Friday, July 13, 2007

Confessions of an eBay Sniper

"Gary, welcome to ESA (eBay Sniper's Anonymous)."
"Hello. My name is Gary, and I'm an eBay sniper.
(Imagine supportive applause here)

Ok, I said it. I love to get stuff in the mail, I love to buy stuff from eBay, and I love to snipe auctions. For anybody still living in 1997, sniping is the practice of bidding on an item in eBay at the last second (actually, when I did it manually I usually did it with about 10 seconds to go, although I have unintentionally submitted bids as late as 1 second before the end of the auction). To many people, this kind of practice is "in theory ... against the rules," not to mention mean, unfair, immoral, un-Christian, and perhaps "characteristic of mean Calvinists."

I totally disagree with all of these assessments. First of all, it's not against "the rules," even in theory, assuming by "the rules" you mean the rules of eBay and not "da rules" (which would presumably prevent any activity on eBay unless it's between you and your kid). eBay specifically says sniping is valid, and does not even discourage it: they call it "part of the eBay experience."

As for the charge of being unfair, there are, in fact, many different kinds of bidding behavior in an auction like eBay. I'll simplify it a bit by only describing three categories: Early True Maximum Price Bidders, Snipers, and Nibblers.
  1. The Early True Maximum Bidders, or "Earlies": They submit a bid, generally "early" in the auction (a subjective term, but let's say that means anything earlier than the last day) that is the true maximum amount they want to pay for the item and take their chances. If a later bidder outbids them, they lose: but that's not that bad for them, because they didn't want to pay that much anyway. If later bidder's maximum price is less than theirs, then the later bidder loses and the earlier one wins.
  2. Snipers: They submit a bid near the end of the auction (again, a very subjective term, but let's say in the last few minutes) that is the maximum they want to pay for the item and take their chances. If an earlier bidder outbids them, or another sniper comes along later and outbids them, they lose.
  3. Nibblers: They don't know how much they want to bid, but watch what other people bid and keep bidding more little by little. If you look at the bid history of many auctions, you'll see many nibblers: 10 bids in a row from the same bidder, each one a dollar more than the last. Sometimes you'll see two nibblers in a bidding war (maybe we should call it a "nibbling war"), going up alternately.
I am now a Sniper, but I used to be a Nibbler, so I've been two of the three. Permit me to make a couple of observations:
  • The primary reason people bid on eBay is to buy something for the lowest price they can. That is, they want something, and they don't want to pay any more than they have to in order to get it. This is exactly the same as walking through a mall and shopping several stores to see which one has the item for less and buying it there.
  • The only difference between categories Earlies and Snipers is the time frame in which the bidder submits his bid. In both cases, the bidder is submitting a bid for the maximum he wants to pay for the item. In both cases, he takes his chances of being outbid; and in both cases, being outbid is not an altogether bad thing, because he wasn't willing to pay the amount that was bid.
  • Most people are Nibblers, and they generally Many people consider Snipers bad but Earlies good. Why is this? As we've seen, they're virtually identical in both their intentions and their behavior: the only difference is the time they put their bid in.
  • Earlies and Snipers are generally very happy with each other, and co-exist rather nicely. Nibblers like Earlies because they can see how much they're bidding; although, in my experience from when I was a Nibbler, having eBay keep telling me I was "outbid" because of Earlies with higher bids than mine is just as frustrating as being outbid by a Sniper. The only group that does not get along is that Nibblers don't like Snipers.
  • Somebody may object: the Sniping method does not seem very Christian. I would take this charge very seriously. As I am a Christian, all my actions must be guided by Christian principles. But saying that the only Christian way of bidding on eBay is maximizing the seller's profit would mean, conversely, that a Christian seller's goal should be to get me the item for the least money. This is an obvious deadlock. It seems to me that as long as you're honest and above-board with everything, market transactions do follow Christian principles.
I believe that Nibblers hate Snipers not because we are doing anything illegal or immoral, but rather because we ruin their bidding strategy. They have just spent a long period of time bidding and counter-bidding repeatedly, just to come along and find out that since they didn't bid their true maximum amount (the maximum amount they really intended on paying), they "lost" the auction to a Sniper. I could just as easily complain that the Nibblers ruin my bidding strategy because their bidding wars pushes the price up farther than I want to pay. There is a simple solution, of course: either become a Sniper or (if you still think it immoral), an Early. Bid the maximum amount you're willing to pay and see what happens.

If somebody is still thinking "yeah, but Snipers are not fair to the sellers because they don't get as much money as they could," then I have three things to say. First, is my goal on eBay to ensure the seller gets the most money? If so, how does the seller get off not ensuring I get the item for as cheaply as possible? Second, should Nibblers also be obligated to bid as high an amount as possible (and what's more, get another person into the process with you) so that they can drive the price higher to benefit the seller? Why Nibble at all - why not just submit an astronomically-high bid to help out the seller? Finally, why are you on eBay in the first place? Why not just pop down to the mall and buy the item at the first store you come to, regardless of price?

I submit that buyers of all three categories have the same goals: the only difference is that we have different methods that we think will be successful. I won't complain about your bidding method if you don't complain about mine.

2 comments:

Daniel said...

I read your article, and found your arguments to be pretty funny.

Which sniper do you use?

Have you ever tried bidninja.com?

The site is 100% free and has unlimited bids.

Gary Bisaga (aka fool4jesus) said...

Thanks. I am serious, of course, in believing that sniping is not a negative or immoral in any way. In other words, I don't think it unfair but still do it because it's effective: I honestly believe it to be perfectly valid, even though it does not seem at first glance to be very, well, nice.

I use bidnapper.com. One wonders: how does bidninja make money? My feeling is that the small amount bidnapper charges for transactions (my transaction amounts are usually rather large) is worthwhile considering I'm depending on their servers to make the bid for me. I'm a software developer by trade, and reliability generally comes with some kind of price tag. Does bidninja seem reliable?