How to Shop on eBay

I have nabbed some incredible deals on eBay. Deals so good they make me blush. Gorgeous French boots at a fifth of their retail price, vintage coats for $10, necklaces that garner dozens of comments every time they’re worn … and the list goes on.

Do I have some magical skill set that allows me to ferret out these deals? Nope. Are my methods top secret and difficult to employ? No way. Do I troll eBay on a daily basis looking for deals … well, sort of, but we’ll get to that. Bottom line is that my eBay finds are equal parts persistence, patience, and luck. And I’d be happy to tell you exactly how I utilize this amazing shopping resource so that you, too, can score deals so amazing they’ll make you blush.

But first, let me give a short summary: eBay is a community of buyers and sellers loosely governed by the rules of the site. When you are looking at a product entry, you may be buying from a company or a collective … but more likely, you are buying from an individual. Someone just like you. Sellers can be as detailed or vague as they want when they list a product for sale, and set their own prices. You can always contact a seller if you have a question, want to see more photos, or need more information about an item, but they are under no obligation to respond in a timely manner.

Some products can be bought immediately at a set price – look for the “Buy it Now” label if you prefer this route – but most products are sold in auction format. You enter a price you’re willing to pay and, if no one enters a higher price that THEY’RE willing to pay, the item is sold to you.

I won’t bore you with more nitty-gritty details of pricing, buying, or consumer protection as eBay has fantastic resources on all of these topics. Check their eBay University Learning Center for great tutorials.

What most of you are probably keen to hear about are techniques for FINDING things on eBay. It’s a vast site and quite overwhelming, so I can completely understand. Everyone shops differently, so my techniques may or may not work for you … but I’ll share them just in case! (This is a bit of a treatise, so brace yourselves …)

  1. Saved searches
    This is my primary eBaying tool. If you go to the search bar and type in “Frye Veronica Slouch boot,” pick the “Clothing, shoes, and accessories” category from the dropdown, and hit enter, you’ll get a couple dozen listings.

    Right next to where it says “35 results found” you’ll see a tiny blue link that says “Save search.” So long as you’ve already signed into eBay, you can click that link and have that exact same search dumped into your e-mail inbox every day for up to a year.

    Obviously, it works best for VERY specific searches that include product names, brand names, and detailed descriptors. Ideal if you lusted after a particular pair of shoes, missed out, and are hoping to find them six months later. But more general searches can be beneficial, too. I’ve got a “Banana Republic skirt” search that gives me about 200 listings per day … so …

  2. Refine your searches
    When my 200 BR skirts come into my inbox over my lunch hour, I click through from my e-mail and refine the search. The left rail will show you ways to narrow down the results: By size, color, material, brand, and more. Get as specific as you’d like and you’ll have fewer items to pore over.

    There are certainly ways to refine the search BEFORE you sign up for the e-mails, but sometimes you just want to keep it general. And, of course, you can refine your searches anytime you shop on eBay – just punch your search terms into the bar, scan the results, and start adding parameters from the left rail.

  3. Watch items
    If you find an item that you are interested in but not quite prepared to bid upon, you can “watch” it. Right below the blue “bid” button is a little dropdown that says “Add to watch list.” Click it, and the listing will get saved to your My eBay area.

    Access your watch list by going to My eBay (top right) and choosing “Watch list.”

    You have to manually visit your watch list, but keeping items in this area allows you to observe them from afar, see if other folks are bidding, and contemplate your decision to bid.


  4. Decide on a bidding strategy
    My bidding strategy is generally to enter the largest dollar amount I’m willing to pay for a particular item, and leave it to the fates. Sometimes that means I get outbid by one cent during the last 10 seconds of an auction, but c’est la vie. You can certainly try to win by hovering at your computer as the clock ticks down, but server speeds, Internet connections, and countless other factors can interfere with you getting that last bid placed in time. There are services like Auction Sniper that will place bids for you at the last minute … but I haven’t found them helpful.

  5. Think before you bid
    When you enter that number, you are committing to paying your chosen amount should you win. NEVER bid more than you can afford to pay. Even if you believe you have no chance at winning. You never know what will happen – items that appear in-demand can fall out of favor, listings can fly under the radar, all sorts of factors may end up conspiring to make that vintage necklace unexpectedly yours. So only bid what you can afford to pay.

  6. Be patient
    I bought these shoes off eBay about a year and a half after they were sold out in stores. It took that long for them to surface in my size and in a price range that suited me. You MAY be able to find something immediately, but you may not. Wait it out.

  7. Be thorough
    Now, this is the one that may make some folks cringe. If you really want to be a successful eBay consumer, look at all of the search results that fit your criteria. All of them. I was on a quest for blue boots during the summer and I probably looked at 250 listings every time I searched. There were loads of dupes and I could cruise through quickly, but scanning the lot of them helped me to know I’d seen everything that was available.

  8. Be smart
    Before you bid on a product, put its brand and style name into Google and make sure it’s not being sold elsewhere and/or for less. As a free market model, prices are “all that the traffic will bear,” meaning if someone is willing to pay it, it’s a fair price. Just because it’s on eBay doesn’t mean it’s automatically a bargain. Shop smart and do your homework.

My biggest mistake? Bidding on stuff and thinking, “Oh, I’ll NEVER win THAT.” I have ignored my own advice up there in #4 more times than I care to admit. And although it has brought me some killer shoes and amazing deals, it has also forced me to scramble for money I wasn’t truly planning to spend. Because eBay has an element of gambling to it, and because luck and randomness figure in, it’s best to impose as much of your own logic and reason on the system as possible. And I struggle with that sometimes.

Also remember that purchasing via eBay is always riskier than buying from a regular online retailer. Always. So if you’re searching for something that needs to fit exactly right, or needs to fit exact specifications, I’d try elsewhere. Shopping on eBay is fun and rewarding, but transactions can and do go wrong in ways that they seldom will with mass retailers.

That said, eBay is also a great place to look for weird, unusual, slightly damaged, past season, or otherwise hard-to-find stuff at great prices. I’ve put everything from “Bohemian garnet” to “badger shirt” into that search bar and had a whale of a time poring over the results! And, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve landed some outrageous deals – specific, lusted-after items that might never have turned up thrifting. So for all its risks, I do adore eBay.

How do you eBay?

**Disclosure: Actions you take from the hyperlinks within this blog post may yield commissions for alreadypretty.com. See Already Pretty’s disclosure statement for more details.

  • Lisa

    My tip is to do a thorough review of the seller too. I never bid on anything where the seller has less than 98% rating, or has any recent negative feedback. I do try to scan the negative comments and see if it was just a whiny hard to please customer who is making silly complaints or if was negligence on the sellers part. In addition to saving searches i save my favorite sellers too. There are a few that I find myself going back to as they tend to ell items that I really like.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the "save my search" info. I was not aware of that.

    I'd also recommend checking the shipping costs before placing a bid. That can add considerably to the final price of something.

    Sometimes I will enter the name of my city as a search. I've found some interesting things for sale on Ebay that way! Not clothes, but old maps or postcards or other ephemera and doo-dads.

  • Amy

    Thanks for posting this! I ALMOST emailed you yesterday asking for this very tutorial. Yay!

  • Peter

    Great post. To echo what Lisa said above, it's helpful to check out a seller's negative feedback (if any) and to see how the SELLER responded to the whiny customer as well.

    Sometimes it gets ugly and you probably wouldn't want to deal with either party!

  • La Historiadora de Moda

    These are great tips, and I would second Lisa's tip as well. I usually only bid on items from sellers with a 100% rating. Occasionally I will go as low as 98% but never below that.

  • Future Lint

    I had no idea about the saved searches thing! Awesome!

  • Anonymous

    I shop ebay for items I cannot find at the thrift. I also shop by material type and then color. So if I'm looking for a silk/cotton blend and cannot find it in teal to fill a hole in the wardrobe that is the search.

    I also shop by shoulder measurements as that is the one downside to my body, small on top except the shoulders.

  • ParisGrrl

    Let's just say I have no small amount of ebay experience [evil grin] and have learned to study both photos and descriptions carefully, research customer feedback, and take a few chances along the way. Maintaining a sense of humor helps too. If you're looking for something unusual, don't forget to try the international seller searches as well. My latest haul was three amazing vintage faux fur coats which I found through a Canadian seller; a little extra postage is a small price to pay for something special.

  • WendyB

    Nothing on sniping? If you snipe, you can cancel your bid if you change your mind. You're also not running up the price unnecessarily by getting in some unnecessary bidding war. I never buy from eBay unless I snipe.
    http://wendybrandes.com/blog/2008/04/snipe-dammit/

  • RoseAG

    I agree that looking the seller over is a good idea. I had an experience where I bought and paid for something and the seller never sent it.

    I tried to contact them several times with no response. When I reported it to ebay I received prompt service and a full refund.

  • AsianCajuns (Lar)

    OMG, Sally, seriously the best "diy" because I haven't bought a thing on ebay ever. I feel like I should be ashamed to admit that as a style blogger. I usually get a few steps into the process and then think "crap! I can't do this." If I get any free time this weekend, I'm popping open an ebay tab and Already Pretty tab and having at it! Merci beaucoupss!

  • KC

    Thanks for this post, which answered questions about eBay I didn't know I had! I do have one experience-based tip on negative feedback–take 100% positive feedback with a grain of salt. It can be the sign of a seller who uses retaliatory feedback slander to pressure the buyer into removing reasonable negative feedback. This is feedback abuse, and eBay will step in if asked, but not everyone will pursue this remedy. Sometimes a little negative feedback can be more informative than none at all.

  • Sidewalk Chic

    Oh thanks Sal for this post. I'm a bit shy with eBay and other bidding sites, but I'll have to look around sometime on there…

  • Magpie Style

    Hi! Love your post. I also did a eBay buying post on my blog that has some different tips (and some of the same!) Would love your feedback.
    As for sniping, I didn't mention it in my blog post either but I do it!

    http://floridawritergirl.blogspot.com/2010/09/ebay-is-your-fashion-best-friend.html

  • Anonymous

    I always check out the seller's other items. Sometimes I find more clothing/shoes/whatever in my size that I wouldn't have thought to search for. It's also helpful to get an idea of what they generally sell. If they have one vintage skirt from their closet listed, and the rest is all dvds and video games, they probably can't give me as much information as someone who sells tons of vintage clothing in all sizes.

    My best buy off ebay? A $20 purse from Italy, from a very small workshop. I could never afford it new, but this turned out to be in perfect condition. No one looked twice at the listing, because the pictures were horrible quality, and made the black bag look powder blue. It's sometimes hard to tell the difference between bad pictures and bad items, but if you take a couple chances it can really pay off!

  • rubybastille

    I would love to do more online shopping, but I'm paranoid about sizing and returns, especially on Ebay.

    Also…what is sniping? I'm such an Ebay noob, but I feel like this would be a great resource for unique & affordable stuff.

  • rb

    Several years ago for my birthday, one of my coworkers searched on "ugly unicorn shirt" and actually got a hit. This lovely 1970s used polyester men's shirt was my gift. OF COURSE I regifted it and it continues to be regifted around the office. Hilarious.

    I buy quite often from eBay, but I inisit on new items only, so I usually append "NWT" (new with tags) to my search, as that seems to be the favored acronym. I only buy brands that I know my size in.

    I find it also helps to shop off-season. I bought my latest pair of chestnut boots on eBay (new condition, of course) in July when everyone else was thinking about flip flops. $50 for $300 boots. No one bid against me.

  • Betty

    Thanks for this :)

    I have to be careful with ebay as I get slightly neurotic over it and sit up until all hours with copious amounts of coffee to see whether someone outbids me. What can I say? I LIKE to win ;)

    Am definitely going to try to incorporate your c'est la vie approach though. I'll probably live longer if I do that, non?

  • Megan Mae

    I've bought many shoes from ebay. I do everything you wrote about except get daily emails.

    I've had really good results with ebay. I've had a few times where I worried, but in the end all my purchases worked out.

  • Kyla

    I would also caution that sometimes too-good-to-be-true deals really are! Last Christmas my brother was very excited to find a seller selling beautiful cashmere scarves for $10 each with 99% positive feedback, so he bought a bunch as Christmas presents. It turns out most Ebay buyers apparently can't tell cashmere from acrylic. His negative review was shortly buried under a mound of "It's so soft it must be cashmere!" feedback.

  • Rachel

    Really great tips! I buy (and sometimes sell) everything from makeup to car parts on eBay and have worked hard to maintain a 100% feedback rating. Echoing so many others, feedback ratings are really important, but low feedback does not always mean a bad seller. Make sure to actually check what the feedback says, some people just complain or leave negative feedback when it should have been neutral.

    If you do buy makeup or skincare products always make sure to check with the seller for the expiration date if it is not listed. And beware of fakes! If they've listed 15 of the same item, buyer beware.It doesn't always mean it's a knock-off, but can be a good indication.

    One of the most important things to is pay through Paypal because of the protection they offer. Many sellers only accept Paypal, but regardless, it's a good idea because Paypal will refund 100% of your money if something goes wrong. I've had to file numerous claims for vehicle and motorcycle parts that were either mislabeled, did not work when received, or never arrived and I have always received a refund.

    Overall eBay is a fantastic place to buy almost anything!

  • Diana

    I love eBay, and this is a really well written post. I used saved searches daily.

    The only thing I would add is sniping. I started using Bidnapper a few months ago, and it's changed how I use eBay. Having a service that places your bid at the last second makes you a lot more likely to win, and it makes it a lot easier to manage what you're bidding on.

    Just my 2 cents.

  • Terri

    I haven't bought many items on eBay, but with the exception of having searches mailed to me, this is similar to my approach.

    Several weeks ago, I was shopping Frye Campus style boots. I put several on my watch list, but never bid. Then, after I was sure the bidding was closed on all those items, I received an e-mail that one of those items was still available. What's up with that?

  • Emma at Daily Clothes Fix

    Indeed I do. Loads of my stuff is from eBay (and most of it cost a quid). Love it. Recycling and bargain clothes = perfection.

  • Kathleen

    Ah, the perils of shopping on eBay. I'd say I was addicted to eBay in early 2007 when I bid on quite a few items in a 2- or 3-month span. Winning is fun! But I've also had to scramble to put together the money to pay for items I didn't expect to win and that wasn't fun. Nowadays, I shop for items on eBay that I'm already considering buying at other retailers just to comparison shop and that's a much more effective (and less costly) strategy.

  • Katie

    I’ve gotten Betsey Johnson bathing suit bottoms for $10 (including shipping). They have never been worn either.

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