Friday Rant: On-line Shopping: Consider the Source and Do Your Homework

As the holiday season approaches, the advantages of shopping on-line become increasingly attractive. Saving time by avoiding crowds, traffic and having a seemingly endless array of sources at our finger tips makes it possible to find especially appropriate gifts, tailored to our loved ones interests, like never before. So what's the downside -- there's always one or two with matters of bargain hunting and convenience?

If you're shopping on Amazon or another mega retail site, I suppose the only compromise may be the lack of tradition in not being able to touch and feel the goods, though branding mostly makes up for that. But if you're adventurous and prefer sourcing one-of-a-kind vintage -- and even old and new stock -- items like antiques, jewelry, electronic components, musical instruments and collectables, eBay and Craig's List comprise the real marketplace for me. If you don't buy in these arenas, your reservations are probably well founded. As an avid long term buyer and seller on both sites, I'd like to offer some advice to dispel at least some of them.

Neither are for the faint hearted but if you wear your tried and true buyer's hat and trust your instincts, it's possible to have fun, get great deals, and find particularly well suited gifts. The search engines on both Craig's List and eBay are sufficiently sophisticated to find almost anything you want. They're also terrific browsing forums when looking for inspiration. Today, I'd like to offer some salient tips for buying great stuff on Craig's List -- the dicier of the two -- and next week I'll offer up my years of cumulative advice for buying on eBay.

Craig's list is more foreboding than eBay without things like "buyer protection", "seller history" and relatively poor photographs or "pics" as they're described. Craig's list sellers consist mostly of perfectly normal people who don't want things they've accumulated or inherited and also want some extra cash, or simply want to upgrade and desire more than the wholesale trade-in value. The following suggestions, if you're willing to experiment, can facilitate some terrific buys:

1. Contact recent postings rather than old ones unless the item is obscure. In which case you might be able to land a really great deal if buyer interest is low.
2. Craig's list sellers are typically identified by their local neighborhood. Select the "good" neighborhood sellers. The more affluent, the better the opportunity for arbitrage and/or a well-cared for item
3. Read the description carefully and don't respond if your BS sensors go off
4. If the seller requests phone contact, great. You can always get a better sense of their sincerity via voice. If e-mail is requested, tell a short story why you're interested. They're as leary about you as you are of them and ask the seller to call you.
5. If the asking price seems absurdly low, ask why. Often times, sellers just want a quick sale and don't want their posting to be up weeks on end.
6. Set up a time to look/see and ideally tell them that you'll be bringing your spouse, significant other, offspring etc.
7. If the item is as you expect, make a fair offer. If it's far below the asking price explain why. Very few seller's will let a buyer walk with cash in hand.
8. Be communicative and be yourself. Honesty and sincerity will make you the most attractive buyer....often times far more enticing than $$$.
9. Its also perfectly acceptable to request the serial number of an item to ensure its validity.

By example, Jason recently asked me to ply my skills for him to acquire an upscale vintage audio system. We landed a magnificent and mint condition tubed power amplifier that had been vastly upgraded from the original stock at almost 50% of its retail value. For sale by a very wealthy seller who was up-grading and wasn't willing to accept the trade-in allowance offered by his merchant. I asked him why he chose to deal with us and he simply replied, "I was very comfortable with our initial conversation and felt you were sincere."

Craig's list isn't for everyone, but it offers tremendous opportunity to acquire very fine products at unheard of prices. Stay tuned next week for my informative take on how to navigate eBay for the best, lowest price and safest advantage to acquire unique and special gifts.

- William Busch

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