Longtime eBay users feeling used, abused betrayed
By Brian Bergstein
SAN JOSE, Calif. Twelve eBay users from around the country were at the Internet auction site's headquarters recently, giving company executives pieces of their minds: Customer service is lousy. The search engine is weak. Pop-up ads are deplorable.
Meg Whitman, eBay's CEO, poses with Pez candy dispensers during a photo session for a business-magazine cover. Less than a year into her arrival at the company, Whitman faces an increasingly dissatisfied customer base.
Michael Benson, a baseball-card collector from St. Louis, added his complaint: "eBay is going with the big sellers over the little sellers." Murmurs of assent could be heard around the table. "You've got to get back to mom and pop sellers," nodded Judy Tomlin of Mecosta, Mich.
That complaint is not new, but it is becoming increasingly common among longtime eBay users. Many say eBay, committed to growth, is giving big companies an unfair advantage by prominently featuring their brand-name wares, creating tough competition for the millions of regular folks who made eBay huge.
"It's so infuriating to see the stock continually rise and know that it's happening because the little guy is taking it in the shins," said collectibles seller Tricia Spencer of Riverside, Calif., who was not among the 12 users invited to headquarters. "It's like a kingdom where the serfs have done all the work and the king eats hale and hearty while the serfs starve."
EBay executives say the charge is unfounded. But they acknowledge that after eBay's astonishing rise in recent years, it is more difficult than ever to stay connected to its treasured "community" the hobbyists and small businesses that trade everything from AstroTurf to zithers, and dole out "feedback points" that reflect their online reputations.
"Our communication, frankly, to the community is broken," Bill Cobb, eBay's director of marketing, told the group of 12 at eBay's most recent "Voice of the Customer" session. "We have to figure out a better way."
EBay hopes relations get a big boost from its first three-day "community celebration," called eBay Live, beginning Friday in Anaheim. More than 3,000 users are expected to mingle with company managers, trade advice on how to buy and sell things in more cost-effective ways, hear a speech by CEO Meg Whitman and attend an awards ceremony.
Founded in 1995, eBay is by far the world's top Internet auction site, with nearly 50 million registered users and sites in 27 countries.
It long ago shed its roots as an online flea market. With big companies such as Dell and IBM now unloading goods on eBay, the site is more like a giant mall with a flea market and a used-car dealership in the parking lot.
To attract even more corporate sellers, eBay and consultancy Accenture plan to launch a service to facilitate auctions for companies with discontinued or out-of-season merchandise.
Executives say such deals are essential for eBay's long-term financial growth, which will come largely by expanding its slim market share in major consumer categories. More brand-name products will bring new buyers, which ultimately helps big and small sellers, they say.
They also point out that eBay charges all sellers the same listing and commission fees. And they say 96 percent of the $13 billion in merchandise that will be sold on eBay this year is from small and medium-sized businesses.
Even so, many sellers say they are feeling pinched by increased competition while the listing and commission fees they pay to eBay have only gone up.
Prices of collectibles on eBay dropped 11 percent in May from last year and 25 percent from 2000, according to AuctionBytes.com, which tracks Internet trading. Perhaps more telling, collectibles' average "sell-through rate" the percentage of listed items that sold was 55 percent last month, down from 72 percent in 2000.
"The traffic to my auctions has slowed to almost half since the influx of discounters and wholesalers into the categories," said Mischelle Martin of Los Angeles, who sells women's clothing on eBay.
Brian Burke, eBay's senior manager of community development, argues that such developments are a natural part of eBay's marketplace system.
"We haven't eliminated competition by putting it online," he said. "We've probably actually enhanced competition."
Promoting that benign image hasn't been easy. Adding to the perception that eBay is unresponsive: On its online message boards, many community questions are answered not by real eBay staff but by fellow members or with canned, automatically generated replies.
"If you ever have a question regarding costs or your invoice, try to find some help from a real person," said Doug Duguay, who sells cycling clothes on eBay from Portland, Ore. "It's very difficult."
EBay has tried to help users for years by offering "eBay University," a traveling series of seminars with buying and selling tips. The "Voice of the Customer" sessions began in 1999 and are staged every two months.
The meetings give eBay a chance to hear complaints, solicit opinions on new services under development and explain the rationale for contentious policies.
After taking part in the most recent session, Lance Shoeman of Canon City, Colo., said he was impressed by eBay's receptiveness but thinks it needs to work harder at community relations rather than merely "allowing a handful of people to bend their ear every now and then."