Changes at eBay leave sellers angry

When eBay CEO and president-elect John Donahoe stood before the gathered crowd at the company’s third annual e-Commerce forum in late January, most people knew that some kind of change was about to come.

In the wake of Meg Whitman stepping down after 10 years, and leaving the company with a contracting market share, Donahoe made no secrets about his plan to re-ignite the eBay brand and to take back what it sees as its rightful market share from competing online giants like Amazon and Google.

The changes, ostensibly, are aimed at making the customer experience better. The problem, as the sellers see it, is that by doing that, eBay is hobbling a seller’s right to weed out bad buyers and, ultimately, costing the core of its smaller dealers more money. Yes, eBay has lowered listing fees upfront, but the company has doubled by half the commission it takes on an item’s final listing value. For many sellers – more than the 40 percent the company says – this rejigging is a fee hike.

“Consumers have more choices than ever,” Donahoe told the conference, “and they expect more when they shop online today. We’re serious about making eBay easier and safer to shop.”

“We call it eBay math, it’s a different math than most other people’s math,” said Randy Smythe, from Southern California, who used to sell music and movies on eBay.

Under the old rules, for example, selling a purse at auction for $25 would have cost the seller $1.91, including 60 cents for listing the item plus eBay’s commission of $1.31. Under the new structure, the seller would pay $2.74, including 55 cents to list the item plus a higher commission of $2.19.

“Overall, eBay’s changes hit antiques dealers harder than commodity sellers,” wrote Ina Steiner in an email exchange with Antique Trader. Steiner runs the blog, which follows the world of digital auctions. “EBay is making it cheaper to list, but more expensive when an item does sell, and every antiques dealer knows there are problem buyers. Sellers tell us they will have virtually no leverage to deal with them because eBay is taking away their ability to leave neutral or negative feedback for buyers.”

Steiner also makes the point that – as far as antiques go – many buyers and sellers have already turned their attentions somewhere else.

“EBay believes this will make for a better buying experience, more listings and buyers who are not turned off by receiving negatives,” she wrote. “EBay also takes the risk that sellers will not only turn to other venues (like GoAntiques, TIAS and RubyLane), but that those sellers will also stop buying on eBay. It’s a high-risk gamble that is not being well received overall, by sellers.”

There is at least one online petition circling the Web asking Google to open an auction site, and more than one company has moved to hold sales not only in response to the changes, but in direct contradiction to them.

Bob Clements, one of the principal founders of British online auction site, is using his site to cater to one of its great strengths – vintage fashion – while pointing out the difference between what a private site can offer as compared with a corporate site like eBay.

SpecialistAuctions has planned a well publicized VBOE sale – or Vintage Blow Out Sale – just the same as eBay does quarterly. The sale targets dissatisfied eBay sellers and buyers with lower fees, a vetting process assured by an online moderator and an actual way to talk to a staffer if need be – something eBay has long-avoided and long taken criticism for.

The changes, said Clements, are felt even more keenly in England.

“People are very upset,” Clements said. “Here in the U.K. they don’t even have the benefit of the removal of the cost for gallery images. In America it’s 5 cents. In the U.K. it’s 30 cents.”

Much the same as here, said Clements, it’s the changes in the feedback system that is really bothering eBay sellers in England.

“Sellers will no longer be able to give buyers neutral or negative feedback,” he said, “but buyers will be able to give seller’s neutral or negative feedback. This is the new CEO coming into place and this is the first ruffle of the feathers.”

An eBay spokesperson was contacted for this story. Messages were not returned.

Whether or not eBay’s changes pay off and result in more consumer traffic – which would negate any argument – remains to be seen. It’s a journey that the World Wide Web, as well as the worldwide antiques business, will be watching closely.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.