Automating Auctions

Auctions are a great way to generate revenue for your club. Unfortunately, auctions are a lot of work. The Greater Chicago Cichlid Association—my home club—hosts three auctions a year. Sometime, they run to 1AM!
Certainly, auctions are a big toll on the people who run them.

Most clubs use an Auction Database program to track item sales and match them to buyers and sellers. Sellers are given seller numbers. Buyers, receive buyer numbers. Some clubs use numbers for both, others will have letters assigned.

I’m curious—what does your auction system do for your club?

My club (Greater Chicago Cichlid Association) uses a system based on Microsoft Access. It’s pretty simple and works for us, but we are looking at ways to improve it.

We recently began using an online Auction Registration System. This allows both sellers and buyers to pre-register for one of our auctions online. No more late night calls to the auction chairman asking for a seller number. The night before the auction, we download the registration file as a CSV (comma separated value) file and import it into Microsoft Excel. From there, it is easy to bring into Access and use as the look-up table.
You can check out the system— when an auction is running— at http://www.gcca.net

I see a few problems with our current process.

Human Error Issues

The whole process is fraught with “the human element”.

A couple of years ago, we had two different sellers who used the same seller number. Sometimes runners—who bring the fish to the buyer—don’t write down the correct buyer number or amount.
Insufficient Data

In GCCA’s current process, we only report back to sellers the price for each bag. Our system does not electronically capture the description of each bag. This makes it hard for us to analyze auction results.

For example, we’d like to generate an auction roll-up by type of item (e.g. dry good, fish, food, etc.). Roll-ups are generated manually and take a long time.

Audit Process

At the end of every auction, we have to match all the slips up to make sure we didn’t make any mistakes. This is a very time-consuming process.

Checkout Process and Fraud Prevention

Our current checkout process is also manual. We have to match up buyer slips to make sure we have the proper amount and collect the money.

It wouldn’t be impossible to checkout and then bid on fish. We haven’t had this happen yet, but what if it did?

In what ways can technology help with auctions?

In talking with some information technology folks, there are solutions that could help in all areas. The key is using a barcoded label and pre-collecting data.

The Hi-Tech Auction Process of the Future

Sellers sign into your website to enter their fish or use a computer kiosk at the event itself. Information about bags, type of item, quantity, is captured. Waterproof barcoded labels are issued and a complete manifest of all information is printed out for the seller and entered into the database.

Buyers sign in with their credit card and receive a barcoded nametag.

Each bag is scanned as it comes up for auction. A computer projector displays the Bag #, Seller # and Description of Item.

The runner brings the bag to the buyer after it is sold. The runner also carries a ruggedized PDA (Palm or WinCE handheld device) with an integrated barcode scanner. The runner scans the bag, then the buyer’s nametag, and enters a price on the device. The buyer signs their name on the touchscreen of the PDA.

The buyer’s PDA securely sends the transaction data to host computer.

To checkout using a credit card, buyers can ask any runner. The runner scans the buyer’s nametag and presses the checkout button. An invoice is generated which can then be reviewed on-screen by the buyer. They buyers signs on the device and their credit card is charged. A copy of the invoice is emailed to the buyer.

As soon as checkout is complete, the buyer number is invalidated to prevent fraud.
At any time, a running total of total bags, bags per hour, type of items sold, etc. is available.

A bit too geeky? Perhaps, but many industrial auctions are run just like this. I’m told this technology is available today and would cost approximately $4,000 or so to implement.

Of course, does your club really need it? That’s hard to say, but it sure would be cool!

by Rick Borstein, GCCA Webmaster