St. Louis County first tested e-commerce a few months ago. County purchasing director Dick Florey says the county unloaded surplus equipment through an online site instead of holding a local public auction.
"We initiated a pilot project here about four months ago with auctioning online," says Florey. "Extremely successful - we're seeing anywhere from a 20 to a 30 percent more return on our money than we would by doing it in an auction."
Since that worked so well, officials wondered - could you save money by buying through the online auction site eBay? Florey was intrigued, but not yet convinced.
"I was very skeptical of it just because of all the issues that could come up with purchasing off the internet," Florey says.
He worried about the quality of things bought. If they didn't work out, could he return them? He'd be working with sellers he'd never worked with before. And there were logistics like setting up a PayPal account to pay for the items.
We've gotten about a quarter of a million dollars worth of new to us equipment - useable equipment - for approximately $20,000.Bruce Hegreness
And he needed a county department willing to give it a try. He found that through the sheriff's office. It's the one which dispatches hundreds of police cars and other emergency vehicles, for the county and for towns and townships. Many squad cars needed costly upgrades in radio and computer equipment.
And the Sheriff's Department had a homeland security grant to help.
Bruce Hegrenes, with the county's Communications Department saw eBay as a way to stretch the county's dollars.
"County governments in Minnesota are really strapped for cash at this point," Hegrenes says. And (they) have been over the last couple of years with the cutbacks, that we had to look outside the box to try and fulfill the mission of providing the tools for the law enforcement community and for the rest of our partner agencies out there."
Turns out eBay was just the place to shop. They found barely used stuff - police radios, modems, and computer mounts - everything to turn an ordinary squad car into a high tech communicator.
And Hegrenes says the nationwide homeland security push freed up a bunch of good used equipment.
"This is still technology that's current," Hegrenes says. "It's just that as the federal dollars have gone to the larger communities and the metropolitan areas, they've replaced something that may be two to three years old, with something that's brand new, because it's maybe more reliable or they've just gotten the money and maybe we haven't."
For example there's a special mount that holds a laptop computer in a squad car. Hegrenes says they sell new for $850 each.
"We just bought 100 of them, and paid an average of $50 apiece for them; and paid probably about $6,000 total," Hegrenes says. "It was not from just one vendor on Ebay. And they're worth about $85,000 if we'd bought them new."
They found modular data modems for $180, each worth $2,600 new. With eBay the county outfitted squad cars with electronics for $2,000 each instead of $10,000 each.
"We've gotten about a quarter of a million dollars worth of new to us equipment - useable equipment - for approximately $20,000," Hegrenes says. "So it's over a ten to one return by buying off of eBay."
Now, in part, this program was a big success because the Sheriff's department can use second hand gear. Purchasing Director Dick Florey says you wouldn't buy a new squad car or a snow plow this way.
"It's highly unusual to see a political entity go out there and purchase used gear or equipment," Florey says. "That's why I'm so pleased with the program. Hopefully we can get it pushed out there to the other political entities to show that there really is another avenue out there instead of purchasing all new stuff."
Florey wants to try it again, although he's still a little leery. But he's made a point, that there can be ways to save money, by careful shopping, and a little luck online.