Marty Duplissey knows his way around auctions. He attends maybe six a year, bidding on forklifts, trucks, and other heavy equipment. But more often these days, the Longview (Tex.) software developer, whose family is also in the furniture and cattle businesses, practices his auction skills on the Internet. Duplissey regularly visits several Web sites, where he figures he outbids competitors for computer gear and software half the time. When he prevails, he gets the goods at 30% to 50% off the retail price. "It's so convenient," he says. "I can check the status of a bid and up it from anywhere at anytime."
Cyberauctions are breaking out all over the Net. The Internet Auction List (IAL) contains 1,500 links, mostly to the Web pages of traditional auction houses, directories, and publications. But IAL includes links to more than 100 online auctions, too. "What draws people is the lure of the bargains," says Jerry Kaplan, chief executive of Onsale, a publicly held online-auction company. Visitors to the IAL site can also gain access to BidFind, a search engine that lets them type in "Pentium" or "Tamagotchi" to find places where these items are put up for bids. For now, however, the same few auction-company names always turn up.
As one might expect, a wide variety of computer and consumer-electronics products are selling at Web auctions. But plenty of general merchandise is also up for grabs. EBay's AuctionWeb lists Barbie dolls, baseball cards, and musical instruments among its fare. Winebid.com offers fine vintages. The Internet Shopping Network's First Auction site, a subsidiary of the Home Shopping Network, offer golf clubs, Krups espresso machines, and--you've seen 'em on the tube--Ginsu knives. Onsale recently started offering Omaha Steaks. Other online auctions are dedicated to stamp collectors and those seeking timeshares, airline seats, or books.
Unlike in-person auctions, the Internet variety may last from a day to a week or more, and the formats vary. So-called Dutch auctions, such as those at Klik-Klok Online Dutch Auction, reverse the process. Klik-Klok offers clocks, gardening tools, and jewelry. With the clock ticking, prices drop incrementally every few seconds, until a registered user clicks the mouse to snatch a product.
In the far more common Yankee auction, a number of identical items are put up for sale simultaneously, with the highest bidders capturing the goods when the auction closes--meaning people could theoretically bid different prices and still get the same item. To draw people in, products often carry an alluring minimum bid--say, $199 for a Pentium notebook computer. "We're losing money at the minimum bid price," says Keith Foxe, manager of communications and promotions at Internet Shopping Network. He admits, however, that relatively few items sell for the minimum.
SURVEY THE FIELD. Before getting into the bidding process, you should have a decent idea of how much the identical or a similar product would go for in stores. Indeed, for some consumers it's worth paying extra in a store for the chance to inspect the item and possibly return it a few days later. If you choose the online-auction route, carefully read the product descriptions ahead of time, especially if you're going to buy high-tech equipment. If the product isn't brand new, it should say so. And if you're buying software, make sure you have the right to all the necessary licenses. Remember, too, that a desktop PC may not come with a monitor, modem, CD-ROM, ample memory, or even the operating system. If you run into compatibility problems with your existing PC gear, you're probably out of luck.
You must also figure out whether you want to buy from a service such as Onsale, which owns most of the merchandise it sells, or from private individuals who put up their wares on such sites as AuctionWeb's (for a small fee, plus a percentage of the sale price) or Haggle Online's (currently free). You might get a good deal from a private seller, but he or she may also be less reliable. In any case, you may want to E-mail or call the auction company or seller to clarify questions about what's included in an offer. To some degree, the Net is self-policed, so an unreliable seller may be identified by other members of the service. AuctionWeb actually rates some sellers based on users' comments.
Wherever you buy, determine in advance exactly how much you are willing to pay. Don't forget to factor in the shipping costs. Be prepared to stick to your guns. "You can pay too much real fast," says Duplissey. Just as you might poke around the card tables in Vegas before putting down your own money, it's a good idea to watch a few auctions before bidding to determine strategy.
The first time you place a bid at Onsale, you enter the amount and the quantity of the item, your billing and shipping addresses, and credit-card information (which is encrypted). You may then up the ante by an incremental preset amount. You can track how you're doing by clicking on the item's catalog page, where the highest bidders are posted. You must constantly reload the page to see if you remain on top. Customers who are outbid may also be notified by E-mail. Of course, as an auction nears its conclusion, the action can get fast and furious. So if you want something badly enough you should stay logged on. When customers make bids, they can also leave comments for their competitors, such as "I'll go up to $1,000. Don't make me do it." But unlike an in-person auction, you can't eyeball your competitors to assess when they're likely to throw in the towel.
If there's a tie, those who bid on more than one of the same item win out. The next tiebreaker is the time the initial bid was placed, so getting in early, even with a low bid, may help put you in the winner's circle.
SIGHT UNSEEN? Some services, such as AuctionWeb, allow buyers to indicate privately the maximum amount they are willing to pay for something, so bids are made by the company on their behalf when other customers bid up the price. You would not be charged the maximum price if a lower bid could capture the prize.
While bargains on new merchandise can surely be found, many of the products Onsale and First Auction are hawking represent manufacturer's overstock or refurbished computer products and other items. Goods may be out of season or old models. (Of course there's nothing wrong with this stuff if it fits your needs.) Most items come with warranties, and the companies will make good provided a product reaches you dead on arrival. But remember, you are agreeing to buy an object sight unseen, unless there's a photo, and all sales are final. Except in rare instances, you'll be stuck with the thing if you emerge the highest bidder. If there is a dispute with the seller, it may help to have paid with a credit card because you can sometimes cancel the charge. A credit card is the required form of payment on most services, anyway.
One other thing to keep in mind: Online auctions can be seductive. You can readily get caught up in the thrill of the chase and vie for products you don't want or need. Indeed, it's all too easy to find the funds in your bank account rapidly going, going, (gulp) gone.