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Sold, To The Highest Net Surfer

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HUNDREDS OF RETAILERS HAVE BEEN RUSHING TO SET UP electronic storefronts on the Internet, offering everything from flowers to floppy disks. Even with the World Wide Web's ability to display color graphics and play back sound, though, they all face the problem of how to grab and keep the attention of fickle cyber-shoppers. A startup called OnSale has what looks like a compelling approach: It's out to engage and challenge the game-oriented minds typical of Internet users with a series of auctions.

In some cases, says co-founder Jerry Kaplan, merchandise such as wine, sports memorabilia, and last-minute travel bookings will simply be sold to the highest bidder. In other cases, shoppers will have to decide between buying now at the current price or waiting an hour for the price to drop. The risk is that, by then, others may have scooped up the entire limited supply of goods.

OnSale will operate as a Net-based sales-and-marketing service, presenting goods that its clients actually own and sell. Initially, says Kaplan, they'll take payments by credit card.

Kaplan is launching OnSale at about the same time his book, Startup, is hitting the stores. It describes the travails of his previous venture, GO, which developed and tried to set a standard for the software that runs on pen-based computers.EDITED BY PAUL M. ENG

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