App of the Week: Tophatter

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A few weeks ago, a friend of mine alerted me to a Web site called Tophatter where she had started selling her photos, suggesting I might consider doing the same. Before I could take a look, it was explained to me that Tophatter was a live auction Web site for selling handmade or vintage goods marketed to members of Etsy.

Now having taken a look, I realize that the site is part Etsy, part eBay, part Turntable.fm and a really interesting way to shop for and buy these types of products, mainly because it is extraordinarily well built.

Etsy has long been known for their sometimes twee, mostly handmade and always interesting sellers and goods. Think of Etsy as Amazon.com for knitters. It's a great site for finding odd and unique stuff, but Tophatter takes the Etsy experience and revs it up, adding the feel of a live auction...and the look of one.

Last year, I was turned on to Turntable.fm, a site that allows you to create a virtual room where you can deejay music from Turntable's streaming catalog. Others can join in by requesting songs or even deejaying alongside you. Everyone who comes into the room is represented by an animated character (nerds call them avatars) and little talk bubbles appear from their heads when they make a comment.

Whoever built that technology must've licensed it to Tophatter, because their live auction experience is remarkably similar and, as a result, very effective.

Sellers add their items to a particular auction that opens at a specific time. Once the auction is open, users can enter the auction room and start bidding on the items as they come up for sale. Sellers help prod buyers by chatting with them during the auction, the virtual auctioneer points out each bid and finally goes through the "going once...going twice..." rhetoric before the last bid.

I've been to quite a few live auctions and this is not all that different. What makes it work so well is how Tophatter has set up the bidding process. Simply click a button while inside the auction to increase your bid by a preset amount. If the bidding gets fast and furious, the amount of each bid increases automatically. This kind of intuitive automation demonstrates a very well thought out software platform.

Once the auction is over, a box pops up for the winner and gives them the option to pay immediately. Sellers arrange payment methods on individual auctions -- most through PayPal -- and the transactions are handled outside Tophatter's system, similar to Etsy and other sites. Like on other sites, sellers are rated by buyers, affording them high or low rankings depending upon how they handle transactions.

The problem Tophatter faces is enticing users to join and buyers to participate. The onus on sellers to be there during an auction -- they don't have to be, but it benefits them to do so -- nevermind the buyers to populate it, can be tough since most of the sellers are part-timers and buyers are fickle. One of the great benefits of auction sites like eBay is that, in theory, buyers and sellers don't have to be there when the auction ends, sellers in particular.

But, what Tophatter lacks in convenience, it more than makes up for in both ease of use and the kind of excitement often generated at live auctions, which is great for people selling items as frenzied bidding can break out on occasion, driving the price of an item significantly higher than its starting point.

It will be incumbent upon the people at Tophatter, who have clearly poured a lot of time and money into both the design and development of the site, to find a way to encourage participation. I, for one, hope they are successful.

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