Sold! How to Win at Web Auctions

August 15, 1999

Are you longing to dive into the online auction scene but afraid of getting soaked by unscrupulous operators? We test the waters at seven major sites so you can nab the best deals.

Glenn McDonald and Harry McCracken

From the August 1999 issue of PC World magazine

Ten minutes before my auction was due to close, everything fell apart. I was about to score a sweetheart deal on a brand-new, in-the-box 3D graphics card–and my bid of $50 was just sitting there.

Without warning, two other bidders swooped in and upped the price to $60. Panicking, I raised my bid to $65. No good. The price jumped to $70 … $75 … $80.

When the dust settled, the card went to “BD from Richmond, Virginia” for $95. I cursed him under my breath. Then I surfed off to see what other cards were up for bid, and the hunt began anew…–Diary of a Web auction bidder

Welcome to the wild world of online auctions. At its worst, the adventure can be hair-raising. But at its best, it can be an addictive way to buy high-quality products at bargain-basement prices. The range of items up for bid is nearly unlimited, from factory-fresh PC gear to toys like the ones Mom tossed out when you were a kid.

It’s no wonder auctions rank among the hottest Web shopping sites. Even so, successful auction buying isn’t a no-brainer. We speak as battle-hardened veterans of bidding at big-name sites (see “The Bidder Truth”).

We began our quest with a wish list of 20 products, including a 333-MHz or better computer for less than $750, a $250 17-inch monitor, a $200 CD jukebox, an $80 golf club, and a $50 cordless telephone. Because collectibles today rank among the most popular of auction items, we also sought some special fare: a vintage copy of Stephen King’s novel The Stand, a Mark McGwire rookie card, and a poster for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

Girded with credit cards, money orders, and determination, we went abidding. And we nabbed some real deals, including a Pentium II desktop PC with DVD-ROM for $770, and a notebook with a great active-matrix screen for $929. We snapped up the McGwire card for $120 and the Star Wars poster for $55. (We’ve seen these items selling elsewhere for $200 and $150, respectively.)

Bids Gone Bad

We didn’t, however, come away from every auction we “won” feeling like winners. Some products were incomplete, and one never arrived at all. In addition, auctions don’t come with all the standard assurances of retail buying: Return and warranty policies are often lacking.

On any given day, even the best sites may be awash in so-so deals. It all depends on what you’re looking for. That makes the sites hard to rate, but two–EBay and Onsale–are standouts. Both have scads of items to choose from, well-designed interfaces that simplify buying, and plentiful help and tutorials. They’re not the only auction sites worth a visit, but they’re smart places to start.

No matter where you bid, arm yourself with thorough knowledge of the item you bid on, the seller offering it, and the rules of the game. Impulse bidders are begging to be disappointed–a fact we’re embarrassed to admit we learned the hard way.

Ten minutes before my auction was due to close, everything fell apart. I was about to score a sweetheart deal on a brand-new, in-the-box 3D graphics card–and my bid of $50 was just sitting there.

Without warning, two other bidders swooped in and upped the price to $60. Panicking, I raised my bid to $65. No good. The price jumped to $70…$75…$80.

When the dust settled, the card went to “BD from Richmond, Virginia” for $95. I cursed him under my breath. Then I surfed off to see what other cards were up for bid, and the hunt began anew…

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