Holiday gift shopping on the Internet looms larger than ever, driven by fuel prices, higher rents and our nationwide real estate bust. Can you say "savings" and "convenience"? Shop the Internet and you won't fight for parking, jostle hurried crowds, cool your heels in long checkout lines or put up with seasonal workers sporting tattoos, nose rings and “whatever” attitudes. You’ll conduct instant price surveys, compare related products and get ratings from others. This year more than ever, merchants are offering heavy discounts, free shipping and gift-wrapping to entice you to use the great online mall.
Is Craigslist one of the stores in the mall? Who would holiday shop on Craigslist, the globe’s largest garage sale and flea market? Who wants to give used items as holiday gifts? Who wants to receive them?
I've sampled Craigslist for years in hundreds of transactions as seller and buyer. With a sharp eye, patient attitude, careful approach and willingness to bend, you’ll acquire terrific gifts, many of them brand new. Craigslist claims more than 25 million classified ads each month. Since these ads are free, more and more merchants are hawking new merchandise on the list. And of course I'm frugal to a fault. Craigslist savings can be awesome if you know how to shop. We're talking serious money here.
Case in point #1: brand new seven foot fully-lit artificial green Spruce trees for $50 by a major charity in a fund raising drive. Keep them green for Christmas or spray ‘em blue for Hanukkah. These will go fast! (Sold out in a week, it turns out).
Case in point #2: a good friend is an N-scale model railroader. He loves bullet trains but complains about their cost from quality makers like Kato. I'd like to gift him but, alas, retail cost is a problem (like I said, I’m cheap). One fine day I typed Kato bullet train into the search Craigslist window. In the blink of an eye, the following came back: Very rare Shinkansen N Scale Kato Bullet Train.
The listing included great Craigslist photos and an asking price substantially under retail. The photos included "collector cases." It looked new and a phone call to the seller confirmed that it would qualify. Gift wrapping, here I come! In fact, why not grab that train and then buy gift-wrap paper and holiday cards on Craigslist at a fraction of store prices? You will find gift-wrap and holiday cards on Craigslist.
Let’s go back to the search Craigslist window (the steps are listed later in this article). Try any of the following search terms and stand back. Hundreds of ads appear instantly in every city or region:
- Gift Wrap
- Holiday cards
You'll want to try your own search terms. Some of the titles are telling. A child's bicycle ad proclaimed “Perfect Xmas Gift.” An ad for cards heralded “$3 Holiday Greeting Cards for Two Bits.” Another told of a holiday gift boutique for handcrafted items in your neighborhood. And there were 836 more ads to scan. This is a genuine bonanza!
OK, it’s time to get started. Here are my guidelines, tips and warnings on how to shop Craigslist for holiday gifts:
GUIDELINES TO STAY SAFE
- First, let’s deal with toy safety since that’s a key holiday shopping interest. We’ve all been exposed to the news about problems with lead and GHB in toys coming out of offshore nations. Recalled toys are a good thing for the safety of our children and kids for whom you plan to purchase gifts.
But what about toys that are already in use? What you don’t know can definitely harm a child. I suggest that you visit this Consumers Union page and arm yourself before shopping anywhere. After you’ve watched the amusing by eye-opening video, click Get the facts! under the window. Having done this, I won’t be buying toys anywhere that young kids are likely to put in their mouths. There are plenty of other choices.
Craigslist is not eBay. There are no built-in buyer protections, no reputation-based system to let you know if a seller is highly or poorly rated, no PayPal system with a satisfaction guarantee (however, you can often arrange a token or full payment to a Craigslist seller via PayPal in order to hold an item until you can inspect it). Caveat emptor rings loudly on Craigslist.
- Bring your browser on screen and go to Craigslist. In most cases, Craigslist will set up automatically for your region.
- Click avoid scams&fraud (left side of page). I encourage you to fully digest this page. The first point is most important and that’s why Craigslist highlights it. And the other points are important, too. Be skeptical on every deal and observe this advice as if it’s your credo.
- You may also benefit from the help, FAQ, abuse, legal page.
GUIDELINES TO SCANNING FOR SPECIFIC GIFTS
You’ll want to scan the for sale categories to begin organizing your shopping list. Want a desk for your daughter’s room? A digital camera? Toys? A DVD player? It’s all there. You can even arrange an unusual gift like the painting of a room or the setup of a teenager’s website. I’ll talk more about unusual gifts later.
There are some characteristics you’ll want to remember about all these categories and items.
- Craigslist is organized as a push down list. New ads go on top and push the rest down.
- Several hours after being the top item, a new ad can be pushed quite a ways down the list.
- After 8 days, ads expire unless renewed by the poster. Craigslist is very dynamic.
- Flagging. Some posters try to circumvent the push down feature by over-posting. This can be annoying, and Craigslist offers a tool to deal with it: flagging.
- If you click on an ad and discover you just saw it with a slightly different headline, you can flag it as overposting in a window at top right on your screen.
- When several surfers do the same, it’s good-bye ad. Likewise, inappropriate or miscategorized goods can be
banished by selecting prohibited or miscategorized tags.
- Aggressive sellers who try to abuse the system usually get caught and banished (try that in your local mall).
OK, you’ve started a shopping list and now want to begin finding candidate merchandise. Scanning hundreds of ads one by one is one way. A better way is to use the built in search engine. Here’s how:
CRAIGSLIST SEARCH ENGINE
Since merchandise can be found in more than one category, I like to search all for sale. However, you can click any category and then perform a narrower search. You can even narrow down to your town or, in big cities, neighborhood. Once you try it, you’ll quickly get the hang of it.
- Think about the word or words that best describe the item. Let’s say you want a desk for a child around 10 years of age. Child’s desk is worth a try. When I wrote this article, those words produced 12 hits in San Francisco in 3 categories, 5 in Chicago and 8 in Atlanta (each city was a separate search, performed to demonstrate how it works – for most items you’ll want to shop local).
- Read those ads based on their titles. Maybe the “kid’s art desk” for $15 sounds and looks ideal (the ad included a photo). If the ad has a phone number, you can inquire about the condition of the desk and determine suitability. Otherwise, you’ll need to ask via the e-mail link in the ad.
- Let’s say that none of the ads floated your boat. My advice is to wait a day and try again. The turnover on Craigslist is huge. In fact, when I’m on the hunt for something specific – say I want a particular model of digital camera – I might check Craigslist several times during the day and evening. It can be habit forming. But it’s a good habit. Perhaps someday Craigslist will install an eBay-style notification system for new items. In the meantime, you’ll need to check often.
- When you locate a product that fits the bill, move fast. An unstated rule on Craigslist is “first come, first served.” As a seller, customers who pleaded with me to hold an item have stood me up so many times that I no longer hold items without a deposit. I respect serious buyers and practice being one myself. One way to move fast is to make a token deposit via PayPal. Many people have a free PayPal account and if you don’t, get one. Of course, the other way to move fast is to jump in the car after you’ve made contact with the seller.
OTHER WAYS TO BUY HOKIDAY GIFTS ON CRAIGSLIST
Here are some mind-expanding ideas that may help you arrange completely unique gifts or locate difficult items. Craigslist has a lot of other categories to explore, including wanted, barter and various gigs.
- The wanted category enables you to make a very specific request. Let’s say the child’s desk you seek needs to be an antique in a particular style. You can list your need, and even include a photo of a similar item.
- List a need in labor gigs. While her husband was traveling, a friend’s wife had the garage floor painted with a special finish as a gift for his birthday. He was blown away. And you can buy that gift online the way she did… at Craigslist. Just list your need in labor gigs and painters will come to you. The same applies to nearly any trade or profession.
- Perhaps you’d like to exchange something you don’t need, or trade a skill for the gift you want to acquire. Try listing it in barter. For example: “I need wallpaper in my son’s room in exchange for a nice set of surplus golf clubs or some math tutoring… “For some reason, I frequently see massage therapists attempting to barter for dental work, and auto mechanics seeking to trade for a bass fishing boat.
The long and short of it is that Craigslist just might be the most creative store you’ve ever shopped. If you can think it, Craigslist can probably fulfill it. Recently I spoke with an antiques collector who regularly “mines” Craigslist even in distant cities and scores new treasures for her collection. She stressed the need to be careful, especially when dealing long distance. “Your stomach and head provide an early warning system on potential scams,” she said. “And I can sense when the seller is serious.” She advised to NOT respond to ads in your local listings from distant sellers. "Why does a seller in Miami need to find a buyer for his iPod in Seattle?"
My final word: don’t be afraid to dicker about price when you find what you want. Do your homework so you’ll know if an item is overpriced. Then, with greenbacks in hand at the point of sale, make an offer. Nothing speaks as well as cash. Happy holiday gifting on Craigslist!
Murry Shohat is a long time freelance writer based in California's wine country.