Cheap thrills… but at what cost?

I recently decided to put my much-loved, moth-eaten MP3 player out of its misery and jump on Apple’s shiny consumer bandwagon, opting for a 16GB iPod Touch.

Determined not to pay full price, a quick MegaShopBot search found I could knock £15 off Apple’s £220 by shopping around. After some (slightly obsessive) further Googling, one advert caught my attention – the same iPod, new, for £34. Intrigued, I decided to look into it further. I’m relieved that I did.

The site, Swoopo, is part of a new generation of ‘entertainment shopping’ auction sites advertising incredibly cheap final prices (as I write this, Swoopo is telling me that a 64GB iPod Touch has been bought on its site for £4.20. The same product from Apple currently retails at over £300).

So how does it work? Unlike conventional ‘free-to-bid’ auction sites like eBay, bids cost 50p each, and with every bid made, the time left on the auction increases. So trying to ‘snipe’ that bargain 42” LCD TV with two seconds left on the clock simply puts you further away from getting it. Carrots and donkeys come to mind.

This aroused my suspicions. I started to search online to see what others had to say about it. And it wasn’t pretty. There are reports across the web of people never winning, despite investing staggering amounts of time and money.

Because the price of the item only goes up by a few pence with each bid, the illusion of a ‘bargain’ is maintained for days on end, making it frighteningly easy to get drawn in, as you buy and place more bids in an attempt to cut your losses.

One unlucky shopper writes of bidding compulsively every two minutes for 72 hours, losing £470 on bids and being forced to quit due to sheer exhaustion – not exactly my idea of ‘entertainment’. Needless to say, I decided that this wasn’t the best way to make my cash go further.

Using tips from the eBay Buying Secrets article, I ended up paying £175 for my iPod on eBay from an individual seller, a very good price but not a ridiculous one. Sometimes, new tricks can’t compete with old wisdom: if it looks too good to be true, it almost certainly is.