eBay And The Idiots

Published in EUG #59

Two Years In...

With it now coming up to two years since I discovered, the on-line auction site which every day offers millions of items from all over the world, including BBC and Electron memorabilia, I here record some findings on the service so far. It is a place which sells itself with seductive logos such as "the world's biggest on-line marketplace" and prides itself on allowing buyers to bid and sellers to sell simplistically on their own terms, while ensuring it remains in harmony with both international and domestic laws. Yet many readers familiar with the site will have strange stories similar to those recorded here showing just how many things can go wrong with a simple transaction.

For the uninitiated and technologically challenged, eBay described primitively is a huge database of products for sale. It is viewed each day by thousands who simply type in, hit ENTER on their PC and arrive at the home (title) page. Sellers then click "Sell" and enter all the details (Title, Description, Starting Price, Location, Country, Payment Method) of items they have in their possession that they want to sell. Buyers on the other hand type in a keyword (eg. "ELECTRON") and click "Search".

All items have their own page, which displays all the information the seller has provided (including pictures) and on which it is possible to place a bid of any amount higher than the current price. When searching on a particular keyword, the user receives (very quickly) a list of all items featuring that particular word. Click on any item and its own page appears, completely updated with the number of bids that have been received on it, the current bid price and the date and exact time the auction ends.

As a buyer, you must learn how to play the eBay bidding game which, despite being advertised as easy, is actually fairly infuriating. It works like this: An item which you would dearly like to have at any cost appears. If you pause for thought, you have a number of options available to you. You could try e-mailing the seller direct and offering him a fairly high price to withdraw the item and sell it direct to you. This has the advantage of speeding up the sale and ensuring you get what you want. But if the item is currently only at a few quid, you might gamble on getting a bargain and try the second option.

This is to place your highest bid, for example £50.00, via the "Bid" box at the bottom of each page. When you do so, the eBay bidding system will place bids on your behalf up to the maximum you have stipulated but not above it. Generally, the bidding increments in 50ps or £1s, so if the starting price is £5.00 and you are the first bidder and bid £50.00, you will simply become the current highest bidder at £5.00.

The bidding system then takes over and bids on your behalf if your current highest bid is challenged. If X bids £10.00, eBay will bid £10.50 and you will remain the current highest bidder at the new price. If X bids more than your £50.00, then you are outbid and will receive an e-mail informing you of the fact. However, if no-one else at all bids, then you may get the item for a bargain price!

But think about this: Someone else may e-mail the seller direct as I suggested above and he may cancel your bid and withdraw the item.

Now we come to the real eBay bummer, the last second of the last minute bid, snatching the item of your dreams out of your hands for just 50p more than you bid. This is unhappily a very common occurence and it will happen to you as long as eBay puts a strict time limit on its auctions. It works like this: Instead of placing your bid of £50.00 when you see the item, you instead vow "I must have this item. I don't care how much it costs." and make a note of the exact time the auction finishes: 11:09:53, for example. As it is the highest bidder at the time of closing which wins the item, you return to your computer at 11:00:00, view the screen and wait. At 11:09:48, you place a very high bid (The very maximum you would pay, perhaps £100.00). It goes through one second before the auction ends, the bidding system bids 50p more than the highest bid and hopefully the item is yours.

However, if you bid honorably and it is X who has done this last minute trick, he gets the item for £50.50, just 50p more than you offered! Of course, there is nothing to stop you bidding normally and then trying the last minute drill for good measure but in practice you feel odd bidding against yourself and forcing up the price on an auction you may ultimately have to pay for!

At the close of auction, buyer and seller are notified via e-mail and should, according to eBay rules, contact each other within three days to arrange the transfer of money and chattel(s). After the exchange each leaves a "feedback comment" on the transaction which can be viewed by any eBay user. This method helps to whittle out bogus sellers and buyers who respectively may advertise an item they do not have (a con) or bid and refuse to answer the seller's e-mails demanding payment. Leaving feedback on each user alerts other buyers/sellers to the level of service each user offers. Three negative feedbacks from different users and the user is suspended from eBay.

And, in a nutshell, that is how eBay works. There are many advanced features allowing you to watch an item; save your favourite keyword searches; put your item on the home page (so it is seen by everyone!) and even create a page dedicated to your hobbies and interests; all of which become second nature with time. The site itself is being constantly adapted and improved too and, as yet, it charges no fee for bidders. It does charge a nominal amount to advertise each product (15p if the starting price is under £5.00, 30p if over, etc) and takes a small percentage of the closing price when you sell your item. However, this is no great loss as almost anything you care to advertise will be wanted by someone and packing it off to them in return for a cheque more than compensates for the small commission paid to eBay. It also helps you to determine what all those things you don't need but which are lying around your house in the hope "someone will be glad of them one day" are actually really worth, and to get rid of them.

So, apart from the unfairness of the last minute bid system, the eBay site is quite a positive experience. Unfortunately, you cannot choose your bidders. And that is where all the problems start.

Bogus Bidders

The rules on bidding are very straightforward and are stated by eBay at every turn in the bidding process. Some sellers even exasperatedly add "If you do not intend to pay, please do not bid!" to their item descriptions in the vain attempt to avoid the bogus bidders that plague eBay. But the sad fact is that, of every 50 auctions I have put up, 3% have been 'won' by bidders who refused to buy the items.

The first time this happened to me (on a lot of View and Viewsheet won at £4.99 plus P&P), I used the Request Contact Details section of the high bidder to gain his telephone number and rang him up to be told his internet server was down and he would get a cheque off to me if I gave him my address immediately. I did. No cheque arrived and when the phone bill arrived, I discovered telephoning the number had cost me £2.70! A nasty introduction as to why, when this happens, it's best to cut your losses and simply readvertise.

The most frequent response you get with a bidder who doesn't intend to pay is no response. After three days, after sending an e-mail headed "Please contact me to avoid negative feedback being issued", you will discover if it's make or break time by whether the silence is broken. My advice is not to bother writing anything more friendly as the advertising of the item, plus the time you've already taken trying to contact the bidder, has probably been wasted and you should let the bidder know, albeit subtly, that you are not pleased.

"I can no longer continue with this auction. I hope you understand." was one response I received after a wait of a fortnight. The process of re-advertising the item and getting eBay to refund the commission it charged for 'selling' it in such cases is tortious and frustrating, especially when it sells for much less the second time around. Leaving negative feedback does of course stain the dishonourable buyer's page, possibly saving others from a similar scenario, but such buyers tend not to care.

A case in point, which almost resulted in me leaving the eBay world for good, was a buyer who contacted me saying he was interested in Electron tapes and bid on twenty-one of my auctions. He didn't pay and ignored my e-mails. I had to issue twenty-one "Please refund commission" requests, twenty-one re-advertisements and twenty-one negative feedbacks. "I hope this guy never effects another transaction."

Bogus Sellers

There are many ways sellers will try and con you. A favourate way is to quote an excessive price for P&P on the item. The highest price you should ever be charged for P&P within the UK is about £11.00 (Parcelforce up to 30kg) yet some sellers insist on £3.00 P&P for a video cassette costing them £1.00 to send. If they state this in the terms of the item description of course, then us EUG legalites know we are bound. But "Buyer pays postage at cost" means something quite different, and it's necessary to quibble with excessive postage costs on occasion.

Other sellers will dishonestly send the items by a cheaper service than the one they specify or agree to. I recently purchased Wychwood by e-mailing the seller direct and offering £10.00 plus £1.70 Recorded Delivery P&P. He agreed and off went the cheque. Back came a manilla envelope, tape enclosed, but with just a 33p stamp in the corner. Yes, the tape was safe and sound but that's not the point.

This was the third such incident. One seller (jblake) accepted my extra cash for Recorded Delivery, sent the goods (books) by Standard and, when they they were lost in the post, refused to refund my money! As I'd bought them by the direct e-mail approach, he knew there would be no repercussions via feedback. It can't be issued on a withdrawn item.

On top of all of these is the complete sham; the item advertised that doesn't exist. In about seventy buys from eBay, I have only been the victim of one of these and fortunately only lost £20.00.

The Idiots

There's nowt so queer as folk, as they say up North. Well, North, South, East and West of the world, there are stupid people using eBay. Some people send you nothing but a cheque through the post, with no return address or reference as to the item they won. This was doubly infuriating when I could only use eBay through the University as it meant I had to spend vital time checking through previous emails to match up the amount with the item number - and then find the appropriate address to send it to. And, on the same subject...

Some people don't send you their address! Ridiculous as it might sound, you then have to e-mail them and ask them for it. Occasionally I have also had buyers swearing that they had either "sent it in a previous e-mail" or "put in on a compliments' slip enclosed with the cheque". In the first case, I felt obliged to point out all the buyer's previous messages were in fact attached to the current e-mail, and in the second, I simply slipped the blank piece of A6 saying "Cheers, Dan!" into the padded envelope with the ROMs before posting them out.

Some people send cash to you through the post. And not notes between two pieces of cardboard, actually loose change in a thin paper envelope. These people are obviously the most trusting in our community, while at the other end there are people who simply harass you. One character bought an Electron for £10.00 plus £6.00 P&P (A bargain!) but, instead of e-mailing me, got hold of my contact details and telephoned me instead. "I haven't got a chequebook," he stammered. "And I'm going to ask my girlfriend to send one instead. But can you send the computer out now?" I'd need the cheque to clear first. "Well, what's to stop you taking the money and not sending out the computer then?" Honour.

The conversation from this, as it turned out, well-meaning buyer simply made me very suspicious. Two days later, the phone rang again. "Hi, I'm J's girlfriend. He's asked me to write a cheque and send it to you. But can you send the computer out as soon as you've paid it in, please?" Well, I'd need it to clear. "We're concerned you'll take the money but not send the machine!"

All this over £16.00! And it's not like there was one negative feedback comment on my page at this point.

At one point early in my eBay experiences, I sold a pack of ten Electron cassettes to a man in Northern Ireland and left the positive feedback comment "A+, speedy transaction, quite happy". The next e-mail I received from the buyer is worth quoting in full:

I was confused and rather annoyed to find the crappy feedback you left for me regarding this transaction. We were in constant e-mail contact throughout the sale and I pointed out to you that post from Northern Ireland could take a few days longer than from the mainland. The feedback you left looks really bad and has ruined the line of comments I have so far received. Please respond.

When I did, he simply stated he would never buy from me again. Overreaction? It's for you to judge.

I also received an e-mail in response to one of my own "Please respond to avoid negative feedback" e-mails headed "Re: Snotty E-mail", all in captial letters (denoting anger):


His cheque didn't arrive until four days later which meant, were it not for my "snotty e-mail", he would have simply not contacted me regarding the sale for over a week!

Numerous other examples of stupidity from buyers: An auction won by an American finished at £41.00 and was quickly followed with the e-mail "I have despatched $41.00 to the address on your 'me' page"; and I received a cheque dated two years into the future (Just bizarre!).

In all honesty, however, I have to end with a little confession of my own regarding a recent auction (for an Electron, Plus 1 and huge collection of original cassettes) which finished ridiculously low (Just £9.50). Perhaps influenced by the many times I'd been harranged by bogus buyers, I decided I simply could not sell so low and similarly ignored the winning bidder's e-mails. To him, I was a bogus seller and his negative feedback comment has quite deservedly blotted my perfect reputation. Do I care? I suppose not, else I would have completed the auction. But would I have done the same had I not been messed about by others? Definitely not.

Finally, as you may have gathered by now, eBay is a great place to pick up rare BBC and Electron software and hardware missing from your collection - and to sell off any surplus stock you've accumulated for a surprisingly high fee. If anything, I hope this article will be digested at least by the buyers who dash off e-mails and letters without addresses and those, such as Mr. Twenty-One, who destroy the simplicity of the eBay site with their dishonourable conduct. Not that either will keep me from continuing to trade!

Dave E