Last time, I talked about some general strategies for eBay hunting. How about some more specific tips today? In the interests of accuracy, I would say that these are more suggestions, some of them fairly obvious and/or common sense, based on things that have worked for me in the past. I hope you’ll find them helpful as well.

Saved Searches

This is basically an eBay 101 tip, but creating “saved searches” can be an easy way to play the when-will-my-item-pop-up-on-eBay game? I would say that this works better for very specific searches, rather than general ones. If you’re looking for a particular pair of shoes, in a particular colour and size, then setting up a “saved search” based on those criteria will mean that you get a notification in your inbox next time someone lists a corresponding item – no need to check eBay every day. However, if your search is, say, “Anthropologie floral dress”, you will end up getting a daily notification email that includes a bazillion new listings. Now, you may want to look through a bazillion listings every day, but in that case, you can just as easily log into eBay and run the search manually every day. Personally, I found it annoying to get emails with very broad search results, especially as I had set up quite a few “saved searches” at the time and was deleting 10-12 of them every day.

Set Up a Maximum Bid

I call this the “set it and forget it” approach. This can be a great little tool for a number of reasons:

• I often forget when auctions are supposed to end, so if I’m waiting till the last minute to place a bid (the better to gauge my chances of getting the item for a price I like), I generally miss out on it altogether. Same thing if I put in the first bid, then get outbid; I probably won’t realize it until it’s too late.
• I’ve shied away from using “sniper” services, but this is the next best thing. I can set the highest price I’m willing to pay, and the eBay system will automatically “snipe” other bidders until my maximum limit is reached. Again, this is all done without any additional input from me, which means (a) I don’t have to continually check on the listing, or agonize over competing bids; and (b) I don’t get caught up in a bidding frenzy and find myself tempted to pay more than I originally decided the item was worth.
• It cuts down on my stress levels. As I mentioned above, I tend to find auctions very stressful if I’m watching the countdown to the end of the listing, and waiting to see if competing bids come in. I can just forget the whole thing, and then receive a pleasant surprise when eBay notifies me that I’ve won an item … or not. By which point, it’s too late to worry about it anyway.

A couple of caveats about this approach. One, never ever set up a max bid that is more than you are comfortable paying simply because you don’t think the bidding will go that high. It may not … or it may, in which case you will be legally obligated to proceed with the purchase, whether or not you have the funds. (Or risk getting dinged as a non-paying buyer. This has never happened to me, so I don’t know how much it impacts your ability to continue buying on eBay, but perhaps one of the readers more familiar with eBay policies can chime in.)

Two, and along the same lines, don’t completely forget about any outstanding bids you might have placed. Think of a bid as a one-sided commitment to pay, and budget accordingly. You may not end up winning the item, and therefore not have to pay, but you never know.

What to Buy and Not to Buy

This is almost entirely subjective, but here goes anyway:

Green light: dresses, tops, and bags

Basically, these are things where fit is generally not a huge consideration. Obviously, the more structured the dress or top, the more discernment you have to exercise. (Body type is also a relevant consideration; I carry most of my weight in my bottom half, and don’t mind wearing blousier things on top if need be, so I have more leeway with the fit of most dresses and tops.) Listings that provide actual measurements (usually chest, waist, hip, and length) are more helpful than ones that only list the manufacturer’s size.

Caution: skirts, pants, and shoes

This is the inverse: for things that require a good fit, buying on eBay can be tricky. It helps if you already know how an item fits you, either because you’ve already tried that particular item in real life, or because you know how the manufacturer’s items generally fit you. I would advise caution with the latter approach, because we all know that brands can be all over the place with their sizing and fit. If you have no other options, I would suggest trying to find reviews of the item online so you can at least get a sense of whether the item fits true to size or not, or if there are other fit issues you need to be aware of.

I would also exercise caution with jewelry, because (a) it can be hard to gauge the quality from photos; and (b) there are a lot of knock-offs out there (so-called J. Crew pieces are a good example), which may not be the quality you’re expecting. I have bought vintage costume jewelry on eBay, with largely positive results, but I had very low expectations going in.

Buying designer goods on eBay would also fall in the “caution” category for me, but they may deserve a post of their own because there’s a lot of ground to cover there. Let me know if you guys would be interested in one.

Now, the main reason why I advise caution in some instances is because, ideally, you want to avoid situations where you’re stuck with an unusable item. Some sellers will offer a return option (and, I believe that eBay requires sellers to offer returns in some situations) but this will generally not apply to items that are simply the wrong size. Not to mention, I don’t want to deal with the hassle of arguing over a return and paying for it – especially as I buy most of my items from overseas sellers. This is one downside of eBay over a regular retailer’s website – once you’ve bought something, there ain’t no going back.

Buying Internationally

If you’re a Canadian, like me, you’re probably wondering why this is even a “tip”; chances are, any time you buy something online, you’re technically buying from an international seller (albeit, more and more, one with a physical presence in Canada as well). But since a lot of BCRL readers come from outside of Canada, and may not have a lot of experience with buying internationally, I thought it would be worth talking about.

Let me start by saying that I have had positive experiences buying from international sellers located, among other countries, in the US, UK, Portugal, China, and Japan. Buying from the US is the easiest/safest in many ways, but that doesn’t mean that you should limit your search parameters to North America only. Here are some things to keep in mind:

• Always research your seller. Whether he or she lives in the next state/province over, or half way across the world, they could be a perfectly nice, honest person … or a crook. My next post in this series will be on tips for staying “safe” while shopping on eBay, so I will cover this more then, but always start by looking at the seller’s history and reviews.
• Never pay more than you can afford to lose. I know this seems harsh, but that is the price for all the convenience that eBay brings. The farther away an item is coming from, the more chances for something to go awry. Certainly, if you can prove that something legitimately got lost in transit, you may be able to get your money back; but it will likely take time, if not considerable hassle, and the seller on the other side may not always be helpful. (Also, my understanding is that if an item shows up as “Delivered” in the mail system, you will be out of luck – even if you never actually received it.)
• Adjust your expectations with respect to shipping. It can take time. More time than you might expect, especially if you did not pay for priority shipping. Things coming from the US to Canada take anywhere from 1.5 to 3 weeks, depending on location. A package from China once took nearly 6 weeks to arrive. Be aware of the deadlines for filing a report with eBay over a missing item, but otherwise try not to stress out too much. For what it’s worth, I’ve never had a package go missing.
• Be prepared for surprises. You may get hit with extra fees on delivery. Here, it’s important to distinguish between customs fees and brokerage fees. Items delivered through USPS (or your local government postal service) will be subject to customs fees, where payable, but not brokerage fees which are typically charged by a third-party shipping agent (think UPS). In my experience, brokerage fees are higher than customs fees (at least when talking about sub-$1,000 items), and for that reason I avoid buying from any seller who ships via methods other than USPS. EBay’s Global Shipping program does charge a sort of brokerage/handling fee, but the cost is listed upfront, and you can take that into consideration when deciding whether to bid or not.

[I have never researched the law in Canada with respect to customs, and obviously it would be different in every country, so I can’t give you any advice in this regard. For what it’s worth, I have rarely had to pay customs fees.]

Next week, I’ll be talking about some general safety tips for shopping on eBay. In the meantime, share your eBay success strategies in the comments!

4 Comments on Buying on Ebay, Part 2

  1. Good to know – thx for sharing! If you’re game to expand your ‘how-to’ repertoire, I’d love a post on consignment shopping in Edmonton 🙂

  2. A note on Brokerage- all you’re paying for is the shipper going to CBSA and getting your documents stamped to clear them through customs. Seriously. If your shipment is under $5000, and isn’t manifested (i.e. you’re not importing stuff for a business) you can self-clear your packages and save yourself some dolla-dolla bills.

    The customs taxes are non-negotiable (and I know there is a formula for figuring them out, but I don’t have the details on that), but in my experience, the brokerage fees are more than the taxes. UPS is the worst for this, IMO. FedEx and Purolator are tied, and USPS/Canada Post are the cheapest/best.

    • I have never been charged any brokerage fees when shipping was done through USPS or Canada Post. I agree about the brokerage being more than the customs – it’s ridiculous!

      The only time I was ever charged customs was when an item was marked as “new” on the customs form. I don’t know if that makes a difference, in actual fact, but it seemed like a notable coincidence. Most of the items I buy on eBay are not new. I probably should look into this, if only for curiosity’s sake …