Shopping on eBay

I try — and fail — to get a few good bargains. But I’m not giving up.

I talked to my brother the other day. He lives back east, in the NY/NJ metro area, with his wife and dog. They live in suburbia, on a curving, tree-lined street where the houses don’t all look like each other. The first time I visited him, he had maple trees growing in his gutter. He’d just bought the house, which needed some work, and he hadn’t gotten around to cleaning the gutters yet. The trees were only a few inches tall. When we lived in New Jersey, we had a 4-foot maple growing on our roof for a while.

Anyway, my brother buys just about all of his electronic equipment on eBay. The other day, he’d just bought himself a new cell phone and was waiting for it to arrive. He already had the hands-free, bluetooth headset that would work with it and was trying it out with his wife’s phone. It seems like every time I talk to him he’s telling me about some new gadget he bought on eBay.

I’m in the market for a few electronic devices myself. So I blew the dust off my eBay account and logged in. What I discovered is that eBay is no longer the garage sale of the Internet. It’s now the flea market of the Internet.

Why the difference? Well, a garage sale is usually full of used stuff — much of it junk — that the owner no longer wants. A flea market has much of the same junk, but it also has brand new, still in the box (abbreviated NIB for “new in box” on eBay) items. Call me spoiled, but when I buy a piece of computer hardware that I need to depend on, I want it brand new.

The first thing I needed was a portable external hard disk that I could use with my PowerBook. Experimentation the other day with iMovie and my video camera ate up the remaining 5 GB of unused space on that computer’s disk. I’m not replacing the hard disk — Mike went through that with a local computer consultant a few months ago and it was a 2-month nightmare. Instead, I’ll get a portable FireWire hard disk I can use to store big, fat media files. Like video. (Although it wouldn’t hurt to pare down my iTunes library on that computer; 12 GB of music is a bit much when I carry around the same songs and video on my iPod.)

So I hunted around on reputable sites — including the Apple Web site — and found a name brand and model I liked. Then I searched on eBay. I had literally dozens of matches, many of them NIB. Wow.

At the same time, I decided I needed some more RAM for my G4, which will soon be upgraded to Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger Server. The machine, which is currently doing server duty with the dreaded WebSTAR, has 384 MB of RAM. That was quite generous when the machine was new 4 or 5 years ago, but nowadays, it just doesn’t cut it. Especially with the Webcam and audio streaming software running on it. Near as I can figure (without opening the box), one of its 3 RAM slots should be free. I figure I’d put 512 MB in there to pump up the RAM. And, if I could get the RAM cheap enough, I’d buy 2 512 MB “sticks” (apparently the RAM lingo) and throw away (or eBay) the 128 MB one I pull out. I did a search and found dozens of compatible RAM sticks. Whew.

I started bidding. And after two days, I noticed a pattern that I had noticed once before. You can be the winning bidder right up until about 10 minutes before bidding ends. Then someone comes along and outbids you. If you’re paying attention, you can bid back. That results in a bidding war and, if you’re not careful, you’ll wind up paying more than you really wanted to.

I’m careful. And I know how much these items are worth at their cheapest (or cheapest I can find) retail source. So someone outbids me and I start the process all over again with another item.

I have a theory about this. I believe that some vendors who sell the same thing over and over — dealers, in a way — have buddies who help them out near the end of an auction. Their buddies come along and bid to get the price up. They’ll bid right up to the amount the dealer really wants and step back. The bidder that crosses that line pays more than the dealer’s bottom line. And if there is no other bidder, the dealer pays the listing fee on the price his buddy “paid” and re-lists the item. This is how so many items can be sold without reserve. (A reserve is a minimum price the seller will accept. It costs more to list with a reserve and lots of buyers won’t bid on products that have reserve prices.)

The long and the short of it is that I’ll probably be ordering that RAM from an online retailer today. I can’t seem to get it on eBay any cheaper than I could get it from a retailer, so why risk a private seller on eBay?

I haven’t given up on the FireWire hard disk yet. And I’ve started looking into another iSight camera for a portable Webcam. And you know, I can really use a FireWire hub…

What do you think?