Weird and wonderful traditional auction types

I’ve always thought that auctions work best if they carry on while bidders are happy to bid. Most offline (and online) auctions I am familiar continue until no more bids are received – just like the way the standard procurement reverse auction works.

On the other hand eBay is notable for always finishing an auction at a predefined time. This encourages bid sniping where potential buyers tactically try to wait for the last possible moment to get their best bid in. So I was fascinated and entertained to read in “The English Year” by Steve Roud about traditional buying auctions which rely on a fixed time to end rather than continuing indefinitely.

In a candle auction a candle was lit and bids were accepted until the candle went out. Or a pin would be put in a candle and bids would be taken until the candle burned down far enough for the pin to drop out. Apparently this was an officially sanctioned way of running auctions in the 17th century and Steven cites examples where candle auctions still take place in England (on the 6th of April at Tatwell, 13th December at Aldermaston).

Other weird and wonderful (to modern readers) auction types Steven cites are

  • The Running Auction that takes place in Bourne, Lincolnshire on the Monday before Easter. This is to auction grazing rights on a piece of land, and bids are accepted for as long as it takes for 2 children to complete a 200 yard race, and
  • An auction at Wishford in Wiltshire that takes place on Rogation Monday, also for grazing rights, in which “[b]uyers are summoned by the church bell, about fifteen minutes before sunset, and the parish clerk walks up and down between the church porch and gate while the bidding takes place. As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, he strikes the church key on the gate, and the auction is over”.

Looks like eBay’s approach has a good historical pedigree 🙂

The serious point, though, is that these types of auctions that tried to fix a specific end time eventually died out to be replaced by open-ended auctions.

Auction Managers: Watchers and Drivers

How important is the auction manager to the success of your reverse auction?

At TradingPartners the auction manager is central to the whole process – from the supplier selection and training through to actively driving the negotiation during the reverse auction itself.

For example during a TradingPartners auction the auction manager can be seen communicating via instant messaging with bidders in order to encourage additional bidding. I have written before about how judicious use of instant messaging increases bidding activity and therefore savings.

My moles in other providers tell me that many other purveyors of auction systems seem to treat the auction itself as a technical activity that pretty much runs itself, barring any technical mishaps. The auction manager’s role is a more “up front” role to get bidders ready for the auction. On the day of the auction event the auction manager’s role is to watch the event rather than to drive it, and to respond to technical issues rather than to stimulate further competition.

When I have discussed the role of instant messaging with non-believers the usual riposte I get is something like: “Ok, you have shown how sending an instant message at 10 minutes into the auction got you an extra bid and more savings, but even without that instant message, you would have got that bid in the revese auction extensions.” It is impossible to prove one way or the other what ‘would have happened’ so it’s an impossible argument to refute. When it’s been my budget up for grabs I’ve been keen to take every possible opportunity to get the best possible result rather than leaving things to chance.

If you are planning reverse auctions as part of your sourcing strategies take the time to consider whether you expect your auction managers to be watchers or drivers, and understand what your vendor/provider’s approach is.

On the Paulson US Treasury Reverse Auction Process

Assuming the mooted auction does go ahead here are some thoughts as to possible designs.

The US Govt has a lot of experience in forward auctions selling treasury bonds as described here: If you have the time, Kenneth Garbade’s history of the treasury auctions is well worth a read – he emphasises the responses to failure as well as the successes in building a solid programme of auctions:

For readers who are used to reverse English auctions the US Treasury format is very different from what you might expect. It is a single-round auction. As a bidder you put in one bid up until the deadline. This bid can state a price you wish to pay and how much you will buy at that price, or it can state a quantity you wish to buy at whatever the average price is. The Treasury then allocates the available bonds across the bidders based on who is offering the highest prices.

I expect that the US Treasury would want to use something similar in the proposed reverse auction. But things are not going to be as simple as that. There is some good debate amongst people who know auctions:

On one level the actual design of the auction is of secondary importance. Simple agreement on a bailout plan will be sufficient to soothe many nerves.

But once they start the reverse auctions will be the subjects of intense media and market scrutiny, at least in the early stages. So reverse auctions at the outset will need to be kept very simple. For this reason any real-time complex optimisation will need to be ruled out. At least to start with.

NERA point out in their paper (link above) a good issue: In a procurement reverse auction the buyer would likely only buy from one (or perhaps two or three, but certainly not all) of the bidders in the auction. So the bidders have to compete against each other to push the price down. Under the Paulson plan, if the government is committing to buying all the securities from all the banks (until the money runs out) then what is the incentive for any bidder to place a low bid? They know that the government will bail them out. To avoid this the auction process could include a number of bidders but commit the Treasury to buying securities from a small number of the bidders, or to buy a fraction of the auctioned value, such that all bidders have an incentive to bid.

There is also the question of one-round or multiple-round bidding. The US Govt currently sells Treasury bonds with one round of bidding so I’m sure they will be tempted to use a similar design for the bailout. But given the uncertainty around the value of the assets in question now I would expect the transparency of multiple-round bidding will be better. Paul Klemperer has some great horror stories of single-round bidding events. Search for “Banespa” and “New Zealand” in the document. The Banespa case was a first-price sealed bid auction, the New Zealand case was a second-price sealed bid auction (Vickrey auction). Both led to great embarrassment.

So could an auction work in this US bailout? It’s certainly well known across government and private sectors that auctions are the best way to ascertain a market price when the true market price is not known. I have seen some very successful reverse auctions for pension funds, for example. So perhaps using reverse auctions for mortgage-backed assets is not such a crazy idea after all.

On balance I think a long, regular series of auctions based on a multiple-round descending clock auction design with the government only buying a fraction of the securities on offer in each auction would be a good way to start the process. Then as the purchases become more commonplace, the desperate sellers offload their assets and prices creep up the government could look to add in optimisation technology.

Reverse Auction Guidelines from

Purchasing ran an article some time ago providing guidelines on running electronic reverse auctions.

They make 7 points presented as questions and answers that buyers should take into account when figuring whether to run a reverse auction. Here are the 7 points:

  1. The more competition the better
  2. Do your supplier qualification before the event – protect yourself from having fly-by-night bidders offer an attractive price that then turns out to be unsustainable
  3. Make the spend in the reverse auction as large as possible to make the reverse auction as interesting as possible for your suppliers
  4. Make sure your specs are clear and watertight
  5. Beware of running reverse auctions where a strategic relationship with your supplier is important (reverse auctions may damage supplier relationships)
  6. Reverse auctions can offer a range of benefits in addition to (or instead of) lower prices e.g. faster sourcing times, a clear audit trail
  7. Make sure you factor in all non-price parameters as numerical values into your auction

It is a great article and I just want to add a few comments/clarifications from my perspective.

Point 1: The more competition the better. I do agree with this – and generally I would like to see 4 suppliers in a reverse English auction. But bear in mind that in 2008 the auction industry now has more experience across a range of auction designs that can be particularly useful where have limited competition. In particular I am thinking of the successes I have seen with reverse Japanese auctions.

Point 5: Your ability to gain the benefits of a reverse auction, and still have a strategic relationship with your supplier, depends on how well you manage the process and not on whether you include a reverse auction or not. New suppliers are usually happy to win business through a reverse auction. Incumbents are usually unhappy having to compete with anyone to retain your business (whether through a reverse auction or whether simply through any traditional offline mechanism). In my own personal experience I can say that I have got a great relationship with the software development company that I selected via a reverse auction.

Point 7: I still see very many buyers shying away from incorporating non-price factors into their auctions. The good news is that there are nowadays robust methodologies in place to make doing this easier for you than would have been the case even 5 years ago.

More Reverse Auction momentum

Some more recent reverse auction stories that popped into my Google Reader:

Using Reverse Auctions to buy advertising spots on Radio. A quote:

Bid4Spots allows the media buyers (that’s us) to set a maximum bid and allow stations to bid ever-lower media prices. After all, the stations are selling next week’s leftover airtime.

The real power of Bid4Spots is the steadily lessening of price rather than the gradual increase. In a Bear economy, when most businesses are cutting their media spend, there exists a real opportunity for small and medium-sized businesses to get a lot of airtime for their money.

City of Waco uses a reverse auction to buy electricity. There seems to be a lot of interest in running reverse auctions for electricity these days. A quote:

“We’ve been wanting to try a reverse auction for some time, as we believed the process could significantly benefit the City and, ultimately, our taxpayers,” said Danny Jackson, Administrative Engineer, City of Waco. “I can’t say enough about how great World Energy’s people were throughout the process. The market directors were extremely knowledgeable about the industry and helped us make key decisions regarding structuring the auctions to ensure we had significant supplier participation. We were particularly pleased that World Energy was able to drum up supplier interest for the auction, even though we used our own paper for awarding the contract.”


2 points on this:

  1. The Bid4Spots story is spot on in linking an upswing in reverse auction interest to the current downwards trajectory in the economy. This is what happened last time round in 2002.
  2. The Waco story is spot on in highlighting the importance of market making support in running a successful auction. It’s no good these days for software companies to sell only software and/or software integration/implementation services. These days successful technology delivery revolves around what What Max Bleyleben (Disclosure: he works for Kennet, an investor in TradingPartners) calls software/services/content convergence. 

Reverse Auctions in the news

See  here .

Local government and schools are hoping to join forces to cut what each unit spends on millions of sheets of paper each year.
Rick Morrisey, purchasing manager for Lafayette, is working to arrange a bulk paper purchasing contract along with the county, Ivy Tech Community College and possibly others.

Despite rising paper prices Morrisey believes that by going through a spend aggregation exercise and then running a reverse auction on the aggregated spend that he will be able to achieve valuable savings.

Assuming he runs his auction process well I’m sure he will, and I wish him all the best in his project. Reverse auctions aren’t 5-minute jobs but when run well they tend to blow away people’s expectations.

Gearing up for more reverse auctions in 2008

This is from Supply Management in May. A quote from John Paterson, VP & CPO at IBM:

Sellers are more aggressive in their terms and pricing as they desire to maintain capacity and revenue streams. Sharp buyers recognise this and will typically look to place more business up for bid, take actions to renegotiate contracts, and seek out new suppliers. As always buyers should recognise markets change over time and they should do nothing that will damage their buying position when it becomes a sellers’ market again.

In these sorts of conditions reverse auctions are a great tool because they are able to cut through long-held assumed market prices and uncover exactly where suppliers are willing to go. But note John’s sage advice about not abusing market power. Again, reverse auctions, done well, are a good foundation on which to build solid supplier relationships (this has certainly been the case for me).

Auction confusion

Here are some items that popped into my google alerts recently for reverse auction:

  • A lowest unique bid wins gambling site. Their press release appears to be deliberately confusing given that talks about reverse auctions, procurement auctions and e-sourcing before diving into their  gambling piece. They even go so far as to claim that “The legality of low unique auctions has been proven by the American, British and the Danish governments who are all using the low unique auction concept [for awarding procurement contracts].” (No they’re not, they’re using reverse auctions – they aren’t using gambling sites)
  • Forwards Dutch Auctions for mobile gear

I know some of you will consider this is just me quibbling over semantics but this is pretty important. Surely buyers need to know their auction types to be able to run effective sourcing projects. Just like they need to know their DDP from their FOB. I get really riled when people use the same term to mean completely different auction types. How many buyers would know that this auction here is not a reverse auction at all but is a forwards dutch auction?

How many suppliers should I have in a reverse auction?

A few years back we did some work with Oxford University. They were interested in how procurement auctions fitted into the bigger auction picture. We were interested in finding out how in line with auction theory we were. I was looking through my old material from that study and I want to share a neat graph from that work that models how expected savings rise the more suppliers you include in an auction.

 How increasing suppliers increases savings

If you assume that all suppliers in a marketplace have a price evenly distributed between a low price and a high price then, on average, the savings you would get increase as shown in the graphic above. This helps emphasise that 4 bidders is a good number for a reverse English auction, as I have often said. But one thing to clarify: this is a model – you can do better than the model by ensuring that when you select potential suppliers that you are selecting suppliers who have a lower price rather than selecting suppliers at random from the marketplace.