Ty Ashcroft was three months pregnant with her son when she started to realize that, when it came to shopping for baby, Facebook was going to be one of her best friends.
Tipped off by a girlfriend, she discovered as many as six Facebook buy-and-sell groups based in and around her trendy Beaches neighbourhood in Toronto where moms and moms-to-be were buying and selling used maternity, baby and children ware. The items were almost always in pristine condition and pick-up was just a few blocks away.
Ashcroft’s first big purchase was a navy blue Uppababy Vista stroller, which retails for around $1,200 in Canada. On Facebook, she got a gently used 2014 model from another mom for only $500.
Since then, she has bought and sold countless baby gear, clothes, and books — and has got to know more of her neighbours in the process.
“It’s not just about finding great deals, it’s also about building a community,” said Ashcroft, a 38-year-old chiropractor who runs local training studio Omega Health and Fitness with her husband.
“I met tons of people from exchanging stuff on the groups.”
Keeping it local seems to be the key that allowed Facebook to finally crack what has long been a virtual monopoly on peer-to-peer shopping by sites like Craigslist and Kijiji. Today, more than 450 million people visit the Facebook buy-and-sell groups every month, the company said.
In Canada, virtually every major city has multiple groups with at least several hundred members. In Toronto there are over 100 groups with more than 1,000 members each. Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon and Halifax count several groups with over 20,000 members each, Facebook searches show.
It’s a remarkable feat considering that countless startups have tried and failed to get a piece of the online classified ads market. In the mid-2000s competitors’ strategy was usually to offer better-looking and more user-friendly interfaces. But online bargain hunters, it turned out, go where they know they will find the largest supply of items for sale and the greatest number of potential buyers, something that gave incumbents a seemingly unbeatable advantage.
Still, classified ads have at least one drawback: One seldom knows who’s at the other end of the bargain.
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Ashcroft, who had been sporadically using classifieds sites, said she abandoned Kijiji after reading in the news about the murder of Tim Bosma, an Ancaster, Ont., man who was abducted and killed while test-driving a truck he had put up for sale online.
One of the ads Bosma had posted was on Kijiji. The company noted in a 2013 press release that the ad received no responses, which, it said, “determines the incident did not occur as result of his ad posting on Kijiji.”
Still, the grisly murder of 32-year-old Bosma spurred a national conversation about the safety of anonymous classified ads.
On Facebook, users can look up the personal profile of whoever is buying and selling, and group membership is generally limited to people who live in the same area.
Other family-friendly buy-and-sell options, such as Canadian app VarageSale, also rely on Facebook to help them verify users’ identities.
“It just feels safer when these people are in your community,” said Ashcroft.
But there are other advantages to neighbourhood-based buying and selling.
No-shows are rare, several Facebook group users told Global News, and so are misleading posts.
“You know that if you buy something from someone, and it’s not what they said, word would get out,” said Ashcroft.
And if peer pressure isn’t enough, there are group administrators.
Unlike many classifieds sites, Facebook groups are usually closely policed by volunteers who vet membership, set the rules (users who live out of bounds, for example, might not be allowed in), and generally kick out anyone who misbehaves.
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“I personally scroll the wall a few times a day,” said Shawna Bell McAvan, a stay-at-home mother and one of eight admins who daily patrol one of Toronto’s most popular baby-oriented buy-and-sell groups.
Mostly, she’s ensuring that posts aren’t missing information, that sellers are located within the group’s location boundaries or offering delivery, and that selling occurs on a first-come-first-serve basis.
Scammers, she says, are quickly spotted and weeded out.
“That’s things like importing cheap goods or scouring Value Village and free sites and then selling for a big mark up, or collecting free items for a person in need, then reselling.”
Disputes between buyers and sellers are rare.
It might explain why Facebook sale groups are becoming increasingly popular outside of mommy circles, as well.
Ashcroft, for one, now turns to the social network for unique gift ideas and household items, too. She recently bought an antique guitar for a friend and a rare 1920s Turkish rug.
Facebook, for its part, is betting big on local online commerce. In October, the company rolled out Facebook Marketplace, which lets users search items that people nearby have posted for sale through the Facebook app. The feature is available to anyone 18 years and older in the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. More countries and a desktop version are coming soon, according to the company.
Tips for using Facebook buy-and-sell groups
If you’re ready for some budget-savvy online shopping, here are some tips for navigating the Facebook groups:
Read the group’s guidelines
Facebook groups often have very specific rules limiting the kind and number of items that can be posted for sale and setting location boundaries. Businesses are often banned from posting or allowed to advertise only on certain dates. Some groups allow members to use the wall to ask questions or start conversations on topics of interest to the community — but many restrict activity to buying and selling.
Familiarize yourself with the lingo
Lots of groups develop their own lingo. You may see acronyms like EUC (excellent used condition) or GUC (good used condition) or SPPU (sold pending pick-up). You’ll want to know what they mean and be able to use them in your posts.
Take good pictures
Good pictures help an item sell faster. Pick a solid background in a well-light area. Take multiple pictures from different angles, if necessary. Even groups that allow only one photo per post let you add more pictures in the comments section.
For popular items, set up alerts
Some sought-after items will fly off the Facebook shelf as soon as they land. One way to increase your chances of getting there first is to set up alerts for key search terms. You’ll get a note in your Facebook notifications when something new comes up.
If you have a grievance, contact an admin
Did someone stand you up or engage in false advertising? Public shaming isn’t the right way to seek redress on Facebook. Instead, send a private message to the admin and alert them to the situation.