Buying at eBay

A basic guide for the newcomer

by Paul James

eBay's rise to international status has taken only a relatively short time. Initial success and an internationally linked web network guaranteed its span across the Atlantic from the USA to the UK and thence Europe and further afield. Few PC users are unaware of its presence now that its sales are escalating monthly, with well over a million items sold in the UK each day.

Many microscopists around the globe use eBay to buy instruments and ancillary gear for it is in one sense the perfect way to window shop, and a way of keeping up to date on the availability and pricing of various items. All in all then a centre of trading which turns over around 300 microscope related items each week in the UK and far more internationally of course. The vast majority of microscope related artefacts gravitate to eBay in the course of time, and so it is quite likely that you will see something of interest there.

In the last 5 years or so, here in the UK the 'scientific' section has not only grown rapidly, it has also been extended to include many sub sections making for easier classification for buyers and sellers. I'd say also that the eBaying fraternity have now become accustomed to the conventions of eBaying in sales and purchases such that the clients have 'wised up' to most if not all the salient protocols that are required to buy and sell there, and my small part in all this is to impart some guidance to those who are new to eBaying,....... specifically : Buying.

Firstly I think it should be made very clear that there are a very small number of sellers who are fraudsters and nothing else, and have every intention of taking your money without posting the item, if indeed it exists. They tend to operate in more specific regions with commodities such as digital cameras, jewellery and other popular lucrative items. The good news is that the 'microscope' section of eBay rarely gets their attention, though they have been there. Fortunately there are a number of ways of spotting their presence which I will elaborate on later. Also there is a small number of sellers who are not entirely straightforward of whom we should also be wary.

Golden Rules

Let's pursue then the various things that need to be looked at when considering a bid for an item at eBay.

Assuming that you have registered with eBay and located an item of interest, then there are several aspects which need specific attention. The actual auction is basically self explanatory but I've added the following notes to raise the buyer's awareness in specific areas which need special attention :-

Feedback Rating This sums up at a glance the basic credibility of the seller/purchaser and to that end their feedback rating says much about this, though it is not infallible, it is nevertheless a fair guide. There are some notable sellers who have made as many as several thousand sales at eBay and received 100% feedback. They are the trading elite and have worked hard to gain this enviable reputation. Most sellers have either 100% feedback ratings or slightly less with sales/purchase figures up to a few hundred. So have a peep at their feedback, especially the recent pages.

Because of human nature being what it is you should not expect that all recipients of sales which have gone awry to leave negative feedback. A lot of people do not like to leave negative comments from 'disappointing' transactions, and often leave a neutral comment instead. Therefore I always combine both neg and neutral comments for a more realistic appraisal of a seller. Overly fussy buyers exist too who leave negative feedback at the drop of a hat and sometimes their presence can be spotted too.

Registration Next comes the country of registration of the seller. This is easily overlooked as it is not obvious on the top right hand side of the page. There have been some less than straightforward sellers who are registered and live outside the UK but do not otherwise mention this. This can lead to subsequent problems if there is a need to send the item back or very likely need to make a claim with a guarantee or warranty thereafter. Some sellers have also specified item location as UK when they live elsewhere. They claim that this is for technical reasons, which may be genuine BUT the fact remains that by transacting with this individual you are putting yourself into a potentially more difficult position if all is not well when you receive your item, and you might also have warranty problems too.

General description and imagery Genuine sellers describe the item well and supply clear imagery and will mention any flaws too, so that you can make a decision about your interest in it and your own feelings about the maximum you are prepared to bid. Many items are sold however by sellers who freely admit their lack of knowledge about the item but nevertheless offer it for auction. In this situation you have to use your intuition as much as anything else, as well as a check on feedback etc.. Generally, most honest sellers describe their charges as well as they can, but be aware of those who sell 'as is' for there is no guarantee here, and I'm sure a lot of junk has passed through the Royal Mail!

Using "ask seller a question option" usually sorts out the wheat from the chaff, as dubious sellers do not answer the awkward questions or skirt around them !

Bidding A personal issue, but here's some simple advice : Do not lose your head and bid impulsively like many newcomers to eBay auctioning do. Despite any preconceived notions or gossip about the skills of bidding or the virtues of sniper software bidding, the fact is that the highest bid wins.......regardless. The actual winning bid amount is determined by the highest bid of the underbidder plus an incremental sum within the time limit. For instance your highest bid might be 100 against the underbidder's limit of 75. eBay will automatically put in place an incremental bid amount on top of the under bidder's which secures the bidding for you at around 77. So what is the point of getting steamed up and possibly exceeding your limit with an overbid near the end by getting engaged in a duel in the final minutes ? Many items have been won and then relisted simply because of OTT bidders have changed their minds after the sale which can of course incur negative feedback from an understandably irate seller. There are many psychological ploys in the timing of a bid but in the final analysis it's the highest sum that secures the goods, and I believe that the last few seconds timing of your mouse click can only succeed if the other bidder's are asleep !

Personally I am dubious of sellers who insist on using the 'anonymous' bidding facility for there is a distinct possibility of 'jockey bidding' by a third party to escalate the final bid to the seller's gain. Why eBay provide this option is a mystery.

I find the best method is to decide whatever your max offer is, then place that not too near the auction end in case your server fails. Then do something else entirely after which you can revisit or refresh the page to see how you have faired. This takes out all the hassle.

Postage/Shipping This can be a very contentious issue for many buyers as some sellers charge far more than necessary for obvious reasons. You might well decide that if the item is won cheaply then the excessive postal charges are inconsequential. This is ultimately a decision the potential bidder has to make before bidding, and not after !

Most average sized and well packaged microscopes can be sent within the UK for around 12-14 max with further costs for more rapid delivery and higher insurance if that is required. I have seen sellers asking as much as 50 for a microscope, and others charging as much as 6 for one objective !

Packaging The safe arrival of eBay sales items is of paramount importance to all buyers and we are at the mercy of the seller's common sense and packing skills concerning this. Royal Mail only knows the number of items which are poorly packed, and those buyers who receive goods which are ostensibly well packaged but arrive in poor state anyway. It's a real anticlimax after winning an eBay auction to eventually find the item arrive in a worse state than advertised. Quite often feedback reveals the seller's skills in this department. So keep this in mind BEFORE you bid.

Remember that the honest trader is happy to answer any questions concerning the transaction and parceling/delivery etc.. So if you are concerned about something not mentioned on the page contact them through the "ask seller a question" facility. Do so well in advance of the end of the sale if you can.

Spotting the fraudster/Sharp trader

Generally most fraudsters or opportunists can be spotted a mile off, but not always. Their ploy is to mimic selling styles used by many honest sellers but fortunately most rarely achieve the levels of impersonation that would be required to deceive the average buyer.

The following traits might be found in their sale pages.

1) Item over description ( plus pasted descriptions) or the distinct lacking of it. In other words blinding you with bumph............. or the cooler, commercial style take it or leave it approach.

2) Pasted images of the item from the Internet sites..........which they incorporate into the sale as if it was their's to sell.

3) Incongruous statements. Occasionally a slip in the descriptive facts reveals a lack of knowledge of the item belying their implied credibility.

4) 100% feedback from the purchases of a dozen or so transactions involving trivial amounts of money to build up a 'respectable looking front' before launching into their confidence trick sales. Thus if you see a lucrative item for sale which is ridiculously cheap, especially "buy it now" then check their feedback and see if it seems genuine.

This a very common ploy from overseas sellers in many categories

5) Private bidding. I never bid in a private auction. Jockey bidding takes place in the outside world and private bidding at eBay can cover up this illegal practise and does not seem to be the genuine way to go about business there.

6) Requests to contact seller outside of eBay's normal operational facilities. By default you are on dodgy territory here for eBay would not proffer their safety net in circumstances like this should you be duped into parting with any money. Always keep within eBay's framework of trading.

7) The ambiguous offer of return of item if seller finds fault, which in the case of an opportunist seller means that if you are too naive to spot the flaw and can't find fault with it.......... you keep it. If you realise the item was not what it was sold as, then of course the seller has to refund. This is a commonly cited sentiment used by both dishonest and honest traders. The problem is that you have to decide which is which. Fortunately in this case you should be able to make an assessment from any of the many telltales as cited above. Remember though that invariably in a situation like this you will have to pay for return delivery which is usually not refundable.

In the final analysis the deceptive seller tries to give away as little as possible so as to reduce their liability to the seller from the use of incriminating descriptive elements in their page. " Sold as seen" completely removes the liability and places it firmly on the buyer, and is a term used by honest and as well as dishonest traders. Therefore should you feel any uncertainty about the item's actual condition then it seems silly to proceed on the basis of chance.

eBay's selling forum is well organised and is ideal for 'shopping' from home, but it has to be used carefully. If you are interested in bidding for something there, it is best to look at similar items being sold and follow the progress to acquire a feel of what is actually going on. Time doing this will pay dividends in the long term.

However, be vigilant at first and use your common sense, as there are some undesirable characters out there who would take your last penny, and others too who distort business ethics to their advantage , but thankfully the majority of sellers are there to trade in a straightforward no nonsense way and are keen to be respectable eBay traders.

Though we can pick and choose and decide where and when to bid on an item as a buyer, the seller cannot decide whom he or she would like to win the auction, because it is out of their control. A sobering thought indeed but for the simple protocol that requires the bidder to part with their money before the seller sends the item.

Finally.... remember that for the buyer, eBay's services are entirely free. If you use PayPal, only the seller is charged for their services and many understandably prefer a cheque instead, though this does slow down the whole process which includes the clearance of the cheque, and delivery of your purchase might therefore take a total of about 8- 10 days.

All comments welcome by the author Paul James


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Published in the March 2006 edition of Micscape.

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