Inside the Swift, Strategic World of Used Car Auctions, from Wired.
ONCE THE 2011 Impala has been rolled into place, the bidding begins immediately. Standing near the back, by the free earplug dispenser, I make eye contact with the auctioneer, and quickly look away: He doesn’t need much of a sign to think you want to jack up the price, and I’m just here to watch. A wink, nod, or twitch of the finger is plenty to join the fray.
Clint Esken, one of my guides for the day, bids so subtly I barely notice. It’s strategy: In the small crowd around the Chevy—roughly half a dozen guys, some of them smoking—you don’t want to seem too eager, too willing to pay more. After one final nod, it quiets down, and the auctioneer calls it for Esken, at $9,900. The whole process takes less than a minute, and within another 60 seconds, the next car has taken the Impala’s place and the action has started again.
I’m at 29900 Auction Way in Hayward, California, in the midst of a massive car auction run by vehicle wholesaler Manheim. The sale I just watched is one of a dozen going simultaneously, each 20 yards or so from the next. In the space of one morning, 2,300 cars change hands. (If you’re sticking around for the full three hours, take the earplugs over the headache.) This isn’t a rarity, it’s a weekly event. Americans buy and sell 40 million used cars a year, and this auction is one of many pipelines, usually unseen, feeding that demand.