A Collector's Guide to Surviving the Internet
Part One: On-line Auctions

by Joseph Stachler

The Internet continues to have an impact on the hobby, the market, hobby stores and train shows. The internet's big advantage is that it has no boundaries while the store and the show are limited to the immediate region. As one happy e-commerce seller said, "You're not limited to the same 200 guys with fish hooks in their pocket. With the internet, your territory is the world."

There are many different auction websites today. The main difference between a train show and an Internet auction is with a train show, one walks the aisles looking for a specific item or hoping to run into something interesting. With an Internet auction, you simply type in keywords or numbers and immediately find out if it is available.

The most popular auction website is eBay. The existence of this one site caused many collectors to get up to speed with computers. Those who refuse miss a lot and a train collector hates the idea of missing things.

Ebay is well-organized. It is also very successful (so much so that the government has initiated an investigation). On this day there were 5,654 Lionel items, 827 MTH items, and 720 American Flyer items up for auction. Ebay claims 3,964,813 items for sale in 2,978 categories. Their stats record over 1.5 billion page views per month. Wow.

Other auction sites that feature toy trains on auction are The Train Station Auction and Collector Auctions. Both offer many toy trains and are worth checking out.

To use eBay you need to register. This is an easy process which costs nothing. You don't need to register if you just want to browse but to buy or sell you will.

The quickest way to see what's available is to type in what you're looking for in the browse field. Typing "Lionel", for instance, will list everything on auction at that moment with Lionel in the title. Click here to see the list of every Lionel item up for auction right at this moment. A few of these items will be Lionel Ritchie records and even non-Lionel trains. Typing a more detailed description such as Lionel HO will list for you all of the Lionel HO products for auction. If you want to get really specific, just type the number you are looking for.

Buying

Once you decide to buy, check the seller's feedback profile. Most have glowing comments from previous deals but some have bad reports. This is a simple but effective system of self-policing. Also, you can e-mail the seller with any questions about the item or its provenance. Note the payment options and the shipping fees. Learn as much as you can about the item and procedures before executing the buy order.

Bidding is a two-step procedure. What will be asked is the most you are willing to pay. After entering that amount you must enter your eBay user-name and password. This is to keep the number of "accidental bids" to a minimum.

Selling an item is easy, especially in you understand websites and HTML code. It isn't necessary to know HTML, but if you want to include pictures it helps (and including pictures is always a good idea). A tutorial is available to guide you but it may just confuse the novice. If you have problems, get a computer-geek friend to help.

Sellers must have a reserve price. The reserve price is the least amount you'll take. Without a reserve price, an item could be sold for far less than you wanted. Some sellers don't use reserve prices, but simply start the bid at what their reserve would be. For example, a non-reserve price auction could start at $60.00.

Successful sellers give eBay a percentage of the final price. Sellers must also pay an entry fee to put an item up for auction. This fee could go towards re-auctioning the item after an unsuccessful auction. The amounts owed to eBay are based on the asking price for an item.

Beware of Snipers

Snipers wait until the last minute to place their bid - a little higher than the leading bid - hoping no one will have the time to get in a higher bid. If you want something, be there during the final minute and watch for last-second bids.

Low Bidders

Many auctions feature items with no reserves and a starting bid of $1.00. A low bidder bids just that much in the off-chance that no one else finds the auction and they end up with a great deal. A seller would be unwise to take that chance. Sellers have the option of starting the bid at whatever price they want so start with the minimum you will accept.

Feigning Ignorance

Some sellers pretend they don't know anything about the item. This should raise a red flag for buyers. Because feigned ignorance usually indicates there is something wrong. Avoid these items, especially if no picture is available. Always check the seller's profile, too.

Mint Mongers

Ever notice how many mint items that have been taken out of the box and just "test run"? The TCA is very clear about what rates as being in mint condition. I love seeing these so-called mint items on eBay missing parts and looking haggard. I like to e-mail the sellers and ask them for their creative definitions of mint.

Bid Bumpers

A heinous practice of some sellers. It is possible to create more than one account with eBay or have access to two accounts, one belonging to a friend. If the auction isn't going well, the seller can punch-up the bid. Those who have more than one account can also spike their feedback profile.

Inflated Reserves

Many sellers don't like the idea of paying eBay any percentage. To avoid paying, they will enter an outrageous reserve. The e-mail addresses of all bidders is available so the seller contacts the highest bidder and makes the deal. Ebay takes a only modest cut from the seller and they deserve it.

Part Two of our Collector's Guide to Surviving the Internet will look at buying trains from websites and a look at some on-line forums for collectors and operators to keep in touch with today's market.