How To Buy Electronics On eBay – Cheap AND Safe

I shop local when I can – but eBay frequently. Here in Victoria (BC, Canada) it’s hard to come by inexpensive electronics, especially Arduinos. Vancouver is just a ferry ride away, but I’m not into traveling for shopping – so it should come as no surprise I rely on eBay heavily for my components and electronics tools (who am I kidding – not just for them, but almost anything, from

to

to really nice

).

eBay however, can be an issue for a first timer – so here’s what I’ve picked up in the last decade so your every online shopping ‘trip’ is safe and straightforward – and a few tips for those times it isn’t…

  • Join eBay ASAP. If you’re not a member, start there – it’s free and most importantly, it’s necessary in order to buy. There is a mind-numbing wealth of info to do this online, much of it on eBay’s own site (or just search on “how to shop ebay”), so I won’t cover it again here.
  • Get Paypal. Technically, you can use your credit card at the PayPal link on any auction and pay that way, but I like Paypal for a lot of other uses – and you should too. The Personal account is the starting point: It’s fine for the occasional shopping on eBay, but eventually you will want a Premier or Business account (good news – you can have the Personal and one other account for those times you want to save a service charge or two). A PayPal account is the micro-payment solution they were looking for in the 1990s, and it’s the “gold standard” online for small payment transactions. It’s also especially useful if you want to sell things someday, be it on eBay or elsewhere.
  • Learn to search right. Once in eBay, much of what you’ll find is related to how well you search. For example, if you type in “Arduino” you’ll find a wealth of topics. But you can pay a premium for that – so search for the Arduino part first, and use the new words you’ve picked up in that search to then find the same part w/o “Arduino” in the title. As an example, I just searched on “

    ” versus “

    ” – the lowest “Buy it now” price for each is $3.17 versus $2.44, which is about 30% more for searching with “Arduino”! This tip alone will save you quite a bit over time, since sellers understand Arduino users are more often than not hobbyists – and so willing to pay a bit more for their hobby.

  • Take it seriously. While some people view eBay as a fun online store to browse, I like to think of it as a supplier of parts (OK, not all the time!) I have a separate User ID for shopping (to avoid mixing details of my shopping with my selling), and I keep track of the items coming in, leaving them quality feedback and in turn asking for it (feedback is the social ‘currency’ of eBay, if you will). It’s also important to take care to handle problems professionally. If you leave negative feedback, make it specific and to the crux of the problem, but make sure you try your best to contact the company first, since most are very eager to resolve things amicable. For example, when two out of ten of the linear bearings in an order were the wrong size, it just took a quick (and polite) email, and they shipped out two new ones at no charge. Problem solved – unless I had gotten mad and left negative feedback first. Keep emotions out of it, and you’ll likely have few problems – and for the rest, eBay has a resolution center to handle that, which likely means you’re protected if you used PayPal to pay (remember my tip on PayPal!)
  • Start small. Risk $5, not $50. Order just a few things at first and try out the whole bid/win/pay/ship/receive/buy again loop slowly. Pay attention to the ratings on the seller for each auction (their feedback), and let that guide your shopping. You can also click through the Seller’s User ID link and look at the comments left from buyers, as well as frequently what items were sold. I use this not only to see where the seller has problems (for example, are they consistently selling shoddy products), but more importantly, have they sold that particular item before, and how did THOSE buyers feel? If you see an unusually low price, and the seller has just started selling that product, you might want to wait awhile – or consider a slightly higher price elsewhere.
  • Read the auction carefully! You are agreeing to the terms, and have no one to blame if there are charges hidden in the text. For example, I once had my cable modem go belly up, and needed a replacement quick. At one auction, the price was good, so I bid. However, what I thought was a repeat of the shipping price ($5) in the auction listing was actually a second handling charge, and they got away with it – $10 instead of $5 on a $10 purchase! If I hadn’t been in a hurry and needed the modem, maybe I wouldn’t have been caught. Certainly, I’d never deal with them again. And while it is possible to have them cancel the auction afterwards (as a seller, I actually did this at a customer’s request once), you don’t want to get a reputation as a buyer who changes their mind.
  • Remember eBay is not everything. For example, I will not buy electronic breadboards on eBay any more, after buying a couple that were very loose in the contacts. Likewise, I won’t buy a parachute(!), large capacity MicroSD cards (which are often sold as larger than they are) or very heavy items (the shipping is murder, unless you are fortunate to be in the same town, AND the auction allows local pickup in lieu of shipping). As well, there are times the local price is just too good, or Amazon is selling it cheaper, or something else, so you’ll just use them instead.
  • Finally, be loyal. As you can imagine, this research can get time consuming – so when you have a successful transaction, bookmark the seller, and you’ll likely find you come back to them often. After all, a few cents saved means little if you need twenty minute’s research every time you want to shop from a new company!

I’ve used eBay both as a buyer and seller for over a decade, and find it a great place to shop. Give it a try, and who knows – you might end up buying an extra Arduino or two ‘cuz the prices are so good!

Part 2 covers parts every electronics wiz will need to buy, as well as my picks for buying online components and tools at bargain prices – read it here. As for Arduino-related parts, I discuss them in part 3.

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