Tucsonans looking to buy gifts for the holiday season have an option to avoid cramped stores bustling with unruly shoppers.
The city is rolling out a long list of items to auction online to the highest bidder.
While the city maintains an ongoing auction on its citysurplus.org website year round, it ramps up for the Christmas shopping season by offering more, and higher quality, items, said the city’s Surplus Auction Materials Management Department superintendent, Roque Robles.
This holiday season the city will offer Rolexes, a Gibson Les Paul guitar, Louis Vuitton shoes, Coach purses, 24-carat gold-plated bars, bikes and myriad electronics from subwoofers and car stereos to Xbox 360s and home sound systems.
But the main feature will be an assortment of high-end jewelry Robles’ crew is preparing to post over the next few weeks.
“During the holiday season, we try to focus on specific items,” Robles said. “So we try to save them for” this time of year.
Most of the auctioned items come from unclaimed merchandise confiscated by the Tucson Police Department, with the rest comprised of city surplus equipment and unclaimed lost-and-found items.
“If you see a bust on TV, six months later it’s probably here,” Robles said.
State law requires that all unclaimed merchandise gets put up for sale.
Demetrio Fernandez, a city Surplus Auction Materials Management specialist, said that in the past, the department has received entire pallets of unopened boxes of diapers, hand soap and other household goods stolen from delivery trucks. Folks who bid on the auctions often save between 20 and 30 percent off retail price. But some have saved up to 90 percent.
“One guy bought a bike that was worth $10,000 for only $1,000,” Robles said.
Robles said many bidders come from Mexico and elsewhere looking for a good deal on items they can then resell for a profit.
Unclaimed-merchandise auctions bring in between $200,000 and $300,000 a year, Robles said.
But the auctions weren’t always as profitable. Before the online auction, the city would sort items into categories and store them on pallets until it was time to drag them out for the twice-a-year live auctions in April and October, said Jaime DeLoera, a Surplus Auction Materials Management supervisor. Back then, workers didn’t process items as they do today to determine what was valuable and what was junk.
“The mind-set was to just process it,” said DeLoera, a 17-year veteran with the city.
That meant bidders would gamble on mostly bulk purchases, never knowing if they got a good deal until after they had won and sorted through the merchandise.
“It was like bidding on a storage locker. You didn’t really know what you bought until you started going through it,” Robles said.
The city would net about $100,000 a year from the live auctions.
But that changed after Robles came on board in 2007.
“I came from the retail industry, where the focus was on making money,” Robles said.
Now, Robles’ crew researches and tests each item so bidders have a clear idea of what they’re buying and the city knows what it’s selling.
Defective items come with a disclaimer.
“We tell them the truth and let them make their own decision,” Robles said. “We don’t want to mislead the public.”
Even though their research may identify a recently arrived watch as an authentic Rolex, Robles said they still won’t place a minimum starting bid on an item even if it’s worth thousands.
“It’s proven we make more money when we don’t put” a starting bid on an item, Robles said.
The changes have paid off.
When combined with auctions for the city’s surplus heavy equipment, such as garbage trucks, Robles estimated auctions will bring about $2 million into city coffers this year.
Individual items are up for auction for seven days. Winning bidders have 14 days to claim their items.