I've been bitten by the online auction bug

The best thing is that online auctions bring back the pleasure of haggling in the market
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The Independent Culture
A FEW weeks ago, while on a trip to California, I caught the online auction bug. I was looking for a digital camera and someone suggested Onsale, a US auction site (www.onsale.com). Feeling adventurous and up for some online haggling, I read the FAQs and registered on the site to join the elite club of "bidders".

I immediately got the impression that the site was absolutely heaving with frenzied buyers, with real-time offers flying around at the speed of light. I managed to place a few bids on attractive-looking items, including a Toshiba digital camera, but, seconds later, I was outbid by JP from Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was obviously developing a passion for the same item.

After a couple of attempts I considered giving up and going to a non- auction retail site where I could buy the same item for more money but without the worry. Just when I was close to giving up, though, my bid managed to outlast others and I got my camera for about 20 per cent less than I would have paid at Fry's superstore in Palo Alto.

Then I tried another site, eBay (www.ebay.com), where I bid for and won a diving trip to Aruba for $480 (the normal price was $1,200). I didn't have time to go there, so ended up trading it with a friend for a house- share in Hawaii. But it was great fun anyway. I'm sure Aruba has attracted plenty of accidental travellers thanks to eBay.

The process of bidding (and winning) is quite simple. You register, post your bid and look at the real-time listings to see whether yours is the highest bid. If you get overtaken by a more aggressive bidder, you will know immediately and can take action by upping the stakes. The ego trip of being shown in the Winner's Circle for 15 minutes, not to mention the trepidation of waiting for the outcome, was far better than simply walking into Dixons and paying the (much higher) recommended retail price for the same item.

Bidding on eBay is fun, but only for those who like to take a risk. OnSale is essentially sales only, and from reputable manufacturers. OnSale manages the relationship between buyer and seller, so if something goes wrong it takes full responsibility.

On the other hand, eBay offers the opportunity to sell as well as buy things on its pages, and doesn't provide much in the way of guarantees for third-party deals. If the product is not up to your sophisticated standards, you are on your own when it comes to getting your money back. There is some vague returns process, but it comes with plenty of severe- looking disclaimers from eBay.

I've bought a couple of things on eBay. Both arrived in good shape and within the promised seven days. But it's definitely not for the faint- hearted. UK buyers can't play, as at present you can't get them to deliver items further than exotic Mexico, which may reflect the average American concept of the End of the World. Beyond Mexico there are monsters and Brits, none of whom merit an extension of eBay's commercial interest.

When I got back to the UK, I tried the Yahoo! auctions, but, sadly, got routed into the US section, where you can't buy if you are a member of the lower form of online life (ie a non-American buyer). Undaunted, I then found a Brit-friendly auction. If you want to play the haggling game, try QXL (www.qxl.co.uk). It is a neat, well-organised service, and the bidding process is quite similar to Onsale.

Where I found it puzzling, though, is that on a few occasions where I bought items from QXL, the goods didn't really look much like the item in the picture. Only then did I realise that there is a disclaimer pointing out that the illustration is purely ornamental and may not resemble the product itself. I guess QXL wants us to reach that higher level of abstraction, not satisfied with skipping human sales assistant, eliminating the cashier but also removing the association between the picture and the product itself.

There is also a potential hitch when you buy more than one product, as QXL is likely to source them from two or more suppliers, and each of them will bill you separate delivery charges, which is not entirely transparent in the instructions, so you need to watch for that.

I intended to send my purchase to a friend in Poland, but QXL deals only with EU countries, so I had to do the Royal Mail bit on my own. But even with the cost of my private package, I still saved on the item by buying it on the auction site.

The best thing about online auctions is that they bring back the pleasure of haggling in the market, and create real dialogue between the seller and the buyer. It is quite likely that the popularity of online auctions will influence retailers to take notice and allow some flexibility in the process of arriving at the price. So I am looking forward to haggling in my local Tesco.

So test your nerves on QXL, but make sure you do your research and know the maximum price you are prepared to pay. Otherwise you may be caught up in the bidding frenzy and end up paying more than you would in a shop. eva@never.com