Even those of us not tempted to skulk in the eighth row and tip the auctioneer a sly wink every now and again, can find it hard not to be tempted by the allure of a virtual saleroom such as eBay.
Partly it’s because the anonymity afforded by the internet eliminates the possibility for embarrassment. But also it’s because it’s easier to cheat.
Winning on eBay against the odds does not violate any of the rules – and indeed a raft of tools exists to help you play the system with the minimum of effort.
The holy grail among bargain hunters, whether in an actual or a virtual bidding room, is a lot on which the auctioneer is about to bring down the gavel and on which there are no bids. In the case of eBay, a quick online search for “zero bid finder tools” will yield a host of websites and phone apps that specialise in finding just such sales. You simply enter as many or as few details as you like of what you’re looking for, and press the Find button.
The best of the apps will send you notifications if an item becomes available later, and will also optionally search for lots with misspelled istings, which, by their nature, tend not to attract search engines or, as a result, buyers.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Regular bargain hunters will recognise a practice rife on eBay of bids being placed at the last second on items whose price until then had scarcely risen above the initial value. This is known as sniping, and although eBay does not go out of its way to promote it, neither does it outlaw or even discourage it.
Sniping is done by placing a bid in advance on a third-party service and scheduling it to be passed to eBay itself at the very last moment. It doesn’t guarantee that you will win the item, especially if other bidders are doing the same thing, but it increases your chances manyfold.
Depending on the sniping service you use, you can schedule multiple last-second bids to be made on your behalf. All you need do is specify the maximum amount you are prepared to pay.
There are two ways of using sniping services, each with benefits and boobytraps. Locally-installed programs like JBidWatcher run in the background on your computer and bid automatically on your behalf at exactly the right moment, but they rely on your computer to be switched on and connected to the internet at the appropriate time.
“Set it and forget it” sniping websites like Gixen.com work independently of your PC but require you to give them your eBay username and password so they can enter bids on your behalf. Gixen is free, though it offers a premium service for $6 a year for those wanting to buy on an industrial scale. It also offers a phone app and a Desktop Manager that lets you browse all your active lots, with real-time price updates.
None of these facilities should be confused with the other types of bidding that proliferate on the web. So-called penny auctions, which offer iPhones for a fiver and other items of consumer electronics at ridiculously low prices, are really lotteries in which everyone pays but only one person wins.
It’s easy to get swept up in any of these practices, but so long as you don’t lose sight of the fact that these tools are there to help you pay less, not more, you’re on to a winner.