Saturday, May 11, 2013

Buying Perfume on Ebay: Things to Keep in Mind

Over the last several years, I've purchased something like 50 bottles of perfume on Ebay.

For the most part, my transactions with sellers have been good experiences: the product I receive is essentially the product I believed was on its way. I'm not an extravagant buyer on Ebay, whatever the number 50 might lead you to believe. I have a policy with myself. I generally have a limit, which happens to be under thirty dollars and often falls below twenty. I also have a bit of an advantage, because while some people go online looking for precious vintage bottles of My Sin or Coty Chypre, I'm more apt to consider a discontinued Avon fragrance like Patterns or Perle Noire a costly treasure. I rarely set my aim too terribly high and even more rarely bid on an item I expect to be surrounded by stiff competition. These things alone minimize my sense of risk.

That said, I know many perfume lovers who avoid Ebay altogether, either because of their own bad experiences or because they've heard horror stories from others. I won't tell you there aren't dishonest people on Ebay, or that you'll never get burned, but there are ways to mitigate those mishaps, and ways to hold duplicitous sellers accountable.

The following are only suggestions, based on my own shopping history. They aren't an endorsement for or against buying on Ebay; however, if you're curious and haven't taken the leap, some of these things are things I wish I'd known when I made my first purchase, and you might find them helpful too.

1. Ask questions...

Don't be afraid to clarify anything you're uncertain about when it comes to a listed item. Has the seller tried the atomizer? Is the item for sale the item pictured in the listing? First read the description thoroughly. Then read it again. If you still have questions, contact the seller directly or post your question under the listing.  The speed with which the sellers answer will tell you something about what to expect from a transaction with them. Their willingness to take the time to answer you thoughtfully and comprehensively will too. Pay attention to your gut about all that. While a prompt and thorough answer doesn't necessarily indicate that shipment will be speedy, it does reflect something about how efficient and serious the seller is. A seller's patience is a good indication that not just this sale but your repeated business is of value.

2. Never assume...

You know the saying. Unfortunately, when assuming on Ebay, only you end up the ass, stuck with something you might have avoided had you read more carefully or asked the right questions. I've made many assumptions, and many of them have cost me, causing either inconvenience or disappointment. First and foremost, don't assume that the seller has listed everything you need to know about the item - let alone that the seller KNOWS things a seller SHOULD when it comes to this or any other item up for sale. Do not assume that the bottle must be a spray, using the logic that if it were a splash this information would be indicated explicitly. Do not assume that vintage means old (see number 3). Do not assume that the seller knows much if anything about perfume (refer to number 1). Do not assume that the photo depicts the actual item up for sale.

3. Vintage doesn't always mean vintage...

Some perfumes can be counted on as vintage simply by virtue of the fact they haven't been manufactured in years. My Sin is going to be vintage (whether it's authentic is another issue entirely, and one of utmost concern when shelling out big bucks). Tabu might or might not be. Do some research - not just with the seller but through sources online. Take Tabu as an example. Vintage is quite a different thing than the stuff they sell now. Sometimes you can distinguish old from new by scrutinizing the packaging. This is where asking questions comes in handy - maybe the bottle pictured is old packaging but the seller isn't using an image of the actual bottle on sale; can the seller tell you what the ingredients list looks like, helping you determine the age? Most sellers won't photograph the back of the box, where not only the ingredients but the manufacturers are listed, but they can tell you what the back says. Some sellers sell regularly, but rarely perfume. These can often be very good deals, but that seller might not know to list certain things that other more perfume-centric sellers would know to be necessary information. As far as they're concerned, they haven't seen a bottle of Tabu in a good two decades, until this bottle they found at an estate sale; therefore, to them, it's vintage, hard to find, rare, and just short of the golden fleece.

4. Check the seller's ratings...

Read the fine print. Great, the seller has overall good ratings. However, most highly rated sellers have disappointed customers now and then, and usually those customers will voice their complaints through negative reviews. A seller with a lot of negative reviews is iffy no matter how you slice it. Most often the complaints have to do with false advertising. Pay attention. Have a policy with yourself. Mine is that only on very rare occasions will I buy from anyone whose rating is below 99.7%. If customers complain that items are received three weeks later, and you're fine with waiting periods, go for it. If they complain often that the perfumes seem to be weak or don't smell as they should, you might want to save your money. Even when a seller has good ratings the complaints are instructive and indicate what to expect. When a high ticket item I really want seems too good a deal to pass up, I will only move forward with the transaction if I believe the seller is reputable. By the same token, if a seller is listing a rare bottle of perfume at far below the average asking price, I will not automatically assume something is fishy (see numbers 2 and 3). I look at the seller's ratings. Most of the real steals for me have come from sellers who are more likely to list fishing tackle than perfume. Every once in a while, they find a vintage bottle of Estee Lauder Youth Dew bath oil. They don't charge a lot for it often, not just because they got it for very little to begin with but because they know they aren't qualified to distinguish its true value, whatever the "going rate", and can't have such a conversation with any kind of confidence or authority. Another thing the ratings will tell you is what kind of character the seller has. I've avoided certain sellers who had pretty decent ratings simply because the way they responded publicly to their customers seemed like a pretty safe indication of their abilities to handle and resolve conflicts. See number 5.

5. Try to resolve conflicts privately...

Most sellers will want to maintain high ratings. They count on the fact that other buyers will read the reviews in order to determine whether doing business with them seems smart or stupid. Sellers who care about their reputation do whatever they can to resolve conflicts harmoniously. When trying to resolve a conflict, first look at whether you in some way contributed to the problem. Did you fail to read all the descriptive information? Did you make assumptions? Fail to ask pertinent questions? I don't blame a seller when I'm at fault for not buying responsibly - which doesn't mean I don't try to resolve the misunderstanding. It simply means I try to be honest with myself about what contributed to the situation. A good, reliable seller will appreciate the opportunity to satisfy the buyer. Handling the conflict through a private exchange allows them to preserve or improve their rating through one on one customer service. Your posting a negative comment publicly before giving them a chance to make things right doesn't tend to breed mutual respect and consideration. Save the Oh No You Didn't attitude for your Maury Povich appearance, even when you suspect you're dealing with a fellow traveller. Keep in mind that some sellers will choose not to SELL to buyers with poor ratings, which means that for every negative rating you leave you might earn one of your own. I have only ever resorted to a public/negative review when I feel I've given the seller the opportunity to respond and the seller continues to deceive, make empty promises, or refuses to resolve things in a way which is fair. I do this not to be mean spirited but because these are things a buyer deserves to know before dealing with a seller - things I'd want to know myself in hopes of avoiding problems. When I do this, I count on the seller responding defensively, so I think carefully about what I will post and how I will respond to what I can expect that seller to say in return. Expect that seller to accuse you of child neglect, so stay focused and avoid personal attacks. Stick to the basics of the transaction and the source or your dissatisfaction.

6. Bid strategically, not systematically...

A big part of successful bidding is the element of surprise. First and foremost, decide how high you're willing to ultimately bid, and commit to that. Avoid impulse bidding by being clear with yourself what the value of the item is to you. When you make that decision, don't immediately enter that number as your high bid mark. Consider this: say I'm bidding against you, and I've decided I'm willing to pay four hundred dollars for the item. Say you're willing to pay 100. Obviously, you'd prefer to pay far less if you can - as close to the opening bid as possible. Entering your high bid of 100 right off the bat or even at anytime during the main portion of the bidding window will result in a few possible scenarios, none of them advantageous to you. Say that I decide I'm going to try to outbid you, and I take my bid up to 95 eventually, then get bored and forget the whole thing. You will be stuck with paying a lot more than you might have, had you bid more strategically. Say, on the other hand, that I feel the competition for this item is stiff: I'm going to watch that auction like a hawk, and you're unlikely to get anything by me.  If you wait until very late to increase your bid, you don't give me much time to outbid you, which means you could not just win but walk away paying less as opposed to more.

Here's what I tend to do. I first determine how long the bidding is open, putting the item on my watch list. If I really want it and intend to win, I wait until the last day to bid at all. People tend to operate by suggestion. If nobody seems to want it, they feel less pressured and sometimes less attracted. Their impulse triggers aren't activated. When I make my initial bid and I am then outbid, I do not immediately raise my maximum bid. I wait until the last forty seconds of the auction, at which point I enter the maximum bid I've decided on, leaving the other unsuspecting bidders very little time to outbid me. When the competition doesn't seem to be anywhere near fierce, people aren't likely to bid extravagantly. Like you they want to get away with paying as little as possible. If only one other person has bid during the auction before them, and no one bids after, they feel confident and aren't as likely to raise their maximum bid to what they're really willing to pay "if it comes to that". There seems no reason to. If you alert them of the competition too early, they are more likely to enter their maximum bid much higher, and at the last minute, when you try to outbid them, you will keep hitting the wall of their maximum bid, losing to them ultimately.

You can still be outbid this way - I've lost two out of ten items regardless of this strategy. However, I believe it would have been more otherwise. More than anything, relax. You win and you lose. It's fun to approach an Ebay auction with a poker face and a strategy, as long as you can take losing in the spirit of fair play. If you're the kind who gets your panties in a wad with the least provocation, trying to outsmart an auction opponent - which is just as likely to fail as succeed when all is said and done - probably is too big of game for the weapons in your holster. You probably want to save your competitive streak for boardgames with people who are used to your temper and will react predictably and reassuringly to your little pistol.


Rori said...

Thank you for this. I am new to all of this and I have been buying from eBay. So far, nothing bad, but I have noticed some sellers with very misleading images.

Brian said...

Sure, Rori. I hope some of it helps you moving forward. One thing I forgot to mention I think is that it's sometimes helpful to view the seller's other items. You can see how they price things generally and also how active they are. It also gives you an indication how good or thorough they are at describing things in general. Some are surprisingly bad!

Mals86 said...

As a fellow ebay fume hunter, I have to say this is good advice. I'm probably less concerned with judging seller ratings than I should be, but I've had very few total disappointments.

Most often the disappointment is that I've bought something that's age-damaged and unwearable, but I always know that's a possibility going in - it's an acceptable gamble for me. And once I bought a bottle of No. 5 parfum that turned out to be colored water; the seller hadn't opened it and I hadn't asked, but the seller was willing to refund me all except shipping, and let me keep it. So now I have it on my dresser "for pretty," with a sticker on the bottom of it saying "factice," just so if I get hit by a bus my kids don't try to sell that one as real.

I have had the best luck buying from people who sell, as you say, fishing tackle and children's clothes. Aunt Martha unloaded the contents of her girdle drawer at the local Goodwill, and somehow that bottle of Coty Chypre wound up in ebay... yes. (Yes, I did. I paid $170 for a half-ounce of real Chypre parfum, and I do not regret one penny of it. It is stunning. It makes me cry.)

Brian said...

Thanks, Mals! It's funny, so many of us shop on ebay but you don't really hear much about the experience. It's almost like a dirty secret somehow. Generally I just hear about bad experiences, but by and large mine have been just fine, and sometimes great.

I have things I've busted my budget rule for. One was a 100ml bottle of vintage Sinan. It was, I think, 100 bucks. However, what I often remind myself is that even when fragrance on ebay seems pricey, it's often still cheaper than niche perfume. I forget that.

I've never regretted that Sinan. That was actually a great price, compared to what I've seen it going for.

I sometimes search under "factice". Those are pricey but man, there are some bottles I'd love to have sitting out to stare at in my room. And when I see 8 oz. bottles of "perfume" I always wonder, "Is this a factice and the seller just doesn't realize?"

Unknown said...

This is relevant for buying anything on eBay. As someone who just got shafted buying a suit (they didn't give any indication that the shoulder pads are the size of Tebow's), I sympathize with anyone who has had a similarly disappointing experience with perfume.

The only perfume I've ever bought on ebay was an old vanity set of Jolie Madame for $26. It was completely legitimate, vintage JM. There was a used-up spray bottle and two unused 0.5 oz. splash bottles of edt and "perfume oil." I'm thinking deals like that don't come around too often.

Brian said...

Oh no, Joan. I'm sorry. I'm scared to buy clothes on Ebay. I'm so critical of the way things look on me to begin with that not being able to try it on first drives me bananas. With clothing items, are you able to return? I know some perfume items can be returned but you pay the postage.

Tania said...

All good points, Brian - thanks!

I've bought a few bottles on eBay, so far with no truly bad experiences. Well, one 'job lot' which came in a shoebox stinking so badly of stale cigarette smoke that I had to get it out of my flat straight away... but the scents were fine. Maybe I've been lucky.
Yes, I have noticed that there's vintage and then there's 'vintage', on eBay! I tend to avoid the real deal, I'd love to own some of them, but the competition is steep and prices are just silly. I'll go up to my limit and then sit back with my mouth open as I watch the crazy ensue!
I have bagged a couple of bargains - vintage Femme extrait for under £20, original Zen, ditto - and a lot of nice Avons.
I tend to look for the fishing-tackle people, too. You run the risk that they don't know what they have & it could be rubbish, but OTOH, they can be worth the risk.
Of course, my fun has been drastically reduced by the recently implemented Royal Mail ruling that alcohol-based perfume is a restricted item, so I can't buy from overseas any more unless it's an oil or a solid - or the seller is willing to lie on the customs form.

A couple of points though - I don't know about US eBay, but in the UK a seller is only allowed to give positive feedback for a buyer - or none at all. They're not allowed to mark down a bad buyer. That strikes me as dangerous and unfair, but there it is.
Also, on the subject of bidding: watch out for rivals using sniping software/sites. Bidding your upper limit at almost the last second won't work against a program set to outbid you by a penny or two in the last millisecond. I'm torn between considering it cheating, or wishing I was using it myself... ;-)


Brian said...

Oh my gosh, Tania! I think I was bidding against sniper software recently. It was insane how quickly they outbid me with 4 seconds to go. Insanely quick. I thought, how is that possible??

I know you can leave negative comments on us ebay. Truthfully I still don't understand how Ebay tabulates all this information, but I do know that sellers don't seem to like any negative feedback posted at all and seem to try to avoid it.

ALTHOUGH, I recently bid on and won a 7 ounce bottle of rare Ultima Soft Cologne and have yet to receive it, 14 days later. The seller, who has a rating of 100, responded once, and now will not. So I'm exploring my options.

Tania said...

yep, that sounds like sniping! Even before it gets to that crucial last few seconds, if you can see the bids go up in odd-numbered tiny increments, it's safe to assume there's a sniper in the mix. The softwares's designed to ensure users pay the lowest possible price.

I've avoided sellers even if they are 99.9 positive, if the 1% negatives are telling. Stuff like 'never arrived' or 'damaged' or 'not as described' is not acceptable even if only a few people have said so.
On the other hand, I've read some daft negatives. One buyer said she 'did not appreciate the clothing being covered in cat hair'. Oh come on. If you're buying clothes & the seller doesn't state that their home is pet-and-smoke-free - ask! Or buy a lint-roller.

Hmmm. That does sound dodgy. Good luck with getting a resolution....

Anonymous said...

Great article and wonderful suggestions. I have been bitten by the eBay vintage bug as of late and have purchased about 10 items in the past couple of months. So far I have only had great experiences, but I purchased one fragrance that if I would have read the notes more closely (blind buy) that I should not have made the buy because the dry down was not my thing. But that's not the perfumes fault. What I love about eBay is that some of the classics come in some very small sizes (10ml, 15ml, etc.) which are a great way to build up a collection. Eventually, if you want more, then you can always get more or a larger size.
I have to admit that I have on occasion used sniping software. It works if you have a high enough bid, but I have easily lost out by not wanting to dish out more money. Is it cheating? I look at it as another tool for use.

Brian said...

It's probably not cheating, Hound, but it's no fun for the loser, who's left feeling downright analog in that scenario. I had no idea such a software even existed until Tania mentioned it. It helps to know I'm up against a computer, rather than a maniacally on top of it human adversary, at least.