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Penny auctions: where do they fit in the auction landscape?

One of the current trend on the auction sector has been the emergence of penny auction websites. These are mostly consumer facing websites offering the consumer a chance to buy retail goods at knockdown prices.

On the face of it this looks like a good way for the consumer to get ‘one over’ on the retailers. Especially in current economic times. Customers of the world unite!  Many items are sold below retail for a few pennies or a few pounds. The user takes part by first purchasing blocks of bids which can be used at will. Typically bids are purchased for around $1.00 each in a blocks of 30 upwards. Everytime a bid is made the sale price increases by a peppercorn amount $0.15 or similar value (hence the name penny auction) and the auction is extended by 30 or 40 seconds.

Certainly investors have seen an opportunity. Swoopo attracted $10m in venture capital funding during April 2009. There is no dispute, from the investor point of view, this is a cash cow. For every item sold below retail value, the auctioneer is making many times the retail price through selling the right to bid on that item.

It’s genius. Everyone’s a winner, surely? The consumer buys an item for pennies and the auction site pays for the lots through the sale of the bids themselves. In some cases the auction sites openly declare they do not hold the item in stock. The perfect business model.

However, scratch the surface and different picture emerges. The consumer has complete control over what they spend and they are free to bid when they want, if at all. They don’t have to bid more than once if they don’t want to. The problem is once the user has purchased bids they are committed. Once they have bid and then been outbid they are further committed. In the traditional forward auction the bidder can speculate on items at no financial cost, whilst making no commitment to purchase unless they are highest bidder. A fair deal. In the penny auction, the user has given over to more than idle speculation to take part. The more they bid, the more the user invests and the more they want to see a return on their investment.

This is of course the key to the success of this business model. As bidding progresses the more the bidder will want to win. As the current bid, along with the cost of bidding approaches the retail value of the item, the need to win will become more urgent. It is something of a vicious circle and there can only be one winner.

This feature is something that has pricked the attention of the gambling experts, at Nottingham Trent University who suggests penny auctions should come under the control of the gambling commission. One analyst suggests it is only a matter of time before action will need to be taken. The risk to the shopper has not gone unnoticed in other sectors of the media and consumers have also started to see the risk of taking part in these auctions. Analysts and consumer groups have also taken time to demonstrate why the consumers are not necessarily getting the bargain they sought.

Perhaps we are being unfair. The assertion by penny auction site is that, “This is definitely a game of skill, and would not fall under any circumstances under the definition of gambling.” This is true of course. Randomness is being created by the other users on the site and there is no reason, especially in the case of a low interest auction, that there may only be one bidder completely able to take his moment and pick up a bargain. The bidder has to make a judgement and time his bid at the right moment.

This whole model has caused much discussion internally. One of the main issues we have is that of user experience. To us it seems less than transparent for the user. We are always particularly careful to make sure the user has a good experience on our (auction) websites. We work with not-for-profit and fundraising companies, as well as in the private sector. Our clients are able to generate revenue through an easy to use site attracting many bidders whilst bidders are able to compete on a level playing field. There is an implicit trust between buyer and seller. The platform needs to convey that trust.

Penny auctions to us, appear to be heavily loaded in favour of the seller. Whilst commercial enterprise exists to generate profit, it has to be an equitable deal for the consumer too.

  1. With all of the new penny auction sites popping up this should get interesting… check out and join the forums too if you want to learn more about penny auctions.

  2. The penny auction concept is definitely growing in popularity.. many new sites come and go often. People often recommend to bid on the newest sites because the small user base means less competition for bidders.. However, it is advisable to research any site before bidding since there are a large number of fraud outfits who shill bid their own auctions using fake user names (aka, ‘bots’). The forum mentioned above, is a great resource to see how others think about the various sites.

    I think most penny auction bidders enjoy the whole experience and have fun throughout the bidding process, but of course need to win sometimes to keep it fun. It is not for everyone, but bargains are definitely to be had if you know what the rules are and use a good strategy.

  3. Thanks for your comments on this topic, guys. Very interesting.

    I think for us we have a fundamental problem with with two things. The first is the payment for bidding. The second is the subsidy of winners by the losers.

    Whilst the first cleverly subsidizes the purchases of the lots through the actions of the losing bidders, it also skews the market and also brings in to question the transparency of the site. One of the exciting things about the internet is the ability to be able to create open, online marketplaces where buyers and sellers interact and eventually agree a sale price for an item. By charging for bidding this is fundamentally broken.

    The more important aspect of this though, is the skill and chance involved in the process. By charging people to bid you are forcing people to invest in bidding further. The more people bid the more the sense of urgency increases to win the items. It’s an ever decreasing circle. Whilst this creates a cash cow for the site owner, it does not necessarily give the bidder a bargain sale at all.

    If these sites were promote themselves as gambling or gaming sites then it would be a different proposition. The users would understand upfront that they stand to lose money. They would also understand they are not on an eCommerce site. For us the user experience is important. We cannot be seen to skew the user experience in this way as it would have an impact on the work we do for other auction clients.

    We have taken the decision democratically within the company that we do not wish to get involved in these types of sites and see more benefit in the creation of real marketplaces for companies interested in creating transparent trading environments.

  4. a lot of people have their reservations with the new concept of “penny auction” web sites..
    i hope this blog sets them to rest for the better..
    if not.. this is another blog link that may help


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