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eBay School: Spotting bargains

Finding the very best deals
by Gisle Hannemyr
Published: 2011-04-25.

I'll tell you up front. Bargains are few and far between on eBay. There are such a huge crowd looking for goods on eBay that items going for significantly less than market value is a rare occurrence.

At a local flea-market or a garage sale, you will probably be the only person present who knows that the funny looking old Leica M3 rangefinder is worth more than the USD 30 asking price.

But put the same Leica M3 up on eBay, and it is guaranteed to sell for four figures.

So I do not recommend going to eBay to hunt for bargains. But if you want to have a go, here are some advice that may help you in such a quest.

1. Misspellings and category misplacements

Misspellings used to be a good route to bargains on eBay. If someone puts up a “Cannon”, “Nikkon” or “Lieca”, for sale, that item will never appear when buyers search for a “Canon”. “Nikon” or “Leica”, so there will fewer bidders, which is what keeps prices low.

Similarly, when somebody places an item in the wrong eBay category, such as placing a lens in the “eBay Motors” category instead of “Lenses”, it will elude the people that only search the “Lenses” category for lenses.

But it has been long since I've found any real bargains by searching for misspellings and category misplacements. I think this old trick is now so well known that these flukes attract just as many bidders as properly listed items.

2. Discouraging opening bids

Some sellers are afraid that their items will sell too low, so they put what they put up their item with what they think is completely reasonable starting bid.

For an item usually sells for USD 200, they may set the start of bidding to something like USD 160.

On eBay, this cripples the auction. The “high” opening bid means that the auction does not attract any of the fools that bid low and and early. So the items just sits there, with no bids, and people that stumble over it may think that this is some piece of junk that nobody will want to buy.

If you've done your homework, you should be able to spot that the “high” opening bid is actually a bargain, and be able to snipe the item just before it closes, with no-one else bidding.

3. Package deals

Typical junk package. Screen capture from an eBay listing.

Most package deals on eBay are just a compilations of assorted junk, right out of some factory in China. A typical example (picked at random from the many similar package deals currently featured on eBay) is shown in the screen capture on the right. The 16 Gb SDHC card featured in the title is a no-name item of unknown speed coloured to look like a SanDisk card, and the “High Quality Wide Angle Lens” is not a real lens at all, but a cheap converter lens that you're supposed to attach to the filter threads of your prime. The price of the package does not really matter here, because the items that are thrown into this type of package deals are junk that you really do not want to own, even if you could have it for free.

But sometimes you may find another type of package deal, when somebody is selling more than one photographic item, perhaps inherited from a deceased relative, and does not describe each item properly in the listing.

If the seller just want to get rid of the stuff, and make a few dollars in process, but have no idea about what he or she is selling, there may be a gem or two hidden among the other stuff in the package.

In particular, if the seller does not have sufficient knowledge to properly identify all the items in the package in the description, the package may not show up in many searches, even when people are searching for words in the full description.

Finding such a bargain is not easy. You have to be enough of an expert on the gear to identify the lenses and cameras featured in the package from the photos that accompany the auction, and sort the wheat from the chaff.

4. Erronous descriptions

Some sellers describe one thing, but the photos of the item shows something else. In most cases what is depicted is some model of lesser value than the model described. This is of course not a bargain.

But in some cases, the discrepancy goes in the other direction. The seller's description lists one model, but the photos show a better model. For example, the description may mention a slow, consumer lens, while the photo shows a fast, professional model. If you are the first to spot this, you may have found a bargain.

I am a bit wary about these. A mismatch between the description and the photos is not a good sign. But if I am tempted, I ask the seller if the photo shows the actual item. If he or she confirms this, it may be a bargain.

5. Mispriced Buy It Now

“Buy It Now”. Screen capture from an eBay listing.

On eBay, Buy It Now refers to feature where you can buy an item for a fixed price preset by the seller. In the screen capture on the right, you can buy the used Nikon F90x offered for sale for USD 119 by clicking the Buy It Now button.

Sometimes, sellers put up items for sale with a lower Buy It Now price-tag than the items market value (the Nikon F90x offered for USD 119 is not an example of this). When they do, the first person that spots the bargain tends to snap it up. Which means that to take advantage of this, you need to watch for these listings constantly. They seldom lasts for more than a few minutes.

Buy It Now works completely differently from anything else on eBay. With auctions, you need to wait to the last minute before the listing closes before you bid for it. With Buy It Now, it is the other way round, the better the deal, the faster it is sold.

The need to act quick when you see a Buy It Now bargain is exploited by fraudsters, so you need to be very careful when you go for a extraordinary cheap Buy It Now deal. If the sellers wants to be paid by any other means than PayPal, it is a scam and you should halt the proceedings and report the seller to eBay's Resolution Center.

6. Obscure quality brands

There are some lesser known brands, in particular some defunct manufacturers of manual focus lenses, that in their day made excellent products, similar to the more well known quality brands of that era, such as Takumar or Vivitar Series 1. I could tell you their names, but then they would not be obscure any more.

If you know what to look for, you may still find products from these manufacturers for a song on eBay.

7. Final words

As always, but in particular when hunting for bargains, it pays to know your stuff. You need to know the right price in order to tell the difference between a bargain and a robbery.

Getting the price right will be the subject of our next segment.

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