What Should I Know About Buying on eBay and Other Auction Sites?

April 25, 2009

in ecommerce,Internet

by David Hakala

Online auction sites are tremendous marketplaces in which to buy goods. Competition among sellers keeps prices low, prices that others have paid are usually available for comparison, and you can find almost anything (legal) on one auction site or another. is the king of online auction sites, with more buyers and sellers and more different goods available than any other But don’t overlook other auction sites, especially those devoted to specialized categories of relatively rare goods., for example, specializes in opals of all kinds. Its users tend to be highly knowledgeable serious collectors and investors. They know exactly what an opal is worth and they don’t suffer auction fever that makes them overbid. When you win an auction on a specialty site, you can be confident that you got a fair price.

The reputation of a seller is of paramount importance. After all, you are going to give the seller money before he delivers the good. eBay provides a “feedback” system that lets buyers rate sellers for the accuracy of their item descriptions, the speed of delivery, how well the seller communicates with buyers, and the reasonableness of shipping charges. Other auction sites have similar rating systems. Check a seller’s reputation closely before you bid. If the seller seems shady, he probably is. Listen to his reputation, not to your desire for what he’s offering.

There’s a saying among seasoned patrons of online auction sites:

“The winner of an auction is the person who pays more than anyone else thinks something is worth for something the seller didn’t think was worth keeping.”

That quip is intended to be an antidote to “auction fever,” the tendency to bid too much in the excitement of bidding action. The most difficult thing to remember is to bid your maximum once and don’t increase it. Otherwise, you may spend a lot more than you planned to.

You may be watching an auction in which you are the high bidder eagerly, waiting for the final few seconds to count down and congratulating yourself on a big win. But in the last couple of seconds, someone comes along and outbids you. This is called “sniping” and it is often accomplished automatically by software on the bidder’s computer. Sniping software synchronizes its clock to that of the auction site and places a bid in the very last seconds of an auction, effectively precluding a manual response from another bidder.

Pay attention to shipping charges. Too often, sellers offer items with very low opening prices and exorbitant shipping charges. If the shipping charges to your ZIP code are not explicitly spelled out, do not bid until the seller tells you exactly what they will be.

Never send cash to a seller. Never wire transfer money to a seller. Use a credit card that affords protection against fraud and non-delivery, or the electronic funds transfer service. If you don’t use plastic, mail a check or money order that at least provides proof of your payment.

David Hakala has perpetrated technology tutorials since 1988 in addition to committing tech journalism, documentation, Web sites, marketing collateral, and profitable prose in general. His complete rap sheet can be seen at