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Better Bartering Bureau

Making the most of online auctions.

Like many others, I find eBay a very handy way to buy things I can’t get elsewhere. In the eight odd years I’ve been eBaying, I’ve stocked my office with eBayed equipment, sold obsolete and even broken electronics (which some chop shops are happy to use for parts), and on one happy occasion, had an entirely recycled Christmas, in which I turned around the previous year’s unused presents and bought new ones. Now, that’s creative regifting for you.

But eBay can be a powerful comparison-shopping tool. It’s a great source for obscure items, or for package deals of complementary items. When you need a fancy-pants camera, for example, searching on a brand name is a great way to compare what bricks-and-mortar camera stores offer in terms of bundles (lenses, camera bags, memory cards, and so on).

But there’s a trick to dealing with eBay that many people don’t get. Many of the lots seem to go for exorbitant prices and not all the dealers are as service-oriented as other sources. So if you intend to go the eBay way, do yourself a favor and run through my shopping checklist.

Reality check

If you have a particular item in mind, scope out pricing and availability elsewhere. Is it available on Amazon.com or Buy.com or eCost or any of the other one-stop shops online? Can it be found cheaper at comparison shopping sources such as my old favorite metasearch tool Copernic Agent www.computerjobs.com or the relative newcomer the Dealiotoolbar. What about Google’s price search tool Froogle? It gets tricky to compare and contrast bundles of goods–when you’re camera shopping, what value do you place on a bendy-legged five-inch tripod or starburst filter that you will probably never use? But one thing’s for sure: With eBay, you can comparison shop on a few thousand results that you can sort in price order at the click of a mouse, so how can you go wrong?

Don’t bid before you’re ready. Most men I know tend to shop fast and indiscriminately because they hate shopping. The advantage to eBaying is that you buy time by avoiding mall traffic–and you should use that time to hone your buying skills. Don’t bid on the first result you see that looks right. Hold back on bidding until you’ve gone through all the following items on the checklist:

Buy It Now when you can. Look for the Buy It Now flash when you’re shopping. If you can find goods in the right price range in a Buy It Now auction, click on the link at the top of that auction that saves it in your Watch list. Don’t bid yet!

Don’t get excited. Don’t allow yourself to get carried away with the auction process. The thrill of the chase is no excuse for bidding up and up on an item. If you need the item and it’s unique, you may have to go higher, but otherwise, move on to items that are priced right.

Set your price. Set yourself a price range and place a bid up to the top of that range. If you bid $50 on a lot that’s opening at $19.95, the bid will be for $19.95, but each subsequent bidder will find himself outbid until he bids $51. But don’t bid until you’ve evaluated the person who’s selling the goods.

Check handling costs. Make sure the vendor isn’t padding the price with exorbitant shipping/handling charges. Some people lowball their auction price and stick a $20 charge for a $4 shipping bill. It’s a marketing trick that’s neither good nor bad unless you’re not expecting it, though it does cut down on the seller fees due to eBay.

Evaluate the source. In general, you want to deal with established vendors for business-related items. How many positive feedbacks does this vendor have? How many negative feedbacks? A rash of negative feedbacks isn’t necessarily a bad sign: Sometimes a vendor who was a bit slow delivering goods one month is trying all the harder to do it right this month. And some buyers are never satisfied: Check out the content of some recent negative feedbacks and ask yourself, “If this happened to me, would it bother me as much as it bothered the guy who’s complaining?” Click the link to the complainant and see if he has a history of bad feedbacks himself. Some people just attract ill will!

Cash or charge? Make sure you’re comfortable with the vendor’s preferred method of payment. Some people want checks, Western Union, or BidPay only. Some larger vendors provide toll-free numbers or Web-based checkout systems for credit card purchase. Don’t bid anywhere without checking the payment method.

Shorten the shortlist. In the end, you’ll have a shortlist of auctions and some idea of the vendors’ reputations. Rule out any vendor you don’t feel comfortable with and go with the auction you like. Then go with the flow.

square trading

One very handy feature to look for is Square Tradecertification. Go to Square Trade and enter a seller’s eBay ID to ensure that they deal with Square Trade. If they do, you can use the services of a Square Trade mediator to handle any serious issues with a transaction, such as non-delivery or unwarranted negative feedback. I recently went through a mediation to handle some problems with partial order delivery, back-ordering, and negative feedback. The buyer and seller get a chance to kvetch about each other to the mediator, and the mediator keeps the peace by repeating the issues in non-inflammatory ways.

Square Trade mediation turned around the one bad experience I’ve had in eight years of eBay buying and selling. I’ll not insist on any seller I deal with being Square Trade certified (I’m not myself), but if I have to choose between two similar lots from high-volume eBay suppliers, the Square Trade one will get my money.

Contributing Editor Matt Lake writes SOHO Advisor monthly for ComputerUser.

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