Though not by any means a traditional way of gift shopping, eBay's online auction service ( can be an effective way of reeling in great


Doing Santa's Bidding

Want cut-rate khakis or Clinton collectibles? Tips on tapping the eBay universe.

Though not by any means a traditional way of gift shopping, eBay's online auction service ( can be an effective way of reeling in great stuff. Since it was founded in 1995, it has grown from a relative handful of computer-savvy buyers and sellers to today's 49.7 million registered users. Every day, millions of items are in play on eBay, making it the world's largest online auction house/flea market. It's still possible to acquire genuine bargains, especially if no one is competing with you. And there's also the potential to score a real steal. For those who haven't played the cyberauction game yet, here are a few basics.

Getting Started

First of all, to participate in eBay auctions, you must go to the Web site and complete a simple registration form. You will note that on the home page there is a column listing basic categories of items currently up for auction, such as Antiques, Dolls, Jewelry, Pet Supplies, Real Estate, Travel, etc. You can browse these categories or use the search function to find specific types of items.

Refining Your Search

You'll have better success if you can be somewhat specific about what you're looking for. Let's say you want Christmas tree ornaments. Upon entering the word "ornament" into eBay's search engine, I came up with an overwhelming 18,795 items. When I entered the three words "Christmas," "tree," and "ornament," I came up with 6,985 different auction lots—a little more manageable but still daunting. Knowing your giftee's preferences helps. After narrowing the search parameters by adding the word "vintage," I got the list down to 1,407, and by substituting "antique" for "vintage," I got a targeted 243 positive matches. So, if the person you're buying for has a known area of collecting interest—old salt and pepper shakers, vintage toy trains, bootleg Nirvana CDs, commemorative plates, BMWs—you have an excellent starting point.

Even if your giftee has no established collecting track record, eBay can still help by enabling you to browse any category. That's how you can discover stuff that you might never have thought of, and at bargain prices. I mean, consider recent lots that you could have had a crack at: a "Small Holiday Pig for Roasting" (opening bid: $0.01), an "X-Men Glass Chess Set" ($1), or a "Real Skin Shrunken Head w/ Stand" ($1). These are the types of oddities found in—where else?—eBay's Weird Stuff category. Other, more practical items you might have found: a new copy of the "Genealogy Family Tree Program" computer software CD ($0.25), a new pair of Eddie Bauer khaki jeans ($12.58), a new Anne Klein designer blazer ($5), and a new Black & Decker toaster oven ($20).

Bidding Strategies 101

There are a few techniques you can use to increase the odds of acquiring whatever lots catch your eye. First of all, ignore the opening bid figure, which is often set insanely low to excite bidders. Instead, ponder your gift budget, establish what you think is the maximum value of a particular item, determine the most you would be willing to pay, and then submit that figure as your bid. The auctions are structured to rise in set increments, so unless you have competitors for an item, it is quite possible you will win an item for considerably less than your top bid price—possibly even that insanely low opening bid price. Of course, bidders usually raise the final sale price—but sometimes they don't. So bidding low on a number of desirable lots and letting fate take its course is a strategy that can surprise you with how many bargains you'll win. On the other hand, if the bidding goes higher than your maximum—well, then, you lose out and are back to square one.

One of the more successful bidding strategies is "sniping," the practice of bidding only in the final moments of an auction (leaving no time for other folks to raise their bids in response). Some disparage this, but I encourage it. Why? Because it works.

One last timing issue to keep in mind: Auctions can last anywhere from three to 10 days, so if timing is an issue, make sure to check when the auction ends. Allow time for completing the transaction and getting your purchases in the mail.

Buy It Now

Finally, you should also know about eBay's "Buy It Now" feature. Sometimes buyers can simply skip the auction process and buy an item outright for a set price. So without even bidding, you can choose a gift for that special someone from an array of prepriced lots, such as ancient Roman coins ($0.80); "Fake Bullet Holes" ($0.99); a 10-piece Ginsu knife set—"As Seen on TV"—($1.50); a plastic marijuana plant ($3); a hypnosis CD—"Hypnotize Anyone" ($5); a "Clinton/Lewinsky Quarter" ($1.99); "Bigger Boobs" pills ($11.95); and even an "Immortality Device" ($18.95). What further proof do you need that gift shopping on eBay can take you to far retail corners where the average holiday shopper never treads?

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