Shopping for Glass on eBay

(Or Why I Like Glass Shows)
by David Adams
Volume 31 No. 3 - May/June 2005

Not all of our members are intimately familiar with computers, but just like cell phones, we have to recognize that they have become a part of our lives that we can't ignore. eBay started out quite small in 1995, by 1998 they had a small following on the Internet and determined to grow larger. They brought in a new President, a graduate of Harvard Business School and the corporation began expansion. And expand they did.

eBay started as an online auction site. It still is, but it's so much more now. There are "live auctions", "eBay stores" and the variety of merchandise that they now offer is absolutely astounding. You can buy automobiles, computers, clothing, musical instruments, even Real Estate! There are a few places where eBay draws the line, on items such as pornography, weapons, bombs, human organs, etc. Thank goodness, or you can be sure that people would be listing all of those things. The "eBay stores" are simply listings of merchandise for sale at fixed prices as opposed to an auction format. The same restrictions apply to items in the "eBay stores".

eBay charges a fee to the seller to list an item, and also charges a fee if the auction completes with a winning bidder (a percentage of the total amount of the high bid). The seller pays all eBay fees. A seller can specify a "reserve" amount, and if the high bid at the end of the auction period does not meet or exceed that "reserve" amount, the auction is not considered completed, the seller is not charged a percentage of the winning bid, and there is no winner.

The bidding is automatic; you place a bid of a certain amount and eBay will bid on your behalf, in small increments up to the maximum amount of your bid. You are assured that if you are the winner, your bid will be the next increment above the previous bidder's amount and not necessarily the highest amount you specified. Let me give you an example: You bid a maximum of $25 on an auction. There are six bidders, and the last one bid his maximum of $15. You would win the bid for $16, not $25, since eBay bids for you in small increments. On auctions of lower amounts, the bid increment may be 25 cents, while when auction amounts get into the hundreds, the increment may be five dollars, ten dollars or more. Obviously on Real Estate auctions, the increment is likely in the thousands. But your winning bid will always just be one increment above the previous bidder's highest amount bid. In case of ties, the earliest bidder wins.

Usually there is a photograph of the item you're bidding on, and a description of the item including a critique of the condition. You're taking the seller's word that the description is accurate and you're trusting that their definition of "excellent condition" is the same as yours. Let me warn you, that often that is not the case.

Now comes the part that worries me, as a glass collector.

When you are the winning bidder, you exchange information with the seller. You have to provide your shipping address to the seller. He sends you an email with the total amount due, including shipping and insurance and "handling" charges, all of which are normally your responsibility as winning bidder to pay. The seller also specifies the means of payment that he will accept. Sometimes it's a personal check or money order or cashier's check. Sometimes it is some form of online payment. A popular method is called "PayPal", which is owned by eBay and is an online money transfer service. Yes, they do charge the seller for the service. It's free to buyers. There are other online payment services and some of the fees that they charge are eye openers. But this type of service is very useful to you if you're selling to an international buyer. It's much easier to collect your money from "PayPal" than to deal with a cheque on a bank in England or France.

So you've sent off your money to a complete stranger. You're expecting a package containing your treasured piece of depression glass to arrive any day now. Former football Coach of Ohio State, Woody Hayes, described a forward pass play as follows: "When you throw a pass, three things can happen and two of them are bad." Obviously he meant completed, incomplete or intercepted, with the last two being bad. A similar concept is true for eBay auctions. You send off your money and you can:

  • Receive the item intact, in exactly the condition described.
  • Receive the item intact, but the seller's idea of "excellent condition" is your concept of "poor condition".
  • Receive an item, but it was misidentified to begin with and not at all what you thought you were buying.
  • Receive the item in a whole lot of little pieces.
  • Never receive anything at all.

In this case, there are at least five things that can happen and four of them are bad. You might think of a few more in the "bad" category, possibly from personal experience.

If the package arrives with your glass item in many little pieces, then if you've paid for insurance along with the shipping, you can get reimbursement from the Post Office or UPS or whatever shipping company was used. If your item is in bad condition when you expected it to be a whole lot better, or if it was grossly misidentified, sometimes the seller will be nice to you and accept a return, while others simply say "Caveat Emptor" or ignore your emails altogether.

The ones who send nothing at all are guilty of fraud, but trying to get satisfaction is going to be one of the most frustrating experiences of your life. eBay tries to weed out the cheaters, but only after they've cheated a whole lot of folks, and those that were cheated very rarely get back anything at all. The fraudulent sellers typically don't sell depression glass (thank goodness), but are into things like computers, stereo equipment, videos, etc., so if you stick to glass you'll probably avoid the criminal element.

Don't get me wrong, many eBay sellers are conscientious and try to describe items to the best of their ability. If you have a problem, many of them will work to resolve the problem, sometimes with a full refund (less shipping charges) and sometimes with a partial refund (an adjustment because the condition was less than what was described).

But eBay's motto should be, and in my experience is: "Caveat Emptor", or in English, "Let the Buyer Beware". You are the one spending the money, so you need to be the one that is careful. eBay has a "feedback" feature, where the buyer can rate the transaction as "positive", "neutral" or "negative" and write a small explanation for the rating. The seller can respond to the rating. You can look at the "feedback" for any seller before you bid on their auction. If the seller's rating is less than 100% positive, you might want to look at his feedback before you bid on the auction. Negative feedback is a warning that at least one buyer, maybe more, has had a bad experience with the seller. You might just want to avoid doing business with that seller if there are too many complaints.

I've talked to many collectors about eBay. Everyone has a story to tell about how they got a real "bargain" on eBay. No doubt there are "bargains" to be had. But as folks use eBay more and more, I hear stories about bad experiences. Experiences such as receiving glass that had chips when no chips were mentioned in the auction description. Sellers who claim that those chips must have been done in shipping, or that you are trying to return an item that was damaged instead of the "good one" that they sent to you. Or how about just getting a package that "jingles" even before you open it. One time, I received a figural flower frog in over 100 pieces. Those things are hard to shatter. I can't possibly imagine what it went through. But it was in a box, wrapped in one sheet of newspaper! Collectors are beginning to get tired of the "bad" things about eBay.

The attendance at Glass, China and Pottery Shows has gone down in recent years. Part of the reason is that the economy has been down. Another huge part is that eBay has drawn some of the collectors away from Glass Shows. It's no longer necessary to get up early, drive for several hours, wait on line, just to get into a Glass Show and then not be able to find the items you're hoping to find. All you have to do to shop is sit down at your computer in your bathrobe with a cup of coffee by your side and scroll through eBay listings for your favorite glass company. What could be easier?

But if you shop that way, you are missing out on a whole lot of things. When you go to a show, you have the pleasure of seeing all of that beautiful glass, even patterns that you don't collect, sparkling in the lights and looking like fine jewels. You get to talk to enthusiastic dealers that are also knowledgeable about the glass you collect. You can ask questions and expect to get straight answers. You can strike up conversations with other collectors who don't think you're crazy when you express your love for the glass. You meet like minded folks who are all genuinely nice people.

And then there's the glass. You get to pick up, examine, fondle and caress that piece of glass you've been hunting for for years. You can personally examine it for chips or cracks or scratches. You can agonize over the price (or be ecstatic if the price is a lot lower than you expected - but that's kinda rare). You can try to dicker with the dealer. Ultimately you can bring home a piece that meets your expectations as to condition and price, and you'll have enjoyed the whole experience.

There's no question that going to a Glass Show is a whole lot more satisfying than sitting in that bathrobe, with the coffee, and "surfing the 'net". So let's see you at the next Glass Show, and be prepared to stay a while and visit with old friends and new ones.