; the company simply never abandoned the down-to-earth electronic premise it was founded upon. Craig Newmark started Craigslist on a list server in 1995 to keep people abreast of cool events, apartments, and stuff for sale around San Francisco. He refused to run banner ads. He refused to take money.

Not much has changed since that 1995 list server was launched. It's easy to place an ad on Craigslist. Just type it up and post it. And keep your wallet in your pocket (98% of the ads are free, the company makes its revenue by charging for job postings, though not yet in every market it serves). There's clearly a low barrier to entry. There's no formal ad review process. There's obviously no spell-check function. It's a self-policing, self-editing, self-promotional free-for-all that is, in a word, wonderful.

Had I discovered Craigslist earlier, I wouldn't have to bow my head and mumble "eBay" when visitors admire my collection of vintage Chinese checkers game boards. I cannot in good conscience claim to be a real collector.

Craigslistvs. Goliathlist
For a site lacking pretense, Craigslist certainly has hogged the spotlight lately. With its 2 billion-plus page views a month (one-fifth of eBay's), sites serving 120 cities in 25 countries, 5 million classified ads, and a staff of a whopping 18 working out of a Victorian house in San Francisco (vs. 9,000 eBay employees), some big guns have come courting. (We caught the Craigslist buzz recently when we interviewed CEO Jim Buckmaster on our NPR show.)

Last August eBay made a pass at a former Craigslist employee who gave up a 25% stake in the company to (brace yourself for the understatement of the year) "see how classified-style trading works." Hey, if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em.

You can't blame the good ole e-boys for getting all misty-eyed and nostalgic when looking at Craigslist's business. The company's retro e-tailer good looks, the likes of which we haven't seen since a sock puppet dog mascot bit it, looks mighty similar to what we call a "Rule Breaker" around here.

A Rule Breaker is the kind of company that makes stodgy old stalwarts take notice. It's probably safe to say that when The Washington Post Co. (NYSE: WPO  ) learned of this homespun upstart charging way-below-market advertising rates, management held a few tense closed-door strategy meetings.

Some of the criteria of a Rule Breaker stock include:

  • Strong consumer appeal. (Check.)
  • A sustainable advantage gained through momentum and visionary leadership. (Check.)
  • Strong past-price appreciation. (Check, we assume, judging by the eBay investment.)
  • Good management. (Check, we assume, considering the company's growing reach.)

So how does the average guy get in on a piece of the Craigslist action? You don't. At least not as an investor. (Though the Rule Breaker team is always on the prowl for publicly traded companies that fit the above bill to a T. See what they're eyeing with a free 30-day peek.)

The rest of us will have to be content as Craigslist shoppers.

Buried treasure here
What can you buy on Craigslist? What can't you buy on Craigslist? I'm in the midst of a home renovation and could have gotten all the materials -- kitchen cabinets (new, even), appliances, reclaimed wood flooring, furniture, and a retro blender -- on the site. I could have hired a carpenter, plumber, electrician, and people to haul away the hacked-up drywall. And if money started running tight, I could have bartered editing/writing skills for tile work or a new toilet.

Why didn't I? By the time I got my Craigslist.org bearings, work was well under way at chez Dayana. You see, Craigslist is not eBay. It is not Home Depot (NYSE: HD  ) . It's not Bed, Bath & Beyond (Nasdaq: BBBY  ) , and it's certainly not eBay.

But it can be the poor-man's version of all of those stores, if you know how to shop the site of the unedited masses. Yes, there are convenient categories (I spend a lot of time scrolling through "household," "tools," and "free.") But that doesn't mean people posting items use them correctly. You'll find Siamese kittens under "household." You'll find DVD players under "furniture," not "electronics." Under "free" is some unsolicited advice for parents-to-be: "Bad baby names must stop. I will help. Send me the names you are considering for your child and I will approve them, improve them, or change them to something spectacular and suitable. Free advice. I don't ever want to meet another Madison." Under "barter": "Wanted: 3/4 non creepy guys to move this couch down the stairs 4 beer."

On the New York Craigslist, you used to be able to buy drugs in the personals section until a recent bust shut down that particular distribution channel for those entrepreneurs.

Even when you find what you're looking for, it might not really be what you're looking for. The piece of marble for sale under "garage sale" sounded pretty good for my hearth, if only it included accurate measurements and had been dragged from the cluttered corner of the garage for the photo.

Don't let these shortcomings deter you. Consider this more like what Wall Street calls "managing expectations." Before you head to Craigslist.org, brace yourself for circa 1995 online shopping.

"For Sale: BEE-YOO-TEE-FULL Brown Plain Sleeper Sofa"
Scrolling through the categories at Craigslist can be a daunting, and an afternoon of click-hope-disappointment can fly by in no time, if you don't know how to spot the telltale signs of a true bargain.

At The Motley Fool, our mission is to cut through the jargon and level the playing field so that all investors -- and shoppers -- have the tools for successful money decisions. In the case of Craigslist, finding nuggets means quickly sifting through the trash. Below you'll find a handy translation guide -- focusing mainly on the "furniture," household," "free," and "general" categories -- that will help make your Craigslist experience more fruitful.

Italian leather sofa: Overstuffed, '80s bachelor-pad couch.
Antique: Made in the 1970s.
Colorful: Floral (no, not subtle floral or even Laura Ashley floral, if you like that kind of thing) or Southwestern.
Shabby chic: Chipped lead paint.
Ikea: Ikea.
European style [item]: Ikea.
"[Brand name]"-type [item]: I wasn't happy with the knockoff, but maybe you won't notice that it is inferior to the real "[brand name]" deal.
Solid wood: Contains some wood-like elements, possibly wood-grain-patterned Contact paper.
Very elegant: Over-the-top late-1980s faux Rococo.
Exotic: Purchased at Pier 1.
"GREAT deal!!": "Man, I overpaid for this."
Desk, dresser, bedside table, four lamps, coffee table and loveseat for sale CHEAP! $50: Made of matchsticks.
One comfortable desk chair: One ugly desk chair.
Vintage: From my childhood rec room.
Sexy sofa: Requires heavy Lysol treatment.
Very classy: Purchased at The Bombay Company.
White plastic corner shelf ($6): A used corner shower shelf that you could purchase at Target for $7.99. Or you can sit in weekend Beltway traffic to pick it up and save two bucks.
Persian carpet-SPECTACULAR: Spectacularly expensive.
Oak desk with drawers -- high quality!: Low style.
Unique! Style [item]!: "Unique" is one way to put it.
Free sofa bed: Wanted: Free moving help to get this out of our basement.
Italian leather couch: AKA: the Italian leather overstuffed '80s couch I bought on Craigslist last month and only now realize how cheesy it is.

Now if you'll please excuse me, the "Antique hand mold and ceramic black head, look at pic!" listing looks promising.

Dayana Yochimowns none of the companies or "unique" and "very elegant" items mentioned in this article.The Motley Fool disclosure policymakes sure we don't break any of the rules, even whilewe look for companies that do(in a good way, that is).


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