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Confessions of an eBay junkie


You can pick up some great bargains. But don't get caught up in a bidding frenzy.


Confessions of an eBay junkie

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Choose article section... Getting started on eBay A few rules for playing the game 

You can pick up some great bargains. But don't get caught up in a bidding frenzy.

By Charles Davant III, MD
Family Physician, Blowing Rock, NC

My wife accuses me of being an eBay junkie. But that's not quite fair. When you think of eBay—the online auction site found at www.ebay.com—you probably think of Barbie dolls, Beanie Babies, and other flea market stuff that I generally ignore. Of course, you can buy anything on eBay—and I do mean anything. The selection is unbelievable, the savings can be substantial, and what's more, it's really fun. The only downside: eBay can be highly addictive.

Founded in 1995, eBay is the world's largest online auction. On any given day, the site's 55 million registered users have a choice of more than 12 million items. Got something you want to sell? For a small fee, you can list it on eBay and find people who want it. Buyers bid against each other for a fixed time period—typically a week. When the bidding closes, the high bidder gets the item and pays shipping, handling, and insurance charges.

For collectors of arcane and hard-to-find items, eBay is a godsend. I've been frequenting the site for nearly three years now, and I've bought dozens of books, CDs, and DVDs. I've also used eBay to help furnish my office with used medical equipment and a few antique medical instruments. With doctors retiring in droves these days, many of them are disposing of perfectly good equipment.

When I typed in "Welch Allyn," for example, I came up with more than 100 items, including dozens of otoscopes and ophthalmoscopes. Many were labeled "NIB," or "new in box," and were selling for a fraction of what they cost new. Entering "ECG" netted nearly 80 items. I found only one colonoscope, an older model. But using "Stryker," I found two brand new autopsy saws.

A colleague recently told me that someone was selling an MRI machine, complete with a truck to transport it. Sure enough, when I checked eBay, there it was. The seller claimed it had cost $2 million new, and described it as being in perfect operating condition. The opening bid was $10,000, but as I watched it over the next few days, the bidding never reached the seller's (unrevealed) reserve price, so it didn't sell.

Once you find something you really need, or just want, it's time to jump in and bid. For example, I'd been looking for a Cannon PowerShot S100 digital Elph camera for some time. The cheapest ones I could find at local retail shops cost around $400, so anything below $300 would be a steal. I found one on eBay with only one bid at $75, so I entered a bid of $100. In an instant, my screen said I'd already been outbid.

What happened? The previous bidder had entered a maximum bid higher than $100, so I had to raise my own bid until I beat his maximum. (Bid increments range from 50 cents to $100, depending on the price range.) When I entered a bid of $205, I got a message: "Congratulations. You are the current high bidder." I also got an e-mail confirming my bid. That bid would stand until the auction is over, or I'm outbid.

A day or so later, however, I got an e-mail from eBay warning me that I'd been outbid by someone else. I raised my maximum to $305, which turned out to be the winning bid. Once the bidding was closed, the seller and I both got e-mails confirming my purchase. The seller typically e-mails the buyer within a day or two to get the shipping address and confirm payment terms.

While I did end up "winning" that time, I've also had several great bargains snatched from under my nose at the last minute. I've also watched suckers pay far more for an item than the going retail price in stores.

Sometimes you can take advantage of a pattern among certain items. For instance, I had wanted a 200-disk JVC CD changer, and the best price I could find it for was $200 plus tax at a major discount chain. I then searched eBay for that model and noticed several identical listings closing one day apart. Apparently a dealer in North Dakota was putting brand new ones up for sale each day, including a full factory warranty. After watching several of them sell for $150 to $160 apiece, I put in a low-ball bid on one and ended up getting it for $135. The shipping cost me less than I would have paid in tax at the store.

If the item you're looking for is hard to find, or if there are several bidders competing for it, you're probably going to end up paying top dollar. That's what happened with the repair manual I bought on eBay to restore my wife's 1973 Datsun 240Z. I found one easily enough, but unfortunately somebody else wanted it as badly as I did. Every time I raised my bid, this guy outbid me. He seemed to have no limit. So I tried lurking until a few minutes before the auction was due to end, and got my final bid in with only seconds to spare.

The good news is I won. My competitor apparently figured I'd given up. The bad news is I had to pay $20 for the manual, more than twice what I'd planned.

If you feel you've gotten a bad deal after inspecting your merchandise, you can e-mail the seller and request a refund. If you can't work things out with him, eBay offers a dispute resolution service for unhappy buyers. But eBay won't guarantee satisfaction, so ultimately your beef is still with the seller. (There are escrow services that will hold your money or your credit card number until you receive and inspect the item you've bought.)

You can register a complaint by giving the seller negative feedback, describing what happened and warning other bidders. If a seller gets too many complaints, he may be kicked off eBay. The same goes for sellers who get friends to enter "shill" bids to boost the price. Buyers can also be barred from the auctions if they fail to come up with their payment.

My own experience with eBay has been highly satisfactory. In almost 200 transactions, I've gotten what I paid for nearly every time, and I've never been ripped off. The few times I received an item that was damaged, or otherwise not as advertised, the seller has replaced it or refunded my money.

In fact, whenever I decide to retire, I expect to become a seller instead of a buyer. I'll have a lot of gently-used medical items to put up for auction, with a reserve price just over what they might be worth as a charitable donation.

Getting started on eBay

It costs nothing to join eBay (www.ebay.com), nothing to bid, and you can search for things without registering. If you do decide to bid, though, you must register; you'll need to provide your e-mail address and pick a password.

To start the hunt, type in the name of whatever you're looking for in the search box on eBay's home page. Be specific: if you simply put in "Beatles," you'll come up with thousands of items. To narrow the choice, try "Beatles + CD" or "Yellow Submarine," each of which will still produce hundreds of items. To limit your search still further, click on "Advanced Search."

Once you have a list of items you're interested in that are currently being auctioned, you can sort them by price, or by the closing date for the bidding. You'll also see the current high bid. If you click on "bid history," you'll see how many other bidders are competing for the item, although there may be more out there "lurking" until the last few minutes.

Click on the item itself to get photos and a detailed description of its condition. You'll also learn what payment methods the seller accepts. Some will take personal checks; others will accept only certified checks or money orders. Many now also use PayPal and eBay Payments (formerly Billpoint), which let you charge purchases to your Visa, MasterCard, or Discover Card at no extra cost.

To check a seller's background, click on his "Feedback Profile." You'll see a list of comments from previous customers over the past six months. If you don't see a high percentage of "positives," be wary. If there are a few "negatives," scroll through them to see how the seller responded.

Then click back to the list of items and scroll down. Say you're looking for the novel, Captain Horatio Hornblower. You may find a dozen copies with a wide range of prices. Look at the ones near their closing time, and check the bidding on them. Some sellers set a minimum or reserve price; others let the bidding begin at $1, hoping a low starting price will attract more bidders. If a few buyers get into a bidding war, they can start a feeding frenzy that quickly drives the price up well above the reserve, and often far above any reasonable value.

Don't forget to consider the item's weight, and the seller's location, since you'll usually have to pay for shipping. I once came close to bidding on an antique wine press before I realized the seller lived in California. That's nearly 3,000 miles from my home, which made it too expensive to ship, and a bit far to pick up myself. Even with light items, however, it pays to be careful. I once paid more to ship an antique corkscrew from France than I paid for the gadget itself.


A few rules for playing the game

Based on my three years as a bidder on eBay, here are some lessons I've learned that should be helpful to newcomers to the game.

Don't bid too early. Instead of jumping right in with a bid, bide your time. You can click on "watch this item," to get a daily update on the bidding. The current high bidder may be complacent, expecting to get the item for a bargain price. But other bidders like you may be just a click away, lurking until the last few minutes. If you really want something, be ready to pounce. Just don't announce your interest before you have to.

You don't have to bid this time. Whatever the item, no matter how rare, another one will eventually show up. If the price seems too high, or if the item isn't exactly what you want or need, just wait.

Don't get carried away. Decide in advance how high you're willing to go, and stick to that amount. If you get caught up in a bidding war, and your ego is challenged, it's easy to lose control and get pushed up to an unreasonable price.

You won't always get a bargain. Sometimes eBay is the only place to find an item you really need, in which case you may not get it for a bargain price. But if you can't get it anywhere else, you may not have a choice. Can you get burned? Absolutely. If the price on a used item seems too good to be true, be careful. It may not be the same model or the same condition as advertised. That's why it pays to check the seller's feedback record.



Charles Davant III. Confessions of an eBay junkie.

Medical Economics

Dec. 9, 2002;79:65.

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