Snipers: Online Assassins or Sellers’ Allies?

Gain a sales advantage by understanding the sniper’s role.

by Dennis L. Prince
- Mar 17, 2008

They're quick, they're quiet, and they've just swooped in with their stealth bids to claim another round of auctions. They're the auction snipers, and their last-second bidding has long been a contentious topic of discussion among eBay sellers: Are snipers friends or foes to online merchants? Should sellers be up in arms, believing snipers are stunting final auction prices, or should they welcome these last-minute high rollers who regularly rescue stalled auctions with impressively high bids and a commendable commitment to their skillfully won prizes?

While there is no simple answer, there is a definite purpose and method in the sniping that, once understood, may help sellers develop their own tactical edge.

Understanding snipers

First, you should know that many auction snipers justify their maneuvers as survival tactics against unethical bidders. The list of unsavory sorts includes:

  • Shill bidders. These are sellers who aren't satisfied with the current high bid on their item and who might employ the use of a friend or an ill-obtained second (or third) bidder ID (a.k.a. "the shill") to artificially raise the price on an honest bidder without eclipsing his or her maximum. The sniper avoids being "shilled" by refraining from bidding until the final moments of the auction.

  • The sniper avoids being 'shilled' by refraining from bidding until the final moments of the auction

  • Bid stalkers. Call them parasitic, these are annoying pests who regularly shadow specific bidders, too lazy to search for their own treasures but eager to "jump claim" on another bidder before the auction ends. Snipers can't be stalked since they don't make their interest in an item known until just seconds before the listing is scheduled to close.

  • Auction siphons. "Pssst. I see you bid on that seller's item, but I have one just like it; you should cancel your bid and buy direct from me." Many bidders don't appreciate this unwelcome overture and choose to snipe to avoid such come-ons. Recognize that sellers especially fume when they find they've lost a bidder to the illicit lure.

Courting snipers

Just as snipers have a reasonable rationale for their methods, now many sellers have found snipers to be an asset in the bidding process. If you want to court snipers but you're not yet certain how to roll out the red carpet, how to light the candle in the window, and how to let bidders know yours is a snipe-friendly auction, consider these enticements:

  • Don't force the sniper's hand. Price your items within (preferably a bit below) accepted market value, and let the bidders do the rest. More often than not, if you auction it, they will snipe.

  • Embrace the auction process. Avoid concurrent use of the "Buy It Now" option within a listing since this could thwart a sniper's approach and cost you a potentially higher sales price.

  • Never end your auctions early. You'll only succeed in slamming shut the sniper's window of opportunity (and yours!).

Don't forget the intangibles

Though it's easy for sellers to get caught up in the final prices they seek, remember that a high bid alone does not make for a successful auction: The rubber meets the road after the auction. As auction player Chris Jones observes, "I would argue that the sniper obviously wants the particular item more [than others] since they were intense enough to show up for the remaining seconds to enter the topping bid…" When it comes to engaging with sellers to remit payment and collect their well-earned winnings, many sellers say that snipers are just as reliable in making payment as they were while closely tracking bids and timing their strike.

The anti-snipe argument

A snipe bid does not guarantee a win. It all comes down to the money

Some sellers, however, insist that sniping an auction, effectively preventing other bidders from casting follow-up bids, diminishes the possibility of higher prices. Certainly, the bidder who complains, "But I would have bid again if the auction hadn't closed," deserves a sellers' consideration.

Some have argued for auto-extending all auctions by five or 10 minutes when a late bid is received, enabling extended back-and-forth bidding and promoting a higher final bid. In pleading their case, some sellers (and disgruntled bidders) have appealed to sites like eBay to put an end to "hard close" auctions and, therefore, eliminate the snipe.

And while there is merit to the anti-snipe position, the general consensus among bidders falls in favor of sniping. Snipers themselves have gone so far as to proclaim they wouldn't participate in an auto-extended auction, effectively reducing a seller's final price. Additionally, snipers are united on this tenet: A snipe bid does not guarantee a win. At the end of the auction, it all comes down to the money: Whoever offered more—be it via proxy bidding or the last-second snipe—will reign victorious.

"I had one sniper who bid the exact same amount as me," recounts online bidder Phil Kennedy, "but because I had bid before him, I won the auction! So yeah, there are two sides to this story." Clearly, Kennedy's sniper was unsuccessful in upsetting his high-bid status, yet the seller still came out ahead as the sniper's attempt pushed Kennedy's bid to its maximum.

They'll show you the money… and more

"As a seller, I want someone to come snipe right now," implores online seller Denise, indicating her appreciation for snipers who drop by and boost her sales. "I'm sometimes not too happy with [my items'] bid prices."

But can snipers always be counted on to drop a wad of cash on the table? One auction bidder, John O'Hare, speaks for many: "I saw an item… go from about $600 to over $2,000 in the last two minutes of the auction!"

"I count on sniping… to make my auctions go higher and higher and usually above what [the item] is worth elsewhere," adds eBay seller Galen West.

Many sellers have learned that same lesson through similar experiences and have enjoyed the same result. Since snipers often bring big bids at an auction's close, smart sellers court the snipers, marvel at their skills and appreciate the tidy profits after the dust has settled.

About the Author

Dennis L. Prince has been analyzing and advocating the e-commerce sector since 1996. He has published more than 12 books on the subject, including How to Sell Anything on eBay…and Make a Fortune, second edition (McGraw-Hill, 2006) and How to Make Money with MySpace (McGraw-Hill, 2008). His insight is actively sought within online, magazine, television and radio venues.

Opinions expressed here may not be shared by Auctiva Corp. and/or its principals.

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