eBay Snipping

In: Snipping

25 Feb 2009

If you have any experience with eBay auctions, you’ve seen the following phenomenon. On day one of the auction, there are a few initial bids. On day two, the number of new bids trails off. On days three through six, few if any bids are placed. Then, on the seventh and last day of the auction, all hell breaks loosewith the heaviest bidding taking place in the auction’s final minutes.

What’s happening here? It’s simple: Interested bidders are employing a technique called sniping, and saving their best bids for last.

Sniping is a technique used to win auctions by not bidding at all over the course of the auction, but then swooping in at the very last minute with an insurmountable bid. The thinking behind this strategy is simple. By not disclosing your interest, you don’t contribute to bidding up the price during the course of the auction. By bidding at the last minute, you don’t leave enough time for other bidders to respond to your bid. The successful sniper makes one bid onlyand makes it count.

Sniping happens on eBay because the end time of each auction is rigidly enforced. If you know that an auction ends at 12:01:30, you can time your snipe to hit at 12:01:29, leaving no time for any other bidders to trump your bid. Some other auction sites, such as Yahoo! Auctions, have flexible end times; if there is bidding within the last five minutes of an auction, the auction is automatically extended by another five minutes, giving extra time for other bidders to respond to a snipe.

eBay management doesn’t have an official position on sniping, although it has the company’s tacit approval. Many experienced eBay users not only participate in sniping, but also regard it as a kind of game. (Sellers like sniping, of course, as long as it helps to drive up the prices of their items.) It’s the community of less-experienced usersor those used to more traditional auctionsthat is less likely to embrace sniping as a practice.

Most bidders who despise sniping say that it takes all the fun out of the auction process. Experienced snipers say that sniping itself is fun, that it can be kind of a game to see just how late you can bid and still make it count before the auction closes.

Whether you like it or not, sniping works. After all, if you place a high enough bid at the last second, there’s no time for anyone to respond with a higher bid. The last high bidder always wins, and a sniper stands a very good chance of being the last high bidder.

Can a sniper lose an auction? Yes, under these scenarios:

  • First, there might be another sniper in the queue who places a higher snipe than your maximum bid. A last-second bid of $35 will beat out a last-second bid of $30 any day.
  • Second, your snipe might be too early, allowing time for the previous high bidder to receive an outbid notice and respond with a higher bid.
  • Third, your snipe might not be high enough to beat out an existing high bid. (That’s why I told you earlier to always bid the maximum amount you want to payit can ward off some cheap snipers.) If the current bid is $25 but the high bid (not known to you) is $35, you’d be beat if you “only” bid $30.

If you’ve ever been outbid on an item at the very last moment, you know that sniping can win auctions. Even if you hate sniping, the only way to beat a sniper is to snipe yourself.

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