How eBay is ruining itself

A thread on one of the train forums I frequent mentioned today that the number of listings for Marx trains on eBay is down about 50% over what it was a year or so ago. Not only that, the listings are by and large the common, less interesting stuff.

Meanwhile, a debate rages on another forum I read sometimes, frequented by eBay sellers. On one side are the eBay apologists, saying they’ll just change as eBay changes. On the other side, people struggling to make a profit in the ever-changing environment are finding other venues to sell their wares and finding themselves a lot happier.The problem is that eBay is trying to create a sterile, retail experience. The big shareholders and the executives seem to think that’s what the consumer wants.

Another seller’s theory is that the people who sell brand new merchandise in huge quantities are less troublesome, causing fewer headaches for eBay and for the customers.

The eBay business books I’ve read talk a lot about people who drop-ship pool tables and other merchandise in large quantities, never touching any of it, and supposedly becoming millionaires by doing it.

But the people who put eBay on the map are the people like the ones I see every Saturday morning. They study classified ads the way a devout monk would study Scripture, looking for clues and carefully plotting out their routes. They get up before dawn and drive to their carefully chosen site. Their prey: The estate sale. They line up in the driveway hours before the sale opens, like bargain hunters the day after Thanksgiving. When the sale finally opens, shoppers come in, 10, 20, or 50 at a time, depending on the size of the house, while those who arrived later wait their turn. Any time someone leaves, those in the driveway gawk, trying to see what he or she purchased.

It doesn’t matter what item you can name, I know someone who goes out every Saturday looking for it. Some of these people are collectors, but some of them hawk their finds on eBay. They buy on Saturday and Sunday, then they spend hours the following week figuring out what exactly they have, carefully photographing and describing each item, then listing it, hoping to attract bidders.

The typical eBay addict doesn’t go there to buy a pool table, or the kind of things they sell at a suburban mall. Certainly there are people who buy those sorts of things on eBay. But those tend to be occasional shoppers. The biggest eBay addicts are the fanatics–the serious collectors who spend hours every day scouring new eBay listings, looking for items they don’t have in their collections.

And guess what? These collectors don’t buy from drop-shippers who duplicate the retail experience. The drop-shippers can’t get those kinds of collectibles. It’s the people who get up at 5 a.m. each Saturday to be first in line to prowl around in someone’s attic or basement who get that stuff.

The problem is that the people who do get that stuff have a difficult time becoming (and remaining) Powersellers. A Powerseller has to sell 100 items or $1,000 worth of inventory per month. If I wanted to sell vintage trains on eBay, there’s no way I could locate 1,200 items each year. Not in St. Louis. The $1,000 mark wouldn’t be much easier to hit.

So eBay is driving away that kind of seller. And as a result, eBay is going to lose that type of buyer as well.

I know for a fact there are plenty of collectors in Europe and elsewhere who are eager to take advantage of the low value of the dollar and buy a bunch of collectible American trains at bargain prices due to the exchange rate. Unfortunately the timing is horrible. The new eBay policies have driven away a lot of the people who sell the best items. So the foreigners with money to spend end up spending a lot less than they would like. Sure, they’ll buy the $10 items that are listed, but they’d really rather buy the $100 and $1,000 items that were listed last year but are conspicuously absent today.

Ten years ago, eBay was flying high. They weren’t the first online auction, but they were the most successful, precisely because they allowed ordinary people to sell ordinary (and extraordinary) things. I bought a number of things from online auctions in the mid 1990s, including the Lexmark 4039 laser printer I still use every day. I don’t remember now the name of the auction house where I bought it. I do know it went out of business shortly after eBay became widely known.

Lots of other companies wanted in on the action. Amazon, Yahoo, and others launched auction sites that looked and acted a lot like eBay. But they never went anywhere. The best sellers put their best stuff on eBay. The wannabes tended to just have second-rate stuff sold by second-rate sellers. Case point: I once tried to buy a lot of vintage train magazines from an Amazon auction. I won, paid my money, and waited. And waited. A week later I e-mailed the seller. No response. Finally after another week he responded, saying he’d been having computer trouble and asking if I still wanted the magazines. Well, since he offered me the refund, I took it. I spent the money on eBay instead.

Yahoo auctions are gone, closed about a year ago. If Amazon’s auctions are still open, they’re sure doing a good job of hiding them.

If another company wants to get a piece of eBay’s business, the time is right. There are lots of refugee eBay sellers looking for someplace a little cheaper, with a little more stable set of rules where they can sell. And if a large enough group of them take up shop somewhere, there are plenty of buyers more than willing to follow them there.

It may not happen this year. But I do think it’s only a matter of time.

%d bloggers like this:
WordPress Appliance - Powered by TurnKey Linux