Timing Is Everything

You will hear many different opinions on the “right” time to bid for an item that you really want. The right time to jump in can depend on whether you are bidding (1) in a timed auction that will stick to its predetermined closing deadline or (2) in a “soft close” auction.

Soft-close auctions have a posted closing date and closing time, but if there is a bid within the final ten minutes, the closing time will be extended for another ten minutes, and so on, until there is a high bidder and no additional bid for ten minutes. If you want to win an item in a soft-close auction, you have to be at your computer, ready to offer a counter-bid, as the posted deadline draws near.

Bidding Strategies

If you ask veteran buyers for the “right” bidding strategy, you may get several different pieces of advice, such as:

  • Bid early and set your maximum bid at the item's market value or the most you are willing to pay.

  • Bid early and keep bidding in small increments, just enough to stay ahead of your competitors.

  • Bid in the middle, after you have watched the early bidding trends.

  • Jump in just before the auction closes and try to post the final bid.

These approaches all have merit, and one of them may be better suited to your buying temperament than the others. Some auction strategists, however, contend that the sooner you place a bid, the less you may have to pay at the end to win the item. By their reasoning, if you bid early and set your automatic upper-bid limit at the most you are willing to pay, others who try to bid against you will be outbid immediately, each time they bump up their offer. When this happens, they may become discouraged and quit, leaving you free to win. Or, they may push the bidding beyond the true value of the item. When that happens, they may win, but you won't lose. You will still have your money and can soon find another auction for a similar item. With a strong competitor now out of the way, you may even stand a better chance of winning the item, possibly at a lower price than you expected.

The second approach — bidding in small, steady increments — requires more direct involvement in the flow of the auction. In this method, you start early, try to keep your bidding low, and keep pushing your offers by just enough pennies to stay ahead of any other bidders. The strategy here is gradually to wear down your opponents, until they start dropping out, and then try to be the last bidder standing as time expires. In this hands-on process, you will get many outbid notices, and you will spend a lot of time raising your automatic maximum high bid in small increments. But just when another bidder thinks she has taken the lead, you'll pop up again with a new high bid.

The drawback to the slow-and-steady approach is that others may use it, too, resulting in a steady stream of small, lead-changing bids. Ultimately, someone may become frustrated with the seesawing battle and decide to end it by setting a maximum bid that is much higher than you or the other bidders want to pay.

The third approach — waiting until an auction's midway point to post a bid — will give you some time to lurk and size up the other competitors by reading the feedback for each new high bidder. You will also have time to research the item so you can set a good maximum bid once you enter the competition. Some of the other bidders will drop out when you suddenly show up and take the lead. But some of them may become more determined to win. If they raise their bids above the top price you are willing to pay, don't go there. Bail out and seek other auctions.

The fourth approach — bidding during the final minute — may work well if you have a fast computer and a speedy network. Last-minute bidding is very common for hot items, and several bidders may try it at the same time. But if your computer hesitates for some reason or your Internet access suddenly slows down, your one-shot bid can miss the deadline.

Astute buyers of all persuasions typically make heavy use of an auction site's Watch This Auction link. The link displays a list of items they are following and shows the current bid price, how many bids are posted, how much time remains, and other details. Sellers like this feature, too, because each “watcher” activates a counter, such as the “# of Watchers” display that eBay sellers can view on their Items I'm Selling listings. When sellers see several watchers start tracking an item, they know they may have a successful sale.

Not everyone who watches an auction will click on its Watch This Auction reminder link. There can be dozens of buyers simply lurking and watching the bidding. They may wait until the auction's final minutes, and then jump in. You may think you are the high bidder as the auction clock runs out, but several more bids may arrive literally at the last second from these stealthy watchers.

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