Some Musings On Online Instrument Buying – (or Sittin’ On The Dock Of ‘eBay)

I have a terrible secret. I think I’ve become addicted to eBay. Mind you, not on actually bidding and buying things (although I have), but rather on simply browsing. But this really shouldn’t surprise me. I’ve always enjoyed window-shopping.

Consider: as you all know, I am a left handed guitar player. What does that mean, exactly? Well, for starters, it means that should you (assuming you are right handed) and I walk into a music store together, you will have the opportunity to play hundreds of guitars while I may be lucky to try out three or four. That’s a total of three or four. Acoustic, electrics, basses, you name it. Seems a little sad, n’est-ce pas?

Now consider: I log onto my computer and get on the eBay page titled “Musical Instruments.” I type the words “left handed” into the search field and hit enter and what to my wondering eyes should appear but no less than 60 – 120 left handed guitars!

Even for someone such as myself, who much prefers dealing with a real person, and preferably a real local person that I can come to with questions and problems, the lure of the Internet is a siren’s call. And I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to someone who is thinking about getting his or her first guitar. Let’s put it this way – if the internet had been around when I first started playing I might be able to have all my guitars paid off before the year 2036. “Might” being the operative word.

So what I’d like to do is offer up some observations and advice to those of you who are thinking about exploring the idea of getting your next guitar online. As always, please remember that these are my own opinions (right!! like someone else would take credit for them!) based upon my own experiences and those of the people who have been kind enough to share their experiences with me. There will always be better stories and there will be worse ones.

And, truly needless to say, most of this is pure common sense. But you never know when you might say the one thing that strikes a chord (no pun intended) with the one person out of the hundreds of thousands that visit Guitar Noise each month. And I guess that could be a good or a bad thing, actually…

Learning The Rules

All websites have “house rules.” In general, I have always found that it’s a good idea to sit back and watch for a while and try to understand what exactly is going on. In the simplest terms, sellers come to eBay to try to find someone that will buy their wares. Buyers come to either try to buy (or not buy) something. When an item is listed on eBay, the seller determines the starting price, whether or not there will be a “reserve” price (or a “buy it now” option) and how long the auction will last.

On eBay, as on most sites, you have to register if you want to take part. Registering is free (but not on all sites, be certain before you register!) and takes but a moment. If you want to ask the buyer a question before you bid on an item, you will need to register. You will also get to look at all the legal stuff, which may or may not interest you, but is certainly important. And, you will have access to all sorts of FAQs pages, which will help you a lot more than I can!

A “reserve price” means that the buyer has the option of not selling his or her item if the bidding does not at least match the reserve price. This guarantees that the buyer will make at least as much money as he or she feels entitled to.

Say I decide to sell my Yamaha acoustic guitar. I know that it’s not going bring in a lot of cash (especially since I’m going to be honest about the gashes in it!) but, hey, it’s MY guitar and who wouldn’t want a guitar once owned by the dumpy bald guy who writes for Guitar Noise? It’s a rare collector’s piece (aren’t they all?)! So I set a reserve price on it of, say, fifty dollars and start the bidding ten. Why? Because of a lot of reasons, which we’ll explore in a moment. I don’t have to say what my reserve price is and I choose not to.

Now Paul sees that my guitar is up on eBay and puts a bid of $10.00 on it. eBay registers his bid and puts it up on my page along with the notation that the “reserve is not yet met.” This lets Paul and whoever else that may be watching the action to know that I’d like to make more on my guitar. A-J outbids Paul and then Dan outbids A-J and before I know it the going price on my guitar has climbed to $47.00. Now should the auction end at that price, I have some choices. I could just sell the guitar to the high bidder or decide to put it up again. But now that I realize I may not get my $50.00, I might decide to either lower the reserve or give up on the idea of selling it at all.

Or I may decide to let whatever happen, happen and offer my prized guitar up for auction with “no reserve.” This means that whoever has the highest bid wins. And what do you know? Because everyone realizes I’m definitely parting with my Yamaha, they end up pushing the price up to a final bid of $53.25. I’ll take it.

And here’s the cynical realist in me coming through – I wouldn’t put it past some people to be putting things out on eBay with impossibly high reserves simply to see what they might be able to get on the open market. Remember, skepticism can be healthy. But also remember, most people are not really interested in playing a game of hidden agendas. It takes way too much energy. And if you go into a situation solely for the sake of looking for one, you will find it. After all, that’s why you’re there, no?

But I could have avoided the whole reserve price question by putting up a “buy it now” option on my item. This means that if you open up the bidding at my price, I will take it off auction and sell it directly to you. If the bidding starts below my “buy it now” price, though, then I retract my “buy it now” offer and things go on as normal.

Bidding on eBay is done by what is known as “proxy” bidding. When you register your bid, you are actually registering the high limit of your bid. Say that you see my guitar is up for sale and you’d like to bid on it. You see that Paul has a bid on it of $15.00 and you figure maybe you can pick it up for $20.00. So you put $20.00 down as your bid and hit the enter key and low and behold you are now the high bidder but your bid is $15.50! What happened?

This is proxy bidding at work. eBay raises the bid in certain increments (depending on how high things have gotten, I expect) and since, for the sake of an example, your bid is higher than Paul’s proxy bid, it has only raised your bid so that it is one predetermined increment higher than Paul’s. Should you win the auction at this point, you would only pay $15.50, not $20.00.

But suppose Paul’s proxy bid was higher than $15.00. Let’s say it was $18.00. Well, when you put in your bid for $20.00, your bid would still be higher than Paul’s but eBay would show that the bidding had risen to $18.50 with your bid as the high one to beat. Now if Paul’s proxy bid had been, say $25.00, then eBay would inform you that your bid was not high enough to claim the high bid. Not only that, it would also show that Paul’s bid was now $20.50. Now you could continue to bid, if for no other reason than to find out what (approximately) Paul’s proxy is or you could simply retire from the field.

One other thing to note here is that if you have outbid someone, eBay has automatically sent an email informing the last high bidder that he or she is no longer first on the list. Likewise, should someone outbid your proxy, you will get a notification fairly quickly.

If your bid is the highest when the auction is over, then you will be informed by eBay that you have indeed won and will be given instructions as to how to best proceed to claim your prize.

Faith And Sweat

Okay, you know the rules. But now comes the really hard part. No lie. You have to know exactly what you’re biding on. And this is where everything about buying over the internet becomes, more than anything else, a matter of faith and detective work.

Again, I can only iterate that my experiences, and I’ve only had a few, have been very positive. But I know people who can testify to the opposite. Buying anything over the internet will be perceived as somewhat of a risk until such time it becomes more and more the norm. But you could also argue that that’s when it will be even riper for fraud…

Most auction places have managed to allay the fears of sellers by providing forums where you can find out about your seller. You get to read comments from people who have purchased from a particular seller before. Anyone can also read comments about your history as a buyer as well.

But there are a lot of other things to consider. Ultimately, and obviously, the product you are hoping to buy has to be a big priority. Remember that your seller may not know a lot about guitars. He or she may (honestly) think it is one model and not know that it is another. Or may not know that the neck is warped. If someone is selling something that he or she picked up at a garage sale thinking that he or she could make a fast buck or two.

Like it or not, the onus of figuring out what you’re bidding on is up to you. This is one good reason why I highly discourage people from picking up their first guitar online through an auction. Your first guitar is way too important an investment to leave to chance. Unless a very knowledgeable friend is helping you, I’ve really got to tell you to reconsider your stance.

If you’re set on buying online, then you have to do yourself a favor and become an expert on guitars as quickly as possible. Read up on reviews (remembering, of course, that most reviews are going to be positive if for no other reason than no one wants to admit he made a bad purchase) and try to track pricing. Just because an item has no reserve price doesn’t mean that it is a bargain. For instance, I saw an item that intrigued me and I thought the asking price was reasonable until I saw that I could actually buy it for less money direct from the factory. And then I saw that the same make and model guitar was selling for even less at one of my local shops! Something being sold on eBay (or anywhere) is not a guarantee that you will be getting a good deal.

Feel free to ask the seller any and all questions that are important to you. Sometimes getting to know the person better will help you with the deal as well. Anything you can do to make things more personal (usually) helps a lot.

Remember that a “guitar” is just that. Cases are often extra. And don’t forget to figure in the shipping and insurance to your costs. Instruments are bulky and not the easiest thing to move from one part of the country (or hemisphere) to another.

Set Your Limits

I find that it really helps to watch the ebb and flow of auctions for a bit before jumping in. It’s kind of like a preseason, if you will. Unless, of course, there is some bargain that is just too good to pass up. Pick a couple of items that you might be interested in, go through the motions of the auction (on paper only!) and see what happens. Do a lot of people bid on it? Does the price shoot up a lot in the last day? Is there an identical item being offered by the same seller? Sometimes people acquire a shipment of items and simply unload them one by one. Again, the more you know what’s going on , the easier it is to plan.

And perhaps the most important thing to plan on is how much you intend to spend. Budgeting is vital. Set yourself a limit (and, if you’re like me, a fallback limit) and stick to it. Again, I cannot tell you how many people have told me how they get so caught up in things that they end up paying much more for something than they could have gotten it regularly. And, worse, the next week they see someone else get the same thing, or something close enough to be considered the same for considerably less.

Like the music store, eBay can be a valuable source. But like anything, it should never become your only source. It is a great way to find bargains that you might not be able to find because of you being in one part of the country while a great guitar is being sold in another part of the country.

And you can make some interesting contacts, too, that may prove helpful somewhere down the road. In some ways, not buying things can still lead to getting good deals.

Next time out, we’ll look at a very sadly overlooked aspect of buying gear – word of mouth.

As always, please feel free to write in with any questions, comments, concerns or topics you’d like to see covered in future columns. You can either drop off a note at the Guitar Noise Forums or email me directly at [email protected].

Until next week…