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Going, Going, Gone: The Growing Online Auction Business

by Kathy Taylor

Copyright 1998 Kathy Taylor. All rights reserved.

There's a trend online that's growing by leaps and bounds: the auction. Of course, the auction has been a way of purchasing for many since the beginning of time. Traditionally when we think of auctions, we think of used items, or foreclosed or abandoned property. Leave it to the online age to change all of that.

Auctions abound online. The variety of merchandise, as well as the manner in which auctions are handled, varies from site to site. Methods of purchase range from credit card to what could be considered mail order (sending a personal check by USPS). Regardless of these things, using online auctions can be exciting, and often one can get a great deal.

Like any shopping experience, let the buyer beware. Buyers as well as sellers can take precautions to ensure they have a happy experience.

Let's talk about the sellers. Who are they? Where are they? How do we know they're legitimate? To begin, there are both private parties and companies selling merchandise via online auctions. All auctions require some type of registration by the seller, usually involving detailed personal information such as mailing and email address, phone number and a real name. This information can be provided to a buyer upon request. One good test of a private seller is to ask for this information and verify it prior to bidding on their item. Utilizing a simple search on PC411, Bigfoot or any online people directory, one can verify the information given. A phone call to the seller as verification is also a good idea.

In addition, many sites offer a ranking system for sellers. eBay uses a buyer-feedback system. Buyers are allowed and encouraged to provide positive, negative or neutral feedback on sellers. (Sellers get to do this on buyers, too.) The feedback is rated with a star system and the comments are accessible from the bidding page. Look at it; read it. It can be your best source of information. Each feedback comment has the email address of the author, who is also a registered user.

An easy way to avoid problems is not to bid on merchandise from sellers that you can't identify as reputable. If they don't have a phone number, don't buy it. Of course, the time will come when you just have to have that special item and you're a bit leery about the seller. There is one more step you can take to ensure you receive your items as described. Since most sellers require the buyer to pay shipping charges, it can be advisable to request the seller to send your package C.O.D. While it involves a small cost, it can be worth it. Take, for example, the woman who bought an advertised 14K gold ring with three diamonds. She asked for C.O.D. shipping. When the package arrived, she paid by money order. Upon opening the package, she was unhappy with the ring, and quickly took it to a jeweler who verified that it was gold-plated. A call to the issuer of the money order immediately stopped payment while she contacted the seller for a resolution. She lost only a few dollars, which were ultimately refunded by the seller.

Keep in mind that the vast majority of sellers are honest people. Most of them will make great efforts to resolve conflicts or dissatisfaction. Negative feedback can be deadly. It is printed for every future buyer to see, and no one wants that.

Always remember, when buying any item, that the seller is trying to convince you through the printed word (and possibly a photograph) that the item is top-of-the-line. But who among us has not read a newspaper advertisement, only to arrive at a store to be disappointed by the product advertised?

So now we know how to choose reputable sellers and protect our purchases. But what responsibilities do buyers have? Plenty. The first and foremost rule is not to bid on merchandise you don't really want to buy. You may just win the bid and get stuck. Remember, this is an auction-not K-Mart. Returns are accepted by most sellers only if the merchandise (such as the ring cited earlier) is not as described. Sometimes you will see a company, selling through the auction, that accepts returns with a restocking fee.

Second, be honest about your size when buying clothes or shoes. This is not the time to say you're a size 10 when you're really a 14. There is no dressing room here. If you aren't sure about a particular brand or item, feel free to email the seller and ask for measurements before you bid. The seller won't mind sending them and you won't get stuck with an unusable item.

Third, don't get carried away by the auction frenzy. Recognize the real cost of an item. If the buyer must pay an additional three or four dollars for shipping, you must consider that part of your cost. If you are purchasing an item from a company within your home state you will also have to pay sales tax. Many times the price of an item including these extra charges can change that "great deal" into a price that you can match locally. One way to cut costs on shipping is to check out other auctions the seller may have online at the same time. If you purchase multiple items from a seller, generally the shipping charge is reduced; some sellers even pay the shipping on multiples. But beware. Recently there have been many comments about shipping costs being excessive. Some sellers are charging six and seven dollars to send a package. The hidden charges here are the shipping box, tape, labels, etc. If you pay seven dollars for shipping and receive your item in an old liquor box with three dollars' worth of postage on it, you just paid four dollars for tape.

Last, know what you are buying. If you aren't sure what a rayon-cotton blend feels like, don't buy it. If you think it looks like silk, ask the seller. If you see rust on an item, or a snag in the sweater, don't assume you can fix it. It is much safer to buy items that have photos. If photos are not immediately available, feel free to ask the seller to email you one. Some items without photos are perfect; the seller just doesn't have the equipment to put a photo online. If that is the case and you really want an item, find out if the seller will accept a return if you are dissatisfied upon receipt. A lot of them will. But be suspicious if a seller is selling a lot of high-priced items without photos. Again, there are legitimate sellers who do this. One example might be the seller who is selling off items from an estate. Just remember to ask questions; the questions you don't ask are the stupid ones.

Enough of the lectures. Let's get down to what's out there: just about everything! Computer parts, clothes, tools, cars, jewelry, collectibles-you name it, you can find it. New items, used items, dealer items, bulk items, they are all there for the bidding. Let's talk about some specific items.


A vast array of jewelry can be found on the auction block-everything from costume novelties to high-quality gems worth thousands of dollars. The majority of jewelry is offered for sale by companies rather than private sellers. But why would a company put its jewelry in an auction, you ask? Some of these items are specialty items, where the online selling floor serves to provide a much higher traffic exposure than the display case. Others are leftovers or the same type of items a retail store puts on the clearance rack. Private sellers also offer items such as the ring they never liked, or the earrings that are just a bit too big. Another group of sellers are pawn shops, who have provided cash loans on the merchandise, then found themselves stuck with it. Generally these sellers are trying to recover their money.

The one thing you will find in jewelry is a tremendous amount of duplication. No doubt this is due to the commercial nature of many of the sellers, who pick up 100 sapphire rings in various sizes and sell them one at a time. Usually if you are looking for a generic type of item, say a 14K gold, 18-inch rope chain, you will find a number of them over the course of a few days from different sellers. If you seek one-of-a-kind or specialty items, the selection obviously will be limited.

Sites Featuring Jewelry:

Advantage Auction

Auction Anything


Mackley and Company



While sites offering clothing on the block are limited, there are some great deals to be had on designer fashions. For whatever reason, once a piece of clothing leaves the store, the depreciation is incredible. Many new items are available with tags still attached, at a fraction of the retail price. For example, recently a one-dozen lot of brand-new Hanes 100% cotton, prewashed, men's pocket T-shirts went for $20. These retail in the discount stores for four to five dollars each. When they arrived, they were just as described, right down to the size label stuck to the front of each shirt.

There are also many "gently used" items offered by private sellers. It seems that many of these items would fall into the "current trends" category, which includes popular name brands like Docker, Nike, Polo, Tommy Hilfiger and the like. The average Tommy Hilfiger shirt retails for $65. A gently used one at auction will sell for around $15. A good bargain.

Many items normally outside of one's buying power can be purchased at reasonable prices. Coach purses, Liz Claiborne dresses, Guess? jeans-all become affordable to the average person. Most parents don't mind spending $20 on jeans, but paying $80 so they can have someone's name on their rear pocket can be out of the question. Without a doubt, the auction block can be a teenager's dream come true, but don't forget that grownups, even those among us who would never buy designer, may have a burning desire for a few designer name items. And when we can buy them in great condition for the same price as those discount store items, why not?

Sites Featuring Clothing:





Computers and Electronics

There are a number of auction sites devoted strictly to these areas. Any hardware or software item under the sun can be found regularly at prices that will keep you out of the retail stores forever. A computer consultant recently noted that while he had been purchasing peripherals online for a long time, the auctions opened up a whole new world for him.

Since many people constantly upgrade their systems, either through complete replacement or addition of parts, used parts abound on the auction block. There the availability of hard-to-find parts is significantly increased. If you have an older system that you are happy with, beware. Retail establishments are not always cooperative when something breaks. With a little bit of know-how, you can buy at auction and do it yourself. Most computers have schematics either in their owners manual, or online at the manufacturer's site. Simple things like installing more memory or replacing a motherboard can be done even by folks who aren't technically inclined.

One must be cautious when it comes to this area, as pricing tends to be very erratic. For example, a pair of EDO 16K SIMMS, 72 pin recently sold for $51. Now that's 32K of additional memory. Three minutes later a pair of EDO 8K SIMMS, 72 pin sold for $75. Now that's 16K of additional memory. Go figure.

Some people get an idea in their head about what they want for their system and become very focused toward it. A lot of this is caused by their own fear or uncertainty regarding their ability to add a board or a chip. Without a salesperson next to them to point out that they can get twice as much for less, they just don't pay attention. Their loss can be your gain.

Other electronics on auction include stereos, televisions, radar detectors, telephones-just about anything. Again we have a wide assortment of items, both new and used as well as some demo models. Know your products. Ask questions and remember that shipping charges for larger items can at times make their purchase very costly. Don't ever assume anything. If they say it needs only a battery to work, why don't they buy the battery and sell it as a working item? If they say it is minus the remote, make sure you can get one if it is important to you.

Last, electronics get outdated almost as fast as they hit the shelf. Their value is severely reduced with age. Most electronics use the year of manufacture in their serial number; generally they are the first two or last two numbers. Ask the seller before you buy.

Sites Featuring Computers and/or Electronics:

Interactive Auction Online

A A Telephone




Infinite Auction

MicroAngelo's Auction


Robotica Computer Products Auction


There are numerous other items on the auction block; they can be found by utilizing various search engines. Many of the sites handle specialties such as sports memorabilia, antiques, artwork, automobiles, and horses. One site even lets you put your travel itinerary online for travel agents to bid on it (sort of a backward auction-low bid wins). One great place to find online auctions is BidFind. The site even has a search engine which will steer you to the site for a particular item you are looking for.

Some sites are interactive; some have preset rules. Some limit their sellers strictly to companies rather than private individuals. There are as many different scenarios as there are auctions.

The key to successful buying is caution and care. Impulse buying is not advisable. Make sure the item is what you want before you bid and you can come away with some real bargains. Remember: whether you're buying emeralds or electronics, it's your money. Being satisfied with your purchase is always your ultimate goal.


While her work is generally in the area of social services, Kathy Taylor has been utilizing the Internet for a number of years for a wide variety of research purposes ranging from personal to professional.


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