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Confessions of a cyber-sniper

Sun, Dec 31st, 2000
Posted in

Monday, January 1, 2001

The fact that I had been obsessed by the object for the last 10 days had absolutely nothing to do with my decision to "take it" in the last possible second. This was my standard operating procedure. Early on I had been the victim so many times, but now it was my turn to be the hunter.

I have been the hunter for over a year now, waiting until the last possible minute to strike. I was by now used to feeling my heart pound, having sweaty palms, and breathing as if each breath were my last. The second hand ticks away on my watch, getting louder and louder. Straining my eyes, wanting release, I count the seconds until itís only three away from target. Then I strike. Zzzaaaaaap!

Itís over. Finally. Although I know this, my heart still feels as if itís coming out my throat. No matter how many times I "snipe", I can never get used to that rush of victory, knowing I have conquered all my other opponents for the prize. I have just "sniped" another item on ebay.

I had never shopped on an Internet auction site until two years ago this Christmas. I was wary of the on-line horrors that could happen to someone like me who is used to walking into a store, inspecting the merchandise, then deciding whether or not to buy it. After all, thatís the way itís been done for the last several thousand years ever since certain folks (dealers) came up with a commodity that others (like me) wanted. In the 1870ís Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Ward bucked this traditional system by offering things for sale via mail-order. This soon turned out to be a wonderful way to do business, as someone in the far-off reaches of the prairie could own the same tableware or linens that an astute uptown shopper in Manhattan owned. Further, people who ordered goods this way were guaranteed satisfaction or their money back. Would I get the same kind of honest deal on an Internet auction site?

Having heard of ebay from a friend, I decided to "take the plunge" and see what in the heck all the fuss was about. Ebay, the largest of all the on-line auction sites, is a website established 3 years ago that has on-going, continuous auctions, where you can buy anything from a hand-knit Irish sweater to a used weed wacker. The people selling items are from all over the world, and range in quality fromfly-by-night types to those who offer a satisfaction-or-money-back guarantee.

On a December day in 1998 I surfed to their website, filled in my membership information (it costs nothing), and after calling two or three of my friends to see how legitimate it is (they said ďyes, it isĒ), I sent my credit card number over the Internet to their site. Now before you gasp and turn to the Obits, I have never had problems with this system, as all information is sent encrypted with a special code. With that done, I was off and running.

I have family and friends who collect everything from antique porcelain to plumb bobs, and there was a plethora of stuff out there. Using ebayís search engine, I typed in "cranberry glass" and after a quick search, learned there were currently 170 such items for sale, most of which were going for reasonable prices. I wanted to purchase a pitcher for my motherís birthday gift, and was amazed. No more going to shows, no more dickering with antique dealers, no more scrounging; I had found another source! Sellers from all over the country had glassware for sale, and they were listed in the order their auctions were to be completed. I could compare items for condition, price, location, payment terms, and on and on. I was hooked, and needless to say, went nuts for about a month. With each purchase, I learned the "art" of on-line auctions. Luckily, I had only one bad (and inexpensive) experience from a dealer not shipping what they had advertised in the auction. It was a simple mistake, and he exchanged my item for the correct one within a week.

If you collect beanie babies, they are there in quantity. If you collect John Deere tractor manuals, they are also there. It seems as if the entire world is for sale on ebay. Last year I even saw a Russian submarine for sale with a starting bid of $1,000,000. I checked back a week later and learned it had not received any bids (the shipping charges alone would blow you out of the water!). If you are a casual collector or a person searching for that same toy you remember fondly as a child in the 1950ís, you can try your luck on-line.

After you become a member, just peruse the items for sale until you find what you want. For example, letís say you are a huge Beatles fan and always wanted a pair of Beatle boots for that Friday night swaray to your local rave party. You would type in "Beatle Boots", and run a search. You are then taken to the search results, which in this case show seven such items (I tried finding these fab boots this morning). The item listings with a camera icon next to them denote whether photos accompany the description. If you like what you see, enter a bid, and wait for the auction to end. Although the process of bidding can seem complicated, here is the basic way it is done: Your bid is entered automatically to the next bid increment. If the item is currently at $5 and you enter a bid of $15, the item is only increased to the next increment, which could be .50 cents (bringing the current bid to $5.50). Your high number of $15 wonít be surpassed until someone else bids past that, if at all.

Most auctions last seven days. Iíve noticed some dealers who think they have something as rare as the Holy Grail sometimes opt for a 10 day auction (to give their item more exposure--which is the maximum time set by ebay), but many items donít receive bids until at least three to four days before the auction closes. Now hereís the part where people like me frustrate others: Some of us wait through the seven or 10 days to the last possible second to make a bid. This is because the item might be something we have been looking for during the past 10 years. By placing my bid early with several days left, I am in essence showing my hand to other collectors who know my user identification name, and follow what I bid on. Some people actually follow other bidders to see where the deals are. As a result, they will outbid me by possibly 50 cents in the end, because they know from my past history what I usually spend on like-items. Any item that is very collectible has the chance of this happening. However, I often cannot be at home when the auction ends, so I place a bid and take my chances. Itís only the items that I know I wonít find for years by looking in the traditional places that I "snipe" in the last second. Curiously, sniping can also backfire on you when another person a world away has the same idea, and is able to bid more, sometimes by a penny.

Even though I have found some success hunting on-line, I still go to antique shops, flea markets, retail stores, and other more traditional outlets to find the things I need, and also the things I donít. On-line auctions are not the be-all-end-all for finding what you seek, but can provide enjoyment, and save you time. However, sometimes itís best to savor the time spent tracking down what youíre after, because you meet like-minded collectors, and other real people. This human contact is something that is sorely lacking on the Internet, and can never be replaced. I still love the thrill of a real auction in town or a local farm site. Thereís nothing like it, especially as you walk around looking at the hay racks of goods while wearing your squeaky, newly-purchased Beatle boots.

Charles Pautler

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