I've been bitten by theonline auction bug

The best thing about cyberauctions is that they bring back the pleasure of haggling in the market
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The Independent Online

A FEW weeks ago, whileon a trip to California, I caught the online auction bug. I was lookingfor a digital camera and someone suggested OnSale, a US auction site. Feeling adventurous and up for some onlinehaggling, I read the FAQs and registered on the site to join the elite clubof "bidders".

A FEW weeks ago, whileon a trip to California, I caught the online auction bug. I was lookingfor a digital camera and someone suggested OnSale, a US auction site. Feeling adventurous and up for some onlinehaggling, I read the FAQs and registered on the site to join the elite clubof "bidders".

I immediately got the impression that the site wasabsolutely heaving with frenzied buyers, with real-time offers flyingaround at the speed of light. I managed to place a few bids onattractive-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 sameitem.

After a couple of attempts I considered giving up and going to anon- auction retail site where I could buy the same item for more money butwithout the worry. Just when I was close to giving up, though, my bidmanaged to outlast others and I got my camera for about 20 per cent less than Iwould have paid at Fry's superstore in Palo Alto.

Then I tried anothersite, eBay, where I bid for and won adiving trip to Aruba for $480 (the normal price was$1,200). I didn't have time to go there, so ended uptrading it with a friend for a house- share in Hawaii. But it was greatfun anyway. I'm sure Aruba has attracted plenty of accidental travellersthanks to eBay.

The process of bidding (and winning) is quitesimple. You register, post your bid and look at the real-timelistings to see whether yours is the highest bid. If you get overtaken by amore aggressive bidder, you will know immediately and can take action byupping the stakes. The ego trip of being shown in the Winner's Circle for15 minutes, not to mention the trepidation of waiting for the outcome,was far better than simply walking into Dixons and paying the (muchhigher) recommended retail price for the same item.

Bidding on eBay isfun, but only for those who like to take a risk. OnSale is essentiallysales only, and from reputable manufacturers. OnSale manages therelationship between buyer and seller, so if something goes wrong it takesfull responsibility.

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

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

When I got back tothe UK, I tried the Yahoo! auctions, but, sadly, got routedinto the US section, where you can't buy if you are a member of the lowerform of online life (ie a non-American buyer). Undaunted, Ithen found a Brit-friendly auction. If you want to play the hagglinggame, try QXL. It is a neat,well-organised service, and the bidding process is quite similar toOnsale.

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

There is also a potential hitch when you buy more thanone 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 notentirely transparent in the instructions, so you need to watch forthat.

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

The best thing about online auctionsis that they bring back the pleasure of haggling in the market, and createreal dialogue between the seller and the buyer. It is quite likely that thepopularity of online auctions will influence retailers to take notice and allowsome flexibility in the process of arriving at the price. So I am lookingforward to haggling in my local Tesco.

So test your nerves on QXL, butmake sure you do your research and know the maximum price you are prepared topay. Otherwise you may be caught up in the bidding frenzy and end up payingmore than you would in a shop.

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