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Winning the auctions that don't get the bids

Sometimes the best deals to be had on eBay are found not by searching for what you want, but by searching for what someone else thinks they've got.

If the previous sentence made you do a double-take, don't worry, the concept is actually simple, if not immediately obvious. The best deals to be had on eBay occur when an auction gets many fewer bids than it deserves. For the most part, this happens for three reasons:

  • The seller has timed their listing poorly
  • The seller has misidentified their item
  • The seller has misspelled the name of their item  

All of these can be turned to your advantage, allowing you to buy at a great price, if you're aware enough to look for and make use of them.

Badly Timed Listings
When you come across a listing for an item you're interested in buying that is very poorly timed, consider bidding on or at least watching it.

Poorly timed auctions include all of the following:

  • Items that will end when no-one in the nation is awake (after 1:00 AM but before 6:00 AM)
  • Seasonal or holiday items that are listed well out of or immediately following the related season or holiday
  • Items scheduled to end during major holiday celebration prime times  

In short, any item that is scheduled to end when nobody is looking is likely to be a good deal. The catch, of course, is that you must either bid well in advance (eliminating the possibility of sniping), or you must be there to bid when nobody else wants to be if you plan to win.

Seller mistakes are boons for buyers

Misidentified or Misunderstood Items
Finding misidentified or misunderstood items is one of the biggest search challenges on eBay. The idea is simple: many of the items sold on eBay are sold by sellers who are simply trying to get rid of something. Items acquired as part of a willed estate, found in an old garage or storage area, or even received as a gift or hand-me-down are often unfamiliar to their sellers, who have little interest in or enthusiasm for the item. Often this also means that a seller doesn't have a clear idea of just what an item is or what it is for.

Some classic examples include things like:

  • Sports memorabilia sold by non-sports enthusiasts. Collectibles or signed balls, jerseys, or other types of gear being sold by sellers who have little interest in sports are often mislisted. Instead of "game basketball autographed by '96 Bulls!" a non-sports enthusiast might list such an item as "brown ball with signatures."
  • Computer or electronic equipment sold by nontechnical sellers. Many one-time computing or electronics sellers can't be bothered to find out all of the acronyms, features, jargon, and uses of a complex technical device, much less its market value. I was once able to buy a AU$2,000 data storage device for high-end computers for under AU$50 because it was listed as a "strange VCR-type box, condition unknown," yet I was able to identify it using the auction photo.
  • Antiques or collectibles sold by non-collectors. For obvious reasons, a medieval chest made of rare pear wood and inlaid with silver is likely to sell at far below market value if it is listed only as "large wooden chest from my basement."

These examples are only a sample of the types of misidentification or misunderstanding that sellers can have about the items that they list. The job of actually finding such auctions, of course, is up to you. Though the biggest component of success in cases like this is creative thinking, there are some basic tips you can keep in mind as you make the attempt:

  • Think like an undereducated seller. When you are targeting a specific item and looking for the best deal possible, try to think like someone who knows nothing about the item or other items similar to it. What would an average Joe or Jane, with no prior education about the category, think of this item? How would they describe it? What mistakes or incorrect assumptions might they make about it?
  • Think about multiple uses or perspectives. What seems like a "priceless anceint Egyptian artifact from the early New Kingdom" to you might be a "unique, slightly strange 'The Mummy'-style paperweight" to a seller that specializes in office supplies. Try to imagine what other uses an item might have and search or browse accordingly.
  • Search for synonyms. Use eBay's powerful search tools to search for every term that might be used to identify an item. Dont' just search for a "desk lamp" but also for a "light," and a "torchier." Don't just search for a "stopwatch," but also for a "timer," and a "timekeeper."

In short, the point is to think creatively, broadly, and with an open mind about the ways in which other people might see, describe, or use the types of items you're looking for.

Misspelled Items
Finding a really good misspelling can be like hitting the jackpot. The vast majority of eBay buyers and collectors simply search for the correct spelling of a word without ever trying any of its most common misspellings. Consider some examples:

  • Don't just search for "beanie babies," but also for "beeny babies," "beanie babys," and "beenie babees"
  • Don't just search for "china vase," but also for "chyna vase," "chinna vase," and "china vace"
  • Don't just search for "chevrolet," but also for "chevy," "chevie," and "chevrolay"

By way of real-world anecdotes, it's only been a couple of years since I got an absolute steal on a large neon lamp shaped like a palm tree by searching for "knee-on palm tree." It really does happen.

It's Worth the Effort
It's not automatic—it'll take time before you get a feel for the most common ways in which the items you're interested in are mislisted or misspelled, but once you've got it figured out, you'll often find the deals that less savvy buyers miss, landing perfectly good items at amazing prices simply because other bidders never saw them. So if you're determined to get the best deal, don't decide to bid on an item until you've done a thorough search for all of its misspellings and the many ways in which you can imagine it being listed.

When you find a hidden listing from a seller with reasonably good feedback, you could be in for the deal of a lifetime.

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