05 February 2012

How to get good deals on Ebay

Many people buy typewriters on Ebay. Many people (try to) sell them on Ebay too.

This is a very anarchic system. It is full of people who know nothing about typewriters, may be deceptive about them, may over estimate their value, many not pack them at all well, and may cause us all sorts of headaches. Buying on Ebay is a gamble.

I have some pages on various subjects such as Ebay, Etsy, and Similar Sites. This is about Ebay only, although some of the general principles apply to other sites too.

The first topic is business. Remember this in all dealings on Ebay and e-commerce sites, it is a business transaction. Any misdoings, such as misrepresenting an item being sold or improperly packing it resulting in damage, are something which should not be tolerated. Ebay has a system for filing claims and resolving issues, and so do many other sites. If an item is misrepresented or not in the condition described, then it should be resolved. If you still want to keep the item, then you can often work out a partial refund. Remember, it is business. Real people, yes, but still business.

I hope my advice on my page given earlier is found to be useful in ensuring a good transaction. The bulk of this post will be about the buyer/bidder, not the sellers. Once you have identified what you want to bid on (by searching, reviewing, contacting the seller, etc until one is satisfied that one wants to buy what is listed), then one has to bid on it. Now, if it is a Buy It Now situation, then buy it. If you can make an offer, make one. Make it a reasonably low amount that you think the seller might accept, and if you get a counter offer, and it is a good deal, then take it. Most times, sellers will make a counter offer and be unwilling to go lower although you can try (you are allowed to).

Secondly, understand the system being used to conduct this business. Ebay uses a bidding system to conduct auctions (along with options to buy things immediately or make offers which the seller can accept or reject, but auctions are the most common). Now, most people seem to think that one should "incrementally bid", that is, continually bid the lowest amount possible and update this as others outbid until the bidding is over or until one is no longer willing to bid higher. Incremental bidders are constantly on the watch for "snipers". Snipers wait until the last possible moment to bid and then bid the minimal (or, sometimes, any high amount if they are slightly smarter).

It must be understood, and it will be emphasized, incrementally bidding and sniping are stupid ways to use Ebay and will not get you better deals and you risk losing what you could have otherwise won. Why is this? Because the bidding system of Ebay does not encourage this sort of bidding.

To explain, Ebay uses a "Proxy bid" system. It is similar to a Vickrey auction, but if you knew what that is, you won't really learn anything in this post. In short, the bidding system encourages people to bid the highest amount they are willing to pay, and bid only once. And there is no reason not to do this. One will not pay more doing that if one tried incrementally bidding or sniping. It is faster, easier, and more sure. Also, in the cases where others are incrementally bidding and sniping, it may get you a better deal than you would have otherwise gotten had others been properly bidding! That is to say, people bidding stupidly are your friend, as long as you do not bid in the same manner.

Here is how the system works. People place their maximum bid for an item. The winner pays an increment over the second highest bid. So if three people bid $10, $14, and $100, the $100 bidder pays $14 plus a small amount over. Also, that amount is what is displayed as the minimum bid. So, an incremental bidder sees that the bid is at "$14.50" or something and bids that, and is immediately informed he is outbid (because the high bid is $100). So, the incremental bidder bids $14.50, and then is informed he is outbid, etc. Eventually, he will reach his actual highest bid. If it happens to be over $100, then he'll win. If it isn't, well, it wouldn't be any different if he had made his first bid his actual highest bid. But the other thing is if he is willing to pay over $100, but bids incrementally, he risks running out of time especially if he is trying to snipe. If there is a minute left on the clock, he won't be able to bid fast enough to reach his actual highest bid. Then the winner gets a better deal because he is being given the lowest price.

Now, there is a chance that someone will bid a very high number in hopes that nobody actually goes too high, but this will backfire usually and puts one in a very poor position if one is unwilling to pay what the amount turns out to be (negative feedback hopefully not doing one's part in the business transaction). Bid as if you will win. Bid the maximum amount you will pay, and leave it alone. Now, if you decide you are willing to pay more, then certainly increase your bid if necessary, but there is no reason to risk losing for no reason other than a misguided notion of how the bidding system works.

Incremental bidders and snipers are rampant, but it doesn't actually get them any good deals, but they can get you a good deal. If they do win, they don't pay any less than if they had bid their maximum when they first decided they wanted to bid at all and they risk losing what they could have easily won. I love them. I have gotten great deals because an person was doing last second incremental bids. The Corona Zephyr I have available was won this way. The sniper was close, but he waited too long. I wish I could tell that keychopper how close he was so he could feel the burn.

Or, if you don't want to deal with Ebay, see if you want to deal with me. Some of the typewriters I have used on this blog are available for sale or trade. I like typewriters, but I have limited space and if I can move out typewriters I do not plan on using, then I can try more and be sure that the ones I had are not being wasted in my closet.


  1. I don't agree. I am a sniper, and for good reason: I don't want to attract the attention of others for "my" typewriter. I always bid in the last minutes, usually the highest amount I'm willing to pay.
    If anyone else has already placed a bid, which is rather rare on the swiss pendant of eBay, I snipe, if the placed bid is higher, I incrementally increase.
    And it usually works out.

  2. It is psychological. You aren't saving money or increasing your chances of winning at all.

    You don't attract attention by bidding. The rampant tactic of sniping and incremental bidding makes it better to bid sooner, so people who are sniping lose it by waiting too late even if they were willing to bid more than you.

    For example, a typewriter is available for $10 starting bid (or whatever currency you use). I decide I would pay $60 for it, and bid $60. Others see that there is one bid and that the minimum bid is $10.50. They wait until the end and try to win it, but unless they bid their maximum, they will lose it. So...what is to be gained by not bidding one's maximum in the first place?

  3. I agree with maschinengeschrieben. Naturally when you're sniping you must bid the true maximum amount you are willing to pay, but it makes sense to snipe that amount at the end of the auction, instead of bidding earlier.

    In your example, the fallacy is saying that the others will "wait until the end." Instead, often the incremental snipers will in fact pay attention to your existing bid, and bid you up needlessly.

    Let's say I bid $60 one day before the auction ends, meeting the starting bid of $10. An incremental bidder then tries to outbid me, bidding up and up until he reaches his maximum of $50 and then stops. I win the auction for $51. However, if I had waited to snipe, there is a good chance that the incremental bidder would have been the first bidder, would have stopped at $10, and I would then have won the item for $10.50. Sniping saved me $40.50.

    I've tried both methods and speak from experience.

  4. PS: I don't understand the last bit of maschinengeschrieben's comment. If I really want an item and am not just playing games, I snipe my maximum. There is no incremental increase.

  5. Ok, sniping might save one money if others are using incrementally bidding and sniping as well.

    But, as a bidding tactic, it isn't that solid. You can't really know what might have been. Your example relies on the incremental bidder bidding first. Now, that person could be and have bid $65, but the same $10.50 minimum bid would be displayed.

    So, sniping only "saves" you from incremental bidders in certain situations. In my experience, incremental bidders wait until the last moment until trying to race up, ie, even if they bid first or early, they still try to snipe for some reason.

    But as a way to win on Ebay, bidding the maximum you are willing to pay is the only way to bid, and one may bid at certain times as one sees fit. Bidding close to the end may give one a lower price if others plan on incrementally bidding. On the other hand, there is no way to know that a person is such a bidder or what might have been.

  6. True, you can't know what might have been -- but you can know that there is no possible benefit in bidding early* whereas there is a possible benefit in sniping.

    *One exception: sometimes sellers will end an auction before the scheduled time, because they don't see signs of interest and decide not to sell. They will sometimes even warn us that they're thinking of doing this. In such a situation, putting in a bid (perhaps not one's maximum) might encourage the seller to keep the auction going so the item doesn't disappear.

    Sniping, by the way, must be done as close to the end as possible -- less than 10 seconds -- so that no incremental bidder has time to react.

    You can often plausibly reconstruct bidders' mentality by looking at the bid history. You can see that a bidder kept bidding in $10 increments, for instance, until he became the top bidder, and then he stopped. Then someone outbids him and he does the same thing again. This is the classic incremental bidder behavior, and I think it's a newbie strategy; the person doesn't really understand how eBay works. There are enough of these newbies out there that it's risky to bid your maximum early.

  7. I'm a sniper and for a good reason; I like to save money. I think, on average, that sniping will give lower prices on many items. I always bid my maximum as a snipe. That way I can't loose. If I win the item I win. If someone else gets the item I also win because I just saved all that money.

    But, in reality, the more bids that come in at any time in an auction, the higher the price. By not bidding early I am not showing my hand or interest which MAY allow that others will not see someone with a higher price to pick away at their bid, thus raising the price.

    Sniping gives no advantage in winning because nobody will ever know how many other snipers are out there to swoop in. In the end the item goes to the person who submits the highest bid whether the bid is submitted early or at the end of the auction.

    I often check the bidding history and can see where, if one or several bidders did not try to leapfrog each other to be the "top bidder" as one might do in a live auction, the price would not keep going up and up. Not showing ones hand early may cause some other bidders to not realize that another person is interested in the item and they may fail to up there bid to counter the opposition. Anyone who thinks bidding early and at their max will save them money and help them win the auction is not thinking clearly. I will also occasionally submit a low, early bid to make it a little less likely that the seller will end the auction early. I also contact a seller on a potentially popular item to ask them to not end the auction early or, if they are tempted to do so, to give me a chance to buy or offer on it. Snipe it! It's good for buyers but not for sellers.
    Steve Stephens

  8. There is no such thing as "bidding early". If one can bid too early, then it is logical to conclude that bidding at a time before the last possible moment is "too early". I recommend bidding when one knows one wants the item and to bid the maximum one is willing to pay. One can watch an item for a while (which I do to try to reduce bidding on a whim and also when comparing items of a similar nature) and then bid later, perhaps near the end of the auction, but this game of second guessing the market, the seller, and other bidders is silly and not necessarily smart.

    It also adds to the energy in the bid. I won the Skyriter and a sniper/incremental bidder wasted his time and energy in losing against me. One could say that instead of $10 (the minimum starting bid), I paid $15, therefore, by not bidding late (when the sniper would have bid the minimum fewer times), I cost myself $5 more, therefore, I did not "save" money, but in reality, I bid around $20. I was committed to pay up to $20, and I actually paid $15, therefore, I saved $5, despite the incremental bidding sniper.

    Watching and waiting is good for assessing one's desire for the item, to see if others are bidding (if others have the bids up beyond one is willing to pay, then there is no point to join in), to better time the purchase (I like to pay immediately after winning, so I do prefer auctions that are ending at a time which is within 24 hours), or to just alleviate the possibility that someone will incrementally raise what you will pay, but it is not a sure tactic or always worth the effort. And economically, it relies on other people using the proxy bidding system in a weird way.

    My advice is thinking clearly. Do you when going to the store wait for a particular item to go on sale or go on clearance before buying to "save money"? I consider any amount one pays below the maximum one has bid to be "saving money" instead of such speculation.

    Why stress oneself out by over thinking and wasting energy in making a business transaction?

    I view eBay transactions as purely business transactions. If you think you "saved money" by not winning, then your view of your transactions is much more recreational.

    And don't write I am not "thinking clearly" unless you can rationally show that to be the case. That I have different goals in my bidding than you is not a sign of disordered thinking. The proxy bidding system is not a poker game. It is a way to get the buyer as much money as one can given the current market and to give the buyers the lowest price in the same market. I only use it because that is how I can get what I want. If I have a choice, I "Buy it now" or buy it elsewhere. I do not go to eBay to play with the system, but to buy what I want for the price I am willing to accept (or lower if available).

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  10. Here's why I snipe:

    I am the fantasy of every eBay seller, and the user for whom eBay was invented. I'm a total sucker for bidding wars. I know it and it wouldn't surprise me if a few people who both sell and buy on eBay know it. (I know, call me paranoid...). If I get a "you have been outbid" message it's catnip. Liver treats. And I jump. I suspect I've started more bidding wars than I've joined. When that has happened, I've always ended up spending more than I meant to. So, I set my max and automatically bid it 3 seconds before the bidding closes. I'm pretty sure it's possible at that late stage even to beat a higher max by another sniper/incrementer who just couldn't click fast enough.

    Could I accomplish the same by creating a filter that routes all email with the phrase "you have been outbid" to my spam folder? Maybe. Is this a not-very-businesslike behavior? Most assuredly. But if the injunction to "first know thyself" has any value, then I know myself well enough to stay away from possible bidding frenzies. For me, it's the best deal. Similar suckers might find it useful as well. Masters of self-control, on the other hand, can probably do without.


    1. Addendum: Soon after posting the above I lost a Lettera in the last 3 seconds to someone who had bid early a maximum amount greater than my auto-snipe. Had I been watching, I'd have upped my bid beyond my budget. To those of you with more self-restraint, my deepest and most sincere respect.


  11. Isn't it interesting how many different opinions there are on ebay bidding strategy?

    When I bid on an ebay item I bid to win and not to bid up the price to make other potential winners pay more or to get more money for the seller. I am not wealthy so getting an item for less money is always beneficial to me. I bid the maximum I am willing to pay and I snipe in the last 20 seconds or so. My free sniping program won't snipe with fewer seconds left but I think that not too many bidders will see my bid and try to top it. It has happened but probably not too often.

    Saving five or twenty dollars is somewhat significant and, on very inexpensive items I guess a few dollars either way won't empty one's wallet. But I usually bid on items that are in the hundreds of dollars and even on multi thousand dollar items. That's big money for me so anything I can do to help keep the price down on average I am for. I don't game the ebay system which is really very simple; simply be the bidder who enters the highest bid by the scheduled end of the auction. By bidding early it can entice some bidders to immediately up their bid. If they don't see a higher bid then they or some other bidder are less likely to up the bid price.

    Look at the bidding history and winning price of an ebay auction where there is a bidding war or multiple bidders bidding often and early. Compare with other auctions where there is less of that behavior and see which item seems to sell for a better price to the buyer. Bidding wars and many early bids tend to raise the price. In the end the item usually goes to a sniper because bidders who know how to win an item for the best price are smart enough to snipe.


  12. I used to bid the most I wanted to pay for an item no mater what the item. Over the years all that does is attract others to the auction in an 'well if some one else wants it so do I and I'll bid more' attitude. Waiting until the end and placing the maximum price I want to pay has gotten me more bargains than proxy bidding which usually costs me money even if it is not over my maximum bid. Ebay also uses a live bid near the end of an auction very similar if not the same as Lab-X. In some cases this causes a more real-live like auction when several people are interested in the item. When that happens on something I want I just move on. Sooner or later someone will list the same thing and sometimes cheaper or I'll find an odd ending time and there will not be any snipers.

    When at all possible I use local sales, Craiglist, Etsy, BOnanza or ShopGoodwill, Lab-X (they only sell lab equipment) although all are getting more popular and more buyers hence inflated prices.

  13. I have an addition to this blog post, which benefits everyone using online marketplaces to sell or buy used goods. This website gives you price trends and blue book values for almost all used goods, so you can use it as a pricing tool to find out how much your stuff is worth. I've just signed up as a beta user, and I can really see this being a great tool for me as an eBay user, to make sure I don't overpay or undersell items.
    I highly recommend checking it out, so here is a link to the site: