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Get the most cash for your trash and treasures

Want to learn how to sell big at an e-auction? "Today" financial editor Jean Chatzky offers advice for newbies and powersellers.

These days you can auction off just about anything on the Internet. Recent sales included everything from vintage Ford Mustangs to pinball machines to gold coins to — believe it or not — Justin Timberlake's partially eaten toast.

But whether you are an eBay powerseller (that's the moniker awarded to people who sell at least $1,000 a month worth of stuff on the site and receive positive feedback on the transaction at least 98 percent of the time) or a newbie just starting to skim the auction sites, keeping your eye on the prize means focusing on one important piece of information: How to get the tip-top price for your stuff.

A new study published in the Journal of Marketing Research provides some clues.

The authors analyzed a dataset from a Korean auction site that included the entire history of bids on notebook computers for a three-month period.

Eric Bradlow, co-author of the study and a marketing and statistics professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and his collaborator examined intricacies of auction behavior — everything from whether people bid, who bids, when they bid and how much they bid. Many behavior patterns emerged, including the fact that today, most bidders wait until the very last minute to throw their hats in the ring. The authors found that about 3/4 of final — and winning — bids came in during the last three percent of the auction time period, in other words, just a few minutes. What can the study teach you about getting the best price for your stuff — be it garbage or vintage? Here are a few clues:

  • Keep your auctions as short as possible. The fact that bidders are waiting until the last minute to come in, means you don't have to stretch your auction out for days. "Consumers are waiting until the last possible minute to bid because they don't want to get into a bidding war," says Sharon Greenwald of Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., who's been an eBay powerseller for the past four years. Bradlow and his co-authors recognize that a longer auction allows more bidders the opportunity to enter. But it doesn't necessarily drive prices higher.
  • Raise the minimum price. The authors' findings here are similar. A lower minimum price may bring more bidders to the auction. But more participants does not mean larger bid increments or a higher final price, says Bradlow. In fact, if you set the price too low, the final price will be lower. If you have no idea how much an item may sell for, search recently completed auctions on the site to learn what similar items have recently gone for. It can help you decide where to set your price.
  • Target losers and newbies. Bradlow's dataset came from an auction site that required participants to register. That allowed tracking of winners, losers and whether those losers bid again. As you might expect, losing an auction or two whets the appetite. "People who lost on previous auctions tend to get more aggressive on their bidding," says Bradlow. "They realize what they did before didn't work." The lesson: If you are selling on a site where participants register, send targeted e-mails to users who recently lost on a similar item. Let them know you are about to put a comparable product up for auction. You should also target new users. Participants with less comparison-shopping experience are more likely to buy.
  • Remember marketing 101. There is so much noise on the auction market today, that it's important you do whatever you can to make your items stand out. Write pithy display copy. Use bold type. And always include a picture. People like to visualize what they are going to buy. Adding a picture to the description makes more people come to the auction, submit bids faster and bid larger.
  • Give buyers a take-out option. On eBay, sellers can establish what's called a Buy It Now price. This is a higher price than the price at which the auction is beginning, and you're agreeing that if a buyer bids that price, the auction instantly ends. The key to get the most for your money is to set the Buy It Now price artificially high. If you decide on a low BIN price, you could be leaving money on the table. But more than that, the BIN price signals the value of the product. So by setting a high BIN price, the seller is telling potential bidders that the product is of high quality and value. Although there is a lower probability it will sell at that high price, the bids — and the final price — tend to be larger.

Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .