Online auctions: how to get the best deals

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One pound in every 10 spent on shopping in the UK now happens online. Auction sites make up a significant part of that spending.

Ebay is the most popular auction site and gets around 19 million visits a month.

If you are considering buying from Ebay or any other auction site here's what you should know.

Sort well

Why do people get carried away on auction sites?

  1. Online auction platforms create a sense of urgency. Consumers fear losing out on a bargain if they wait too long
  2. Direct competition with other bidders means consumers focus on winning a battle rather than getting a good deal
  3. Most consumers assume online auction sites offer better value for money. In reality prices may be cheaper elsewhere.
  4. People tend to buy a greater number of low-priced items on auction sites, spending more overall
  5. Constant access through computers, tablets and mobile phones make it easier to buy. Stored details like credit cards and addresses mean faster transactions with less time to change your mind
  6. We spend more when there is no physical exchange of notes and coins

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, Consumer Psychologist

Your first stop to find what you are looking for is the search box.

If you know exactly what you want, then a precise description can work.

However, this will only pick up items described with exactly the same words, so consider other ways the item may have been described.

A more general search will return more results, but will take longer to wade through.

You can "sort" the order of your search results with a drop-down list.

For example, if you would rather buy brand new products, you can opt to see the new items at the top.

You can find many ways to sort or filter results by clicking on the advanced search option.

The more time you spend looking through the listings the better your chances of getting the best deal.

Check delivery details

Take into account that bulky or heavy items will have higher delivery costs.

By sorting items by distance you may find a seller nearby who you can collect from in person and avoid postage charges.

If your items are being delivered, check how soon you're likely to receive them - especially if they're going to be Christmas presents.

Don't be fooled by items that have free postage and packing - you'll end up paying for it in the overall cost of the item.

Sometimes it may seem like a seller is based in the UK but when look more closely you may find he or she is based in China.

Items from overseas may seem cheaper but will take longer to arrive and can end up costing more once you add delivery costs.

Buying from outside the EU can also mean having to pay excise duty and VAT costs.

Ask questions

Find out as much about the product as possible before you buy, especially if it's second-hand.

If the description on the listing doesn't give you all the information you'd like, ask the seller for more details.

The helpfulness of the seller's responses may give a clue whether or not they are the type of person you'd want to buy from.

Remember to check the seller's profile to see if previous buyers were happy with the products and service they received.


Don't always assume that you'll get the best deal on auction sites. Look at other websites or check pawn shops, second-hand shops or charity shops.

Don't forget that as well as Ebay there are other auction sites like ebid or cqout.

You can also bid for unclaimed stolen goods at police website Bumblebee Auctions, while other sites specialise in auctioning jewellery, electronics or cars.

Before you make any bids on an auction site, check how much similar items have been selling for and decide your limit (including delivery costs) before you start bidding.

During your research if you've seen there are always plenty of similar items for sale, it will be easier for you to let a specific item go if the price gets too high.

Bidding strategies

When an item is listed for auction there's a set time for you to place your bid before the auction ends. When the time runs out, the person who has bid the most gets the item.

There are a number of different terms and techniques that can help you understand the bidding process.

Buying safely online

  • Before you type your card details into a website, look out for a small padlock symbol in the address bar (or elsewhere in your browser window) and a web address beginning with https:// (the 's' stands for 'secure')
  • Use a credit card for payments of over £100, as you have legal rights under Section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act
  • You should never be asked for your PIN or online banking password. You will be asked for the 3 or 4 digit security number ('CVV2 code'), which is usually found on the back of your card
  • Be suspicious of offers that seem too good to be true. This could indicate that a site might be selling illegal or pirated items
Automatic bidding

Ebay's automatic system means you don't have to keep re-bidding every time someone places another bid.

If you enter your maximum bid "up front", Ebay will keep bidding the minimum necessary so that you remain the highest bidder until that limit is reached.

The seller and other bidders won't know your maximum bid until someone else bids more. Once your bid gets equalled or exceeded, the website will let you know. It's then up to you if you want to make another bid.

Bear in mind that if you bid early it could provoke a bidding war and mean a higher price at the end. It's easy to get carried away in a bidding frenzy and spend more than an item's worth.

Automatic bidding means you can enter your maximum bid well before the end of the auction. You can then leave it until afterwards to see if you won - avoiding the temptation of making an extra last minute bid.

Whatever you bid, make it an odd amount. For example, rather than bid £10, bid £10.37, it may be the difference between winning and losing.

Buy it now

When an item has a "Buy it now" option, it means you can purchase it right away for the amount listed without waiting for the auction to end.

It's useful if you are in a hurry for an item or think the final price could get higher through auction.


Online basics

Supermarket aisle

Some "sniping" websites claim to place your bid at the very last moment to help you snatch the deal from fellow bidders.

However, you have to enter your account details for the auction site which could pose a big security risk. There is also no guarantee that the "snipe" will work.

Ebay doesn't endorse snipes and say they don't recommend that anyone shares their user name and password with a third party.


Even if an item is listed at a fixed price only, you can try contacting the seller directly to make a lower offer.

You're more likely to succeed at getting the price down if you can offer something in return - for example, if you're buying more than a single item from that seller.

You should still complete the sale through the auction site. Just ask the seller to change the price listed, or create a fixed price if there isn't one already.

It's against the rules to make a deal outside the site, but it means you won't have the same protection if something goes wrong.

With all bidding, being patient and understanding the auction process is key. Some Ebay users have written advice on bidding including this guide to different strategies.

Be aware of 'shill bidders'.

Shill bidding is when the seller gets other people to bid on an item they don't actually want in order to increase the price. A number of sellers have been caught doing it on Ebay and prosecuted for it.

If you suspect something, you can check the bids and retractions on an item by looking at the bid history.

Look out for bidders with little or no feedback and multiple small bids when no other bids have been made.

Another sign that an item may have been shilled is when it gets relisted by the winning bidder or the original seller.

If you suspect shill bidding report it to the auction site.

Get a last-minute bargain

Badly spelt bargains?

Online auctions

When sellers mis-spell their items, they can end up getting fewer bids because their items can be harder to find.

Several websites offer to find these misspelt items.

Sellers often list items with a low starting price in the hope that it encourages bidders.

But sometimes that doesn't work and with a few minutes to go there are still no bids.

That means if you come in at the last moment you can find some real bargains.

Some websites can show auctions which end within an hour and where the price is still £1.

Other websites list items about to end but which have no bids.

Money Saving Expert has more advice on last minute bargains and buying from Ebay.

Dealing with problems

Check your consumer rights when buying online.

If your parcel doesn't arrive within the expected time or it's not as described, your first step should be to contact the seller via the website.

Sellers often offer a refund within a certain time if you're not happy with the goods for any reason.

If you have a complaint and don't receive a satisfactory response from the seller, you should contact the auction site's customer support who will take up the matter for you.

Ebay offer a money back guarantee policy but be aware it only applies if you've used the PayPal system to pay for the item.

Citizens Advice has more information about what you can do if there's a problem.

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