The Anatomy of an Auction

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The auction that took place on bidorbuy on 27 November 2008 set several records and provided evidence for the validity of several online auction axioms

The auction lasted for six hours only. It started at R1. The seller did not have the safety-net of a reserve price. She was obligated to let the goods go to the highest bidder, whatever the amount.

At stake was a second-hand Mercedes-Benz CLK320 cabriolet valued at R350,000.

There have been several cars auctioned off on bidorbuy from R1, both new and second-hand. However, this one was by far the most expensive.

Not many sellers are ready to put high-value items at such a risk. Alice, known on bidorbuy by her user name MissSale, was. Once she made up her mind, she went about organising the auction in a methodical manner.

The Exposure

First, she contacted the bidorbuy headquarters well in advance. That marked the beginning of feverish activity. It was decided to feature the auction on Thursday, the day reserved for special promotions, and to publicise it the way similar events have been publicised previously, on the site’s home page, in the blog and in the weekly newsletter. Some additional exposure was obtained by inviting South African bloggers to forecast the winning bid for the Mercedes in the bidorbuy Best Guess Competition. The seller was advised to boost the promotional efforts by enhancing the basic free listing. She readily opted for all the available “frills”, splurging the whole of R170. Given the sum of free exposure the CLK320 received, that was probably a slight overkill, but certainly no harm came out of it.

The proof that it was all worth it is in the number of visits to the Mercedes auction: exactly 9706 of them. That is so far an absolute record on bidorbuy. Not even the Thursday special brand-new car promotions publicised in the bidorbuy radio advertising campaign earlier in the year managed to attract that many views.

The exposure is of crucial importance for the success of the auction. The more visits, the more chances there are of the item being sold, and at a higher price too.

The Listing

Another important consideration for the success of an auction is the quality of the listing.

In her listing, MissSale took care to feature clear images of the car from different angles, with the roof on and off. In fact, the whole auction was delayed for one week in order to allow the star of event, the CLK320, to prepare for the photo shoot.

Taking a good photo of an item for online auction is a big challenge. It has to be done well, for the image and a few lines of text are all the prospective buyers have to go by. In this case, the Mercedes was portrayed as an object of value that has been cared for, an object that is worth the trouble taken to photograph it under the best possible conditions.

As for the descriptions, MissSale adhered to the maxim most online auctions gurus recommend: clarity above everything else. She used a purely informative title (“Mercedes-Benz CLK320 Cabriolet. R1”) and stated basic facts about the car in about sixty words, of which only one was an adjective (“in perfect condition”). The only hype MissSale brings into her listing is this line: “Spoil yourself this Christmas! Perfect year end gift for hard working people! “

On the other hand, she uses almost fifty words to assert who may not bid on her car – and, according to MissSale’s rules, that is anyone who does not have cash or a finance line.

There are few things more frustrating for a seller than a buyer who wins a bid and then does not pay. In order to weed out potential bad apples, MissSale announced that she will delete the bids placed by buyers with a poor track record and buyers without a track record on bidorbuy. The latter were given the prospect of a reprieve under the condition that they pass the seller’s test in the Questions and Answers segment of the auction. The details of the test will remain known only to MissSale, but they can probably be summed up in the phrase “the gut feeling”.

The Handling

Everyone who has witnessed a real-life auction knows how much hangs on the skill of the auctioneer. Online, that translates into the willingness of the seller to baby-sit the auction and the ability to answer adequately the questions potential buyers ask.

As we have seen, MissSale accomplished the tasks of securing decent exposure and of providing a good listing with flying colours. Let us now look into the way she handled the auction.

Judging from the single auction that is the subject of this anatomy class, MissSale is a no-nonsense seller. Her attitude – helpful but firm - enhances her credibility as a seller and indicates that, while eager to sell the car, she is not desperate to do so. And whether in real life or online – sellers oozing despair are automatically at a disadvantage.

She scrupulously answered all the questions, fifty-two of them. She answered even the obvious ones, even the ones that had been already asked and answered. And that is the most important rule of the online seller-buyer interaction. As one of the gurus put it, “every answer you give could lead to more auction cash for you”.

Her answers were short and to the point. Here are a few examples: “Brand new”. “No problems”. “No dents”. “No leaks”. “100 percent”.

One question-answer episode illustrates how to deal with “difficult” customers. Some might have taken offence at this barrage from a sceptical visitor:

“Would you buy a car by just looking at pictures? You cannot see scratches and dents from pictures! I would not pay R10,000 for this car. From which planet are you?”

But not MissSale.

“Then don’t bid please!” is her short answer.

In other words, she refuses to be drawn into a personal interchange. Though it is not always easy to do so, sellers would do well to remember to take an occasional harsh tone in their stride. As one online marketer analyst puts it, “customers can be ruthless; however, they don't know you personally, so don't take it personally”.

The fact that MissSale did answer this question (as opposed to, for example, deleting it) could have very well played into her hands, allowing her to project that certain “something” that induces trust and increasing her credibility. For let us not forget that at the time of this auction MissSale was relatively new to bidorbuy: she started selling on the site only four months previously.

What most visitors found difficult to swallow was the very fact that such a car appeared on a R1 auction.

“Sounds too good to be true, what’s the catch?” asked one.

“No catch”, was the typically short reply.

“I am a bit sceptical about this”, mused another visitor. “If I bid R10,000 and win, are you telling me that I can have the car? Are there no other hidden costs? “

To which he got the following answer: “No hidden costs”.

Probably in an attempt to glean a bit more about the seller, one visitor posed the following series of questions:

“I do not mean for this to sound rude, but I can't help wandering why you would take a chance selling the car in this manner rather than trading it in or selling privately if there are no problems with the car? What is your reasoning for selling the car in this manner and why are you selling the car?”

Now, the conventional wisdom has it that it is a good idea for a seller to reveal a bit about herself (or himself), because the buyers are more likely to trust with their money someone they know – or have the illusion of knowing.

However, even though on almost all the other points she acted as if following some “how to sell online” manual, on this point MissSale refuses to oblige. She obviously does not like to give too much about herself and her answer remains reticent:

“It must get sold quickly and this is a way to do that”.

The Outcome

bidorbuy helped to spread the word. The seller decided on the terms that were acceptable to her and never wavered from them, handling the auction with a firm hand. For all the doubting Toms – like a potential buyer who asked for a money-back guarantee - she has one answer: “Rather don’t bid if you have doubts”.

Most importantly, the item on the auction was so striking as to guarantee attracting admiring crowds. For, in the end, any advertising campaign, no matter how widespread or skilful, is only as effective as the underlying product itself.
The action for the second-hand Mercedes CLK320 cabriolet opened at 9 AM on Thursday 27 November 2008 and closed a little after 3PM on the same day, when Michelle from Hermanus, the buyer who goes under the username pepper007, placed the bid that proved to be the winning one: R267,222.25.

So far, only a couple of properties sold on bidorbuy in the R1 no-reserve auction format achieved higher final prices: a two-bedroom apartment in Gauteng (sold for R390,000 in November 2008) and a West Coast plot (sold for R402,010 in December 2008).

“To be honest, I was expected more”, said Alice when we asked her whether she was pleased with the final price. After all, the bidding started in a mad whirl, reaching R220,000 within the first half-hour. But then if cooled down, to revive only towards the end of the auction.

For three and a half hours, between 9:27 and 14:10, there was not a single bid placed (save from a buyer with poor track record, whose bid was dismissed outright). That surely would have wreaked havoc on any seller’s nerves. Asked about what prompted her to put such a valuable item on a R1 auction, Alice said:

“I like to risk - it is like gambling”.

After the fast-paced excitement of online auctions, things usually grind to a snail’s pace once it comes to finalising the deal in real life. That is exactly what happened in this case. Not that there were any problems. Simply, the seller being from Johannesburg and the buyer from Hermanus, it took a while to complete all the necessary steps. First, an appointed person (or persons – the buyer’s son and husband) examined the car. Then the money was paid and the ownership of the vehicle transferred. Finally, the car was presented to its new owner, Michelle, some twenty days after the virtual handshake that concluded the deal online. Her comment was:

“I am delighted to have acquired such a car at such a good price. The Mercedes is exactly as described in the listing. MissSale is a very straightforward seller”.

And – as if a little surprised at her audacity for having offered so much money on an online auction - she added:

“What a stunning experience – crazy, but wonderful. Well done!”