September 20, 2000

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Adding Sniping to Bidding to Get the Goods


WHEN Eric Clayberg and Dan Riggs crossed paths on eBay a year ago, they were exuberant newcomers to online auctions. Mr. Clayberg, a software programmer in Middletown, Mass., had bought an old coin-operated arcade game from Mr. Riggs, the co-owner of an arcade-game shop in Tulsa, Okla. They never met or even talked on the phone, but they raved about the way the Internet had enabled them to find each other 1,400 miles away.

Today they are still big fans of eBay, but they are much more savvy about how to use it. In many ways they represent the old hands of the service, which has grown to 15.8 million members from 3.8 million a year ago. And while some people berate eBay for not doing enough to combat potential fraud, Mr. Clayberg and Mr. Riggs say they have managed to avoid problems. Mr. Clayberg uses tools like escrow services, which ensure that customers are satisfied before the seller is paid. Mr. Riggs said he protects himself from disputes over sales by making sure the buyer knows about a game's limitations before it is sold.

Mr. Clayberg, for example, has perfected several strategies for finding and winning items he wants. He has signed up for a service called Esnipe (www.esnipe .com), an automated bidding system. The system makes it easier than ever to rush in with a bid at the last minute, a practice known as sniping. Instead of waiting until the final seconds to type in what he hopes to be a winning bid, Esnipe does the work for him.

"The person on eBay wouldn't even know you are using it," Mr. Clayberg said. And neither would the other potential buyers who might drive up the price of an item by starting a bidding war. "You don't even tip your hand that you are interested," he said.

Mr. Clayberg, who has set up a gallery of more than 40 old arcade games in his basement, also uses a service offered by eBay that runs preset queries each time he logs on. That way he can easily find new games or posters that would match his collection. Meanwhile, he watches auctions that have already caught his eye by clicking to a bookmarked page that tallies their status.

A result, Mr. Clayberg said, is that he has drastically reduced the time he spends browsing on eBay. "But the time I do spend is much more efficient," he said.

There is another reason that Mr. Clayberg is less inclined to while away his hours on eBay. He still checks the site every few days, hoping to come across rare finds, but he is not as prone to get excited about every auction he sees.

By contrast, Mr. Riggs's company, MVP Vending, is even more attached to eBay than it was a year ago. "The Internet is almost our main focus now instead of local sales," he said. As much as 70 percent of his store's transactions take place through the auction site, and each week he lists 10 to 15 items, including renovated arcade games and spare parts. At one point last month, during what Mr. Riggs considered a slow period, he had listed five coin-operated games: Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Galaxian, Robotron and StarGate.

Since last year, MVP Vending has racked up more than 80 feedback ratings from buyers, and nearly all of them are positive. Those ratings, Mr. Riggs said, are increasingly valuable, giving him an edge over competitors who have recently decided to jump into the online auction space.

But besides cultivating good feedback, Mr. Riggs said he had learned how to lure new buyers. He now includes long descriptions of every item he sells to assure people that the items are worthwhile and to avoid an avalanche of e-mail messages from interested buyers with questions about special features. For example, a recent listing for Galaxian, a game featuring green killer bugs, described the scratches on the cabinet, the new door lock for the coin box and the sharp picture.

Providing pictures is also a must, Mr. Riggs said. He now includes at least three photographs with each listing, providing a frontal view and shots of both sides.

Mr. Riggs is not entirely content with eBay, however. He worries about the curse of negative feedback. If a buyer posts a message that derides MVP Vending unfairly, Mr. Riggs said, there is little he can do. He has complained to eBay about such messages and said he had received meager responses about the company's inability to investigate all cases of reportedly slanderous feedback.

FOR an auction company with as many as four million daily listings, Mr. Riggs said, "They should have a big customer-service staff, too."

Still, he has no plans to reduce his use of the auction site. EBay cannot be beat for attracting repeat customers, Mr. Riggs said. Many of them will actually travel to his warehouse in Tulsa to see other items that have not yet been posted online. "They'll say, 'Hey, I need a pool table too,' " he said.

And he is not worried about more jaded buyers, like Mr. Clayberg, who say that eBay has almost exhausted their need for collectibles.

"But there are plenty of customers out there," Mr. Riggs said, especially considering how many Internet newcomers visit eBay every day.

"If this customer doesn't want to pay the money, there is another customer that will."

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