Looking at Prices for George Washington Dollar Coins, and How to Search eBay Like a Champ

I’m not sure, but I think the storm of interest in George Washington Dollar Coins peaked yesterday. At least, based on sales on my rolls, and looking at prices, it seems like today was not a bigger day than yesterday.

One of the most common questions I get about eBay is how to use the site to research what the “fair price” is for an item. There are a lot of reasons people ask this question:

  • They are looking to buy something, and they want to know what a fair price is
  • They are looking to sell something on eBay, and they want to know what to expect
  • They are looking to sell something off eBay, but they still want to know what a fair price would be.

I was looking over the prices tonight for dollar coins, and I realized it’s a pretty good example to work from.

The first magic trick to figuring out prices on eBay is a good search. Yes, you read that right.

The hardest thing about figuring out pricing on eBay is the fact that it is just incredibly big. There are millions of different types of products sold on the site, and there isn’t a catalog in the world big enough to hold them all. If you go to the Apple Store, you would see all the current products that Apple sells, in all the configurations they currently offer. On eBay, you might likely see every model that Apple has ever has sold, in every possible configuration that Apple ever offered, and even configurations they didn’t!

The key to good price research is a good result set, and that means getting good at eBay search.

eBay search is actually incredibly powerful. There is a syntax to it that is very easy to learn, and can take your use of the site to a new level. eBay has a help page on the topic, but here are some of my tips:

  • Start with basic keywords. It may sound counter-intuitive, but don’t start with categories. Start with simple keywords from the homepage. Sometimes sellers put your product in categories that you might not expect. It’s best to start with some keywords that fit what you are looking for, and then only using categories to filter if you are seeing unrelated items from other categories.
  • Look at the result set. There is no magic right answer to the perfect query – a big part of the process is doing a search, looking at the items, and learning from them. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done a search for something, like a piece of computer equipment, and then seen result titles that include the part number. I then do a search on the part number, and I find items that didn’t show up before. The marketplace represents the aggregated human intelligence of millions of people – learn from the keywords in their titles, and your searching will reach a new level.
  • “Or” is your friend. Sometimes, there are multiple words that represent what you are looking for. Laptop or Notebook. Roll or Rolls. PowerMac or Power Macintosh. If you enter a search on eBay for “Laptop Notebook”, you’ll get very few listings – only the ones that actually put both words in the title. But if you put the two words in parentheses, separated by a comma, like this: (Laptop, Notebook) – eBay know to look for listings with either “Laptop” or “Notebook” in the title. This is the most powerful trick for truly exploring the marketplace, especially as you learn new words from the item titles of the listings you find first.
  • Don’t like some results? Remove them! eBay search has another great operator, the minus sign. Just put it before a word, and eBay automatically removes any item with that word in the title. Incredibly powerful for “cleaning” your results. For example, let’s say you do a search for “Apple” hoping for computers, but you get a bunch of apple-scented lotion and candles in your results. Changing your search to: Apple -lotion -candle will all of a sudden clean your results to remove all lotion and candle listings.

So, when I wanted to explore the pricing of George Washing Dollar Coins, I ended up starting with this search:

Washington Dollar

Yikes. Too many individual coins. I’m selling rolls. So I added two good words for roll:

Washington Dollar (roll, rolls)

Much better, but I was still seeing some junk. So I minused out some of the worst offenders:

Washington Dollar (roll, rolls) -single -1982 -quarter

Much cleaner. Almost every listing was for a George Washington Dollar Coin Roll. Now to be picky, I could have refined it further for mint mark and for mint vs. bank roll, but this was good enough for my purposes. There is a always a trade-off between precision and recall. The more you sharpen your query, the more likely you are excluding some good listings with the bad. There is somewhat of an art to saying, “it’s good enough”.

Now, for the second magic trick: searching completed items.

That’s right. eBay allows you to search roughly the last two weeks of closed listings. You can see if they sold or didn’t sell, which format they were in, and what price.

All you have to do is click the little checkbox in the lower left, and sign in. eBay restricts this feature to registered users. However, registering is free, so I recommend it highly.

Now, a few years ago, this was the best you could do. These days, there are a number of third parties who sell tools to help you price different items using eBay data. eBay also has a tool which is available for a very low fee ($2.99 for two days, or $9.99 per month for the basic version) that lets you use advanced, user-friendly tools to go through data.

Here is a screenshot of the prices from tonight for my search, using eBay Marketplace Research Pro, the $24.99/month professional version of the tool. Notice that it lets me save my search, so I can easily check back on the prices for it with one click (awesome).


How cool is that? It uses flash to show you the breakdown of prices day by day, format by format. Super cool. You can also see volume numbers – almost 3,000 listings sold in the eBay core marketplace, and about 200 sold from Stores. Not surprising for a popular product like this. You’ll also note the prices between the two differ. Some people think you pay more when you shop in an eBay Store than bidding on an auction, but when products are hot, that isn’t always the case. Here, the average price for a winning auction is over $52. The average price in an eBay Store is just $40.

Looking at the charts, there has been quite a ramp in the last two days in volume and price. Not surprising given the press coverage.

Now, these type of searches aren’t perfect. For example, this search includes all types of sellers, some with good reputations, some not. Some who accept PayPal, and some who don’t. Some who charge fair shipping, and some who don’t. Lately, I’ve been using eBay Express to also get a sense for what more professional sellers are charging for item. There is no completed items search on eBay Express, but since it is all fixed-price, it’s easy to see what the “going rate” is for a product.

In any case, with some of the tricks outlined above, pricing a product using eBay does not have to be black magic. Knowledge is power, and being able to search eBay well is definitely a skill worth having.

Update (3/17/2007): If you are looking to buy original, unsearched bank rolls of the new George Washington dollar coins, I have procured a box of 40 rolls, in a box certified as wrapped on December 7, 2006. They are availablehere on eBay Express.  Sold out!  Will get more soon!
Update (5/24/2007): For a limited time only, I am now carrying unopened, original John Adams Presidential Dollar coin rolls in my eBay Store. Click here to buy them on eBay Express. I also have a few more original bank rolls of the George Washington dollar coins.  Click here to buy them on eBay Express.

If you are interested in the other rolls I am carrying, click here for all the coins I am currently selling on eBay Express.

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