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EBay, The Internet’s Wal-Mart

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July 13th 2000. My first eBay purchase. I remember I had decided to build my first computer around 8 years ago. I had just gotten married a few months before, had no kids, and could remember my 21st birthday as though it were the year before… because it was. Wow… I feel old.

The item was a CD-R drive; black to match the black computer case I bought. The seller was kind, saw that I was new, and walked me through the process of sending in a Money Order as PayPal was merely a year or two old at this point, and not owned by eBay, so I was wary. In any case, it was long ago enough that sellers expected money orders now and then.

Back then, sellers emailed you personally, they were kind, and for the most part, they packed their items nicely and were trustworthy. Sure, you had the handful of horror stories, most of which you could avoid by using common sense, but in my 8 years of buying and selling on eBay, I have yet to get "scammed". Sellers also left positive feedback when your money order arrived, before they even shipped the item.

Buyers were quite different back then too. It seemed that when a buyer won on eBay, they almost immediately emailed you, offering you a time when they could get the money to you, an address so you could prepare a label, and maybe a note about shipping methods, among other things. Buyers also paid on time, generally.

But two things, I feel, drew people to eBay: One, the rarity of the items available. Sure, eBay had pretty much anything you could find at a department store, but a Dukes of Hazard lunchbox isn’t something you find in the toy section of Toys R Us anymore. Two, the prices. It seemed that everything on eBay was at a low price. It may have been because people used eBay as their online garage sale. Few items were "Brand New!" but many were like new, and that was perfectly okay with me. I was looking for a deal, not a new item in most cases.

Today, the difference between eBay now and then is like the difference in a Sit ‘n Spin and an Astronaut Training Centrifuge. There are many Sellers who are "Career eBayers" on eBay now. Without a doubt there are some good ones. But I still cringe when I see a feedback score of 339,943. One thing you can count on with that much eBay activity: Zero customer service. In most cases, these are a one man operation. All emails are automated, shipping is typically slow, and the likelihood of them replying to an email is almost non-existent. They almost always rip you off on shipping bycharging twice, if not more, than the actual shipping costs, and rarely ship with reliable carriers like FedEx or UPS. The post office is cheap, so that’s how they ship.

Thanks to these career eBayers, and the emergence of thousands of books and infomercials touting an easy income with eBay, the eBay market is flooded with high shipping costs, and items you CAN find anywhere for the same price. It’s now quite common to see items selling, and even starting out, for more than retail price on eBay.
These sellers may have high feedback scores but not always "good" feedback. See, you can’t have 100% positive feedback when you screw people on shipping, never communicate and sell more than you can handle to ship. Yet, I assume people buy from these sellers because, well, their items sell.

So then, obviously, the eBay buyer has changed drastically, too. They are dumber, obviously. I mean, why would I buy a TomTom GPS unit that is priced at BestBuy for $300 for $309 plus $20 shipping on eBay? The obvious answer, I guess, would be that these people don’t live near a large town with such resources. Or, they have loads of money in their PayPal account, but none in their checking account. Well, if that’s the case, eBay purchases should be the last thing on your to-do list.

Buyers today also lie, frequently. They will create new eBay accounts, then bid on items they kind of want, then when they win they bail out with a lame excuse like, "I need another week to get the funds to you." This goes on for weeks until you finally just have to relist. This is why the smart sellers say, "Negative and zero feedback members, your bids will be canceled!"

These buyers also take ages to reply to an email. I am one of the few remaining eBay sellers who actually communicate personally with my buyers. I like to confirm PayPal addresses since people move and don’t think to change their PayPal account information. Getting these people to acknowledge your email is like pulling teeth. So I typically just wait a day or two for an answer, then ship it anyhow, with my fingers crossed.

But what bothers me the most about eBay buyers now is their inability to fully read or understand statements in auctions. I now put in bold, red letters at the top of my auctions "No warranty, no refund, no returns, and no guarantee! This is a used item!" yet I inevitably will have someone buy an item, then contact me a week or more later stating that it isn’t working and demand their money back. It is very rare that I will sell something that will end up breaking upon delivery. I am a good seller and proud of it, but things happen. This is why I state and stress to bidders that I have no warranty. Bidders are now spoiled to the point where they expect a warranty, and demand a refund if not fully satisfied. You can't go to a garage sale, buy something, and return it if not fully satisfied; so I don't get this line of thinking when it comes to eBay auctions.

One quick example; I sold a computer with no memory and no hard drive. This was stated in the title of the auction, and in the front line of the auction. I also stated it was not tested. A bidder won and later e-mailed me stating that the computer had no memory and no hard drive and expected their money back. Go figure.

All of this is why I call eBay the Wal-Mart of the Internet. Wal-Mart used to be a place where people assumed the prices were lower. And, at the time, they were. People really saved money. Today, I don’t see it. I go to Wal-Mart as seldom as possible, but when I do go, I get a kick out of comparing the food and other items’ prices to those that we buy elsewhere. If I see a difference at all, it is tiny. A penny or two at best. And honestly, Wal-Mart is the world’s largest bent-and-dent shop, only without the bent-and-dent price. But no worries because, just like eBay, Wal-Mart shoppers expect to be able to return anything for any reason for a full refund.

This seems to be an online trend, though. When Internet shopping first got big, Buy.com was the place to go. Prices were so utterly low you saw the future, and it didn’t have retail stores. And that may have been the idea; get people used to online shopping, then jack the price up. Now, Buy.com not only carries few, if any deals price-wise, and in my experience, their customer service is among the worst of online retailers.

EBay is great. I do love it; buying and selling. Lately, I have backed off due to the powers-that-be at eBay raising the prices, getting an earful from members, and then lowering prices. The flip-flopping I can do without. But I still enjoy shopping there and selling the occasional item to make a few extra bucks. Still, I think twice before buying from a PowerSeller with 9,000 feedback but only 92% of them positive. And I don’t think I will be paying $24.99 shipping on a 1.5 pound digital camera any time soon either.

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About Jamison BraIy

  • Another example of how eBay buyers are getting dumber.
    Look for gift cards on eBay.
    You will find a $50 gift card (as an example) to a famous resturant chain selling for over $50…


    Then the buyer has to pay shipping…

  • Bennett

    We too sell on eBay, but in a very narrow market. Our customers pay lightning quick, and we ship just as fast. Our emails are semi-personal at this point… No need to type the same words over and over again.

    There are still great people on eBay, and folks just might get lucky and do business with one of us.

    You made lots of good points in your article, eBay isn’t what it used to be. But if you want to buy what WE sell, it’s either eBay or direct from our web site.

    We use eBay as a way of advertising, and end up with most of our sales direct (and no ebay fees). In that way, eBay is a BIG advertising bargain.


  • You’re so right about eBay. Before, it had a community feel. Back in the day, I actually bought items and sometimes met the sellers to pick up my purchase. I’d be afraid to do that now. And you’re also right about the customer service. I bought something from a big eBay seller, and it took me six weeks before I received my item. It only came after I had emailed them many times and finally had to file a complaint. Now, I only buy or sell there as a last resort.

  • Bennett

    I must say that up here in Northern Vermont, it’s impossible to find clothing for our 2 year old boy. LOTS of cute dresses in the stores, but nothing for our lad.

    On eBay you find clothing for a tenth to a half of the price of the same items via retail (if it were available here).

    That works for us.

  • Hey Bennett you are so right.
    eBay is really good for clothes (for a pair of True Religion jeans for $80. Retail for $250.) and BOOKS! My wife and I love to read and I can get books for a penny (with $5 shipping of course).
    We just had a boy this year, and we have hardly bought a thread of clothes for him. We know so many people in town and we go to a large church, so EVERYONE is giving us clothes all the time 🙂
    But, yes, ebay is a great place to buy clothes. Bad place to sell them though for the same reason that it’s a great place to buy them.

  • Ebay is really an interesting cultural phenomena. As a former seller and random buyer, I now check things out and find that one thing that you can’t sell one month– wait a few and then it would sell for something a couple months later.
    I do find that you have to ask a lot of questions, People don’t read auction listings completely.
    It’s definitely about smart marketing to get your product sold. ACCURATE photos are a must and clear, concise descriptions are important.

  • we’ve been successfully selling on ebay for 9 years. we’re not rich, but we love what we do. No one likes change. If you are in any business and want to grow and make money you HAVE to constantly learn and adapt.

    If people are buying from you and not bothering to answer your emails then there is no excitement in what you are selling. or you aren’t targeting your product to the correct audience. the problem is not the buyer, it is the seller.

    For those who want to know how to sell on ebay, here are a couple of tips: two sales have to be made. one is to get enough visitors to your listing so that the odds are working in your favor. that is all about the title of the listing. you must test and then test and then test some more. try different wording. just like a newspaper ad, it has to catch peoples’ attention. use counters to see what heading works best. the 2nd sale is the actual wording of your listing. again test and test more.
    I look at listings and people just have no energy in what they are selling. they just state the facts and expect people to buy. you have to tell people how your product will benefit them. use testimonials. in other words ‘sell’. it’s not a dirty word. nothing happens until someone sells something. everything in your life has been sold one way or another. even your spouse(or you) had to be sold on the other.

    if people aren’t checking their mail box every day after you shipped your product and asking you when you shipped it then it’s time to sell something else. find a product that helps people solve a problem or something you are excited about.

    The opportunities are enormous, I wish you the best!