How Insta-auctions made exclusive shopping accessible

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Tagged products turned Instagram feeds into an online shop window. The photo-sharing app has also become the perfect digital platform for faster and simpler auctions.

Instagram was never designed to be a platform to make sales. Created in 2010, Instagram — a photo-sharing app at its core — was born from creator Kevin Systrom’s affinity for photography.

11 years later, Instagram grew out of Systrom’s love for taking photos. The introduction of the app’s new tap-to-buy feature mirrored Systrom’s exit from Instagram in 2018 — symbolizing Instagram’s official e-commerce takeover.

Since then, Instagram has made selling and buying more intentional. Users can switch to business accounts, gaining access to professional features like promoting posts and account insights to grow reach and engagement. In-app website browsing and checkouts are available. Tagged products have turned our Instagram pages into an online shop window. And less intentionally, it became the perfect digital platform for faster and simpler auctions.

Instagram auctions are an emerging sales model. They usually start with businesses and brands posting an image of an item with the starting price — signifying that it is officially now on the market — and end with bidders leaving offers in their comments until a hammer price is reached. The rule often in practice is being the first to comment “mine” on a post determines the winner. And when the supposed buyer backs out, users who comment “next” are often considered next in line. In other instances where the highest price wins, businesses will allow space for other users to comment “steal” if they are willing to outbid the current offer or “grab” if they are willing to place the highest bid possible to secure the item.

READ: Mine, steal, grab: finding joy in the high stakes world of Instagram thrifting

Through its shareability, visual format, and ease of use, Instagram has introduced a transparent way to both host and participate in an auction. For the majority of users, the idea of the insta-auction dates back to a time when coveted products from international brands weren’t readily available on e-commerce markets like Shopee or Lazada.

A move toward a more transparent business approach

“I remember that before, I had bid for a few pink Glossier pouches that a seller wanted to get out of her hands and for some reason — at the time — I just had to have it,” said Mike,* a 25 year-old marketing manager. Today, he finds himself still participating in insta-bidding but towards different things, like ceramics.

For Mike, insta-auctions are just another way to obtain specialty items available in scarce and limited quantities. They operate on the same system as face-to-face auctions, but are done on a different platform that plays by a different set of rules.

“It’s different from regular auction houses,” said Mike, coming from his own experiences. “You’re not relying on any system. You’re relying on the honesty of the person who owns the business.” By employing a third-party platform like Instagram, businesses are able to utilize an approach that is largely driven by transparency. Business owners — who serve as both the seller and auctioneer — rely on the app’s timestamps to identify the right winner who has made the right bid, within the timeframe they dictate.

Through Instagram, specialty items that could be sold through auctions are no longer solely dictated by the price tag. These days, any item whose supply cannot meet its demand is often sold through insta-auction. This includes vintage items, limited edition collectibles, one-off items, and anything that is either seasonal or no longer in production.

Business owners like Alyssa Kangleon — the artist behind Manibalang — find that the decision to sell her one-of-a-kind ceramic pieces on Instagram on a first-comment-first-serve basis comes from a place of trying to be more efficient. “I put out my work, people comment, the first person to get the right code gets it,” said Aly. “This is simply more practical for me! I get to spend my time actually making ceramics instead of tending to messaging all the interested people which set me up for a lot of stress and mistakes.” The fast-paced nature of Instagram allows her to sell her pieces quickly and earn a living faster which in turn, lets her both live her life and tend to her work.

But this alternative sales format of Instagram auctions is not without its drawbacks. Business owners — being mistaken as robots for posting too many in-feed posts in a short amount of time — get blocked by Instagram. Customers end up not paying for the bids they won. Or sometimes, scorned customers take out their loss on the real people behind these Instagram accounts.

Kangleon ­shared that the algorithm behind Instagram comments has left many of her unlucky customers angry. Almost always, the first comment you see on a post is your own, regardless of whether you are actually the earliest. “Even though I explain what happened, sometimes they’re still upset and they’d direct their discontentment at me, which is never fun.”

Maximizing revenue

Second-hand thrift store owner Ramon implemented a mine-steal-grab structure in order to maximize revenue. With his limited inventory of vintage clothing unable to meet customer demand, bidding has allowed Ramon to make sure he gets the most out of each sale. “People see that my items are in-demand so [their] willingness to spend is increased once they see other people,” he said.

Ramon also sets extended bidding timeframes to increase chances of visibility among his store’s followers. “It gives more chances to all buyers, it shows me the prices people are willing to pay for certain items and lastly, [and] it helps increase profits,” said Ramon.

Another byproduct of participating in an insta-auction is developing a pattern of sunk cost trap. In an Instagram auction, everything happens so fast. The competitive desire to be the first to comment “mine” leaves out any time to even examine the product we’re bidding on. Once a photo is uploaded, looking at the product becomes secondary to commenting first.

Through this new culture of mine, steal, and grab, Instagram has made auctions — an activity designed to be exclusive — more accessible to anyone who has a smartphone, access to the internet, and desire to purchase goods of finite supply, regardless of price.

Karina,* who often participates in book bidding, shared that the competitiveness of acquiring titles from Instagram bookstores has caused her to make several unnecessary purchases. Even when she spends most of her time refreshing and waiting, being first to comment “mine” is never guaranteed. And to avoid the painful admission of having wasted time when she doesn’t land her first choice, she’d settle for the leftovers of the auction. “When I don’t get to buy the book I originally wanted, I’d buy any title that’s left,” she said.

Instagram has inadvertently obliterated any division between people who went to auctions and those who didn’t; what type of item rationalized an auction and what didn’t. Pre-dating the age of insta-buy and sell, participating in auctions depended on being part of an inner circle or the willingness to spend on a high-priced entry ticket or registration fee (sometimes charged at ₱20,000). Through this new culture of mine, steal, and grab, Instagram has made auctions — an activity designed to be exclusive — more accessible to anyone who has a smartphone, access to the internet, and desire to purchase goods of finite supply, regardless of price.