Somewhere in between the great god eBay and the new hippy wave of paying what you want lies what, for me, really defines a marketplace: Haggling.
Head to one of these marketplaces of authenticity (that is, one without any gaudy seals of authenticity) - from overnight, sprawling Cairo labyrinths, to grey, Sunday-morning car boot sales - and you'll find the fastest, most personalised price negotiation system in existence. Get the right crowd, put on a friendly forehead, and you can even lubricate the haggling activity (or "ritual", as it is in many places) with tea, cakes, or some other vaguely cheap ingestible that still manages to let more social-ness creep into the transaction than could be wrung from the bodies of a thousand Disney Greeters.
In fact, I've always wondered what the economist's fascination with market forces was - the over-reliance on competition to bring prices down, Pareto's Equilibrium and, ultimately, an industry addicted to the psychology of marketing like a Big Issue seller taking opera lessons to sell his wares and secure his place in the big bad Profit Warnings Hostel. Surely haggling is altogether more efficient?
Think about it: individual consumers pay what they want to pay. This makes sense because everyone's idea of "affordability" is different. Three-and-a-half quid to the Queen is very different to three-and-a-half quid to a student at the end of the month, but a Double mushroom and blue cheese burger really doesn't stop and take this into account. By being able to offer goods to different people at relative prices, not only do more people buy the goods because affordability becomes relative, but also prices are more "elastic" (I think that's the right word - I mean, "react less to other changes") compared to inflation (which can be skewed by one bunch of people being very rich). So, in general, the poor can "afford" more, and sellers sell more as a result.
So where's my E-Haggle then? (Tea and cake aside.) A quick google throws up Mr. Haggle (clearly a pre-cursor - or post-cursor - to the greatest '8
Maybe this is where eBay was going when it gorged itself on Skype-cookies. Or maybe it's where they should be going. Skype is interesting here, as it forms the bridge (or jumps the shark, maybe) between automated selling, and community-driven marketplaces.
Yes, being able to sell stuff without being there is handy. But haggling is fun as well as profitable. Interaction with a Real Person (if such a thing exists these days) can be a good thing - not just from a la-de-da web2.0 social thing, but also in terms of the feedback it provides to sellers and buyers alike. Communication carries trust. Communication carries response, judgement, and suggestion. Communication is not just about numbers.
Personally, I think Etsy would be a great place to try out something like this. The tangible, individualised, and often unique nature of the items on offer would dovetail well with some form of haggling mechanism.
There are some intriguing issues that arise, of course. Do you let consumers know what other buyers paid, for instance? Could you integrate individualised haggling with more of an auction-house chatroom method? I suspect people would get accused of not offering people the lowest price, and the whole thing might implode under notions of equality. But I'm also surprised no-one has even attempted to see what can be done about these issues, or to see if a new form of haggling can emerge from an e-era of e-obscurity.
Come on Internet, don't fail me know.