How to Win an Online Auction

These five expert tips can help you triumph over the competition and claim your prize.

As many interior design professionals and veteran deal hunters know well, browsing the items in an online auction can be a thrill. You never know what you might find. It could be exactly what you were looking for or something you didn’t even know you wanted.

Better yet, once you discover that treasure, whether it be a mid-century chair, an Impressionist painting or vintage diamond earrings, the beauty — and fun — of an online auction is that you might pick it up for a lot less than you’d pay elsewhere. Plus, you get to bid from the comfort of your own home or wherever you happen to be.

If you’re new to online auctions, however, you might not be sure where to start. Or if you haven’t had much success in the past, you may be eager to pick up some new strategies.

To help, we consulted someone who knows auctions better than most, 1stDibs chief commercial officer and self-described auction junkie Matt Rubinger. Rubinger, who began participating in online auctions as a teenager, had leadership roles at the Christie’s and Heritage auction houses before joining 1stDibs.

Here, he shares his expert advice on how to bid online — and win.

Take time to find objects that truly speak to your heart and mind. 

“The first step with any auction is falling in love with whatever it is you’re looking for,” says Rubinger. “If you’re on 1stDibs, spend time looking through the site, favoriting things you like and putting them in folders so you can review them later and figure out what you’re really in love with.”

At that point, he adds, you can also narrow down your list to what’s realistic in terms of price.

Know the market value of the prize you’re eyeing. 

After deciding on an item you really want, do some online research to figure out how much it usually sells for at retail or at auction. If possible, research the auction history of similar pieces.

Keep in mind that where the bidding ends up may not reflect the typical value of the object: Sometimes, you can get an incredible piece for a song, and sometimes, there’s a lot of demand that drives the price up.

Be sure to examine the item’s photos closely, noting its condition. Read the product description carefully, and feel free to email the seller with any questions you have prior to entering a bid.

Don’t forget to factor in additional charges you might have to pay, such as a buyer’s premium. Essentially a service fee, this is usually a percentage of what the item sold for. Commonly ranging from 10 to 25 percent, it can add a hefty amount to your total. At 1stDibs, however, it’s not a concern, as the site doesn’t charge a buyer’s premium.

There are taxes and shipping costs to consider, as well. Regarding the latter, make sure to figure out how you’ll take possession of the piece. All purchases on 1stDibs are covered by 1stDibs Buyer Protection, and you’ll receive help with shipping arrangements and other postpurchase support.

Decide on your highest bid beforehand.

To avoid what social scientists term the endowment effect — the tendency to place a higher value on an object once you start to think of it as yours, which at auction can lead to overbidding — decide in advance how much you’re comfortable spending.

“We all can get caught up in auction fever, so you should definitely know your maximum price before you start bidding so that you don’t go crazy,” says Rubinger. 

You may not always stick to your max, but it’s important to make up your mind about “the true value of an item and what you’re willing to pay for it,” he continues. “Those two dollar amounts may be the same or they may be different, especially if you want something badly enough. You want to be armed with that information before logging in to the auction. That way, you can at least make an informed decision if you decide to throw those numbers out the window at the last minute.”

Should you be tempted to keep bidding, take a minute to step back and reassess. “If you’ve found a desk you love, but it’s already been bid up quite high,” says Rubinger, “you have to decide either ‘I’m in love with it, I can’t live without it, and I’m going to go for it even if I have to compete and go higher than I’d like’ or ‘Actually, there’s this other desk I’m also thinking about that doesn’t have as much activity, so I’m going to focus on that one instead for now.’ ”

Bid late — even if you have to sit on your hands to do it.

Auctions held online are typically timed, meaning they’re often several days long and end at a set day and hour, in contrast to in-person or live online auctions, which follow a more traditional format, with an auctioneer taking bids during a scheduled event. Timed auctions, like those on 1stDibs, allow you to bid at your convenience. But when you bid matters.

As hard as it can be to resist jumping at an item as soon as you see it, research has found that if you can hold out until the end, you’ll significantly increase your chance of actually winning it.

“Of course, that’s really where the game begins,” says Rubinger. “You’ve narrowed down your items, you’ve assessed the scenario, you’ve noted when the auction’s going to end. Now, you sit at your desk, pour yourself a glass of wine, open up the item page and wait as long as your stomach will allow you to before making that last-minute bid.” You’ll likely engage with somebody else who’s doing exactly the same thing. But that, he insists, is where the fun starts.

Understand key online-auction terms and what they mean for you.

Don’t let unfamiliar terminology keep you from placing a bid. Here are a few phrases to know. 

Reserve Price

Some items have reserves, others don’t. A reserve is the undisclosed minimum amount a seller will accept. It’s not the same as the starting bid, which will always be lower.

“Reserves lie somewhere between the starting bid and the ‘Buy It Now’ price, so as a buyer, you at least have those two numbers as anchors,” says Rubinger. “Remember, auctions are like a sport. Having a lower starting bid encourages the game of it. Everyone’s hoping to win an item at a lower price than what they might get in the marketplace. You start low to allow people to dip their toes into it and see where it takes them.”

On 1stDibs, which uses automatic bidding to place bids on your behalf up to whatever maximum you choose, if you set a max that’s higher than the reserve, the site will automatically increase your bid to meet the reserve price and continue bidding against other interested parties from there until your maximum amount is reached. 

Buy It Now

Some online auctions, including those on 1stDibs, have a “Buy It Now” option, allowing you to purchase an item immediately instead of bidding for it. The “Buy It Now” price is higher than the amount the seller is willing to accept, since it’s higher than the reserve price. The advantage is that you get to secure the piece right away. But you’ll miss out on the chance of getting it for a steal.

“The whole game or fun of an auction, and particularly at 1stDibs, is that you may end up winning an item at a significantly lower cost than if you had just bought it directly,” says Rubinger. 

Soft Close

Some sites, like 1stDibs, offer soft closes as a way to protect against sniping, or bidding at the very last second, often using third-party apps that send bids in at lightning speed. 

“Until online auctions like eBay, there was never a hard close to a live auction — the auctioneer would just keep going until the bidding stopped,” says Rubinger. “An item is supposed to be sold to the highest bidder, not the quickest, so that’s what we want to re-create here. It’s really a fairness thing.” 

At 1stDibs, if someone bids in the last five minutes of an auction, it will be extended for five minutes to allow another party to place a bid — and the extensions will continue until the highest bid is met with five minutes of silence.

“So, while it’s advisable to wait until the last few minutes to bid — that way you don’t show your cards too early and inflate the price,” says Rubinger, “we’re also not going to end an auction until the item is sold to the person who’s willing to pay the most for it.”

These strategies and explanations can’t guarantee a win, but they can help you understand the online-auction landscape and make some smart moves. With a bit of luck, you’ll take home a piece you love at a price you love even more. Happy hunting!

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