Hack 26 Manipulating Buy-It-Now Auctions


Save money with the loopholes of the Buy-It-Now feature.

The Buy-It-Now feature that appears in some auctions allows a bidder to bypass the bidding process and end an auction early at some predetermined price. Whether or not this is a good deal for the buyer, however, depends on the Buy-It-Now price the seller has chosen.

The Buy-It-Now option remains visible on the auction page until the first bid is placed, after which it disappears. (The exception is reserve-price auctions, where the Buy-It-Now will be available as long as the reserve hasn't been met, regardless of the number of bids.) There are several ways to use this to your advantage.

3.8.1 Start with the Obvious

Some of the best deals I've gotten on eBay have been Buy-It-Now items, where the seller specified too low a Buy-It-Now price, and I snatched it before anyone else got a chance. If you see a good price, why wait? Just click Buy-It-Now and end the auction without bidding.

There may be a reason that an auction has a low Buy-It-Now price; make sure you read the auction description carefully before you commit. Buyers have the same obligation to complete Buy-It-Now transactions as those that end normally.

Sort your search results by Newly Listed, and the newest Buy-It-Now auctions will appear first. This gives you a good chance to catch early deals, as they're unlikely to last more than a few hours.

3.8.2 Undercut the Buy-It-Now Feature

Auctions with too high a Buy-It-Now price are just as common as those with a low Buy-It-Now price. But there will always be some yahoo who doesn't know any better, and will come along and buy these items anyway. If, however, you place a bid right away ? say, the minimum amount ? the Buy-It-Now option will disappear, and bidding will proceed normally. This will not only give you a chance to win the item for less than the Buy-It-Now amount, but will also give you more time to decide whether you really want the item. (This is an example of when it pays to bid early, a strategy contrary to that of [Hack #21].)

This works best on auctions with artificially low starting bids, because bidding is likely to exceed your first bid and you'll be under no obligation to buy. For example, a few weeks ago, I undercut an auction with a Buy-It-Now of $12 by bidding the minimum of $1. The item ended up selling for less than $5, but it could easily have sold for $12 if someone who really wanted it got there before I did.

Let this be a lesson to sellers to choose their starting bids and Buy-It-Now prices carefully. Had the seller in this example set the starting bid at $6 and the Buy-It-Now at $9, I would've likely bought it at $9. I would've been happy to get a deal, and the seller would've gotten twice as much for the item. See [Hack #33] for similar strategies.

Naturally, you're running the risk of the bidding exceeding the original Buy-It-Now price. But if the Buy-It-Now price were more than you were willing to pay, you would've lost the auction either way.

There's also a chance that the auction won't get any other bids, and you'll end up winning the item with your starting bid. Assuming the bid was low enough, you should be happy to get a good deal. However, if you suspect that you may be stuck with something you don't want, you should probably retract your bid (see [Hack #27]).

3.8.3 Let's Make a Deal

Buy-It-Now is an optional feature, chosen by sellers on a per-auction basis. A seller may not wish to include a Buy-It-Now price if she is unsure of the value of the item, or if she doesn't want to scare away bidders with too high a price. The Buy-It-Now option is also available only to sellers with a feedback rating of 10 or higher, so sellers new to eBay won't be able to include it even if they want it. And as stated at the beginning of this hack, the Buy-It-Now feature disappears once bids have been placed on the auction.

For whatever reason, there will be auctions without a Buy-It-Now price, but that doesn't mean you can't "buy it now." Simply contact the seller and make an offer in exchange for ending the auction early.

Beware: there are good and bad ways to broach the subject. As in many aspects of using eBay, diplomacy is very important here. The idea is to get what you want, but also to make it worth the seller's while.

Here are some good ways to request a Buy-It-Now:

  • "Do you have a Buy-It-Now price for this item?" This is polite and non-confrontational, and the seller will typically respond with a price or ask you what you'd be willing to pay.

  • "Would you consider adding a Buy-It-Now price to this auction?" This is similar to the previous example, except that it doesn't send the message to the seller that you're trying to circumvent eBay's rules. Use this only if the auction hasn't yet received any bids. (See [Hack #50] for details on how sellers can do this. Remember, sellers with a feedback rating of less than 10 will not have this option.)

  • "Would you be willing to end the auction early for $250?" Pique the seller's interest by including a specific offer in your first email. Even if it's too low, you can always raise it later.

About half the sellers I've contacted with offers like these end up agreeing, and the other half have preferred to wait. In nearly all cases where a seller has declined to sell early to me, though, I ended up buying the item for less than my original offer. Let this be a lesson to both buyers and sellers!

Here are some examples of what not to do:

  • "Would you sell me the item for the current bid price?" Why would any seller sell at the current price when they can wait and most likely get more money? Remember, make it worth the seller's while, or they won't give you the time of day.

  • "I'll give you 50 bucks for it." The tone here is condescending and aggressive, and most sellers will respond poorly to it (if at all). Furthermore, if the bidding has been healthy and your offer is not much higher than the current price, the seller will probably take it as an insult that you'd expect them to sell so cheaply. You're asking the seller a favor, so be nice!

  • "What would it take to end the auction early?" Again, the tone is too aggressive, and the message offers the seller nothing for her trouble. Furthermore, it pressures the seller to quote a price right away, which is never good. Sellers put in this position will quote you a higher price for fear of quoting too low. It's much harder to haggle a seller down than to increase a low opening offer.

If a seller seems disagreeable to the whole idea, you're unlikely to convince them otherwise (unless you offer so much money that it's no longer worth your while).

You can often determine a seller's disposition before you write by simply reading the auction description. If the seller's tone is relaxed and positive, then she'll be more likely to make a deal. If the prose is stiff and curt, the seller will likely want to proceed "by the book" and let the auction play out.

Assuming the seller agrees, you'll have three choices. One, you can wait for the seller to add a Buy-It-Now price to the auction, and then purchase the item normally. Just make sure to check the auction page frequently and purchase it as soon as the option becomes available, lest someone beat you to it.

If the seller can't use Buy-It-Now for whatever reason, you can always bid and become the high bidder, with the understanding that the seller will then end the auction early and sell to you at the agreed price (regardless of the closing price of the auction). This allows both you and the seller to leave feedback for one another and use eBay's other services.

The other option is for the seller to cancel all bids, end the auction early, and then sell to you outside of eBay. The seller may prefer this, as it will save the eBay fees[3] normally charged to successfully completed auctions, but there will be little advantage for the buyer. Any transactions not completed through eBay aren't eligible for feedback, fraud protection, or any other services.

[3] Strictly speaking, it's against eBay policy for any users to intentionally circumvent the fee system. But eBay also can't prevent members from completing transactions any way they choose, even if the end result is a coincidental lowering of the fees eBay ultimately receives.