What has happened to eBay?

I haven’t sold anything on eBay in months. I haven’t purchased anything for weeks. I haven’t even bothered to browse the listings in quite some time. I still receive daily emails listing items from my saved searches, but I read them with low expectations. It’s so rare than anything of interest to me is listed that I don’t expect to find anything.

What happened? It wasn’t always this way. I’ve been buying and selling on eBay since the early days. At one time, I was shipping out 20-30 packages a week. It wasn’t unusual for several packages to be delivered to my door on a weekly basis. Once, there were so many packages the mail carrier had to deliver them over a period of two days because they wouldn’t all fit in her truck! At one time, I listed items weekly and browsed for treasures daily. Not anymore. I’ve quite lost my enthusiasm for eBay. I still love to collect. I’d still sell if there was profit to be made. Things have changed, however. What has happened to eBay?

The world of collecting is generally a friendly place. True, there is competition at auctions and mad dashes at yard sales, but generally collectors and dealers get along well with each other. We all share a love for collecting—even if we collect quite different things. eBay isn’t a little antique shop, however. It’s a big business. It’s more faceless corporation than friendly antique dealer. In all my years of dealing with eBay, I’ve never come to face to face with anyone who represents eBay. I don’t even recall a personal email. I receive form letters and automatic emails, but nothing with a personal touch. I could almost make myself believe eBay isn’t run by people at all, but by a super-computer somewhere that has developed its own consciousness like something out of a Terminator movie. I’m quite sure that isn’t the case, but there is not, and never has been a personal connection. It is the person connection with other collectors and dealers that makes collecting fun. True, I have had some pleasant email exchanges with buyers and sellers I conducted business with on eBay, but that’s not eBay—those are eBay’s other customers. The lack of a personal touch isn’t new. It’s been lacking since the very beginning. It simply becomes more obvious the longer I deal with eBay.

What has changed are the fees. Over the years, they’ve gone up and up. Occasionally, they go down a bit, but even then a decrease in one area is offset by an increase in another. The result is almost always more money out of my pocket. Sometimes, I feel as if I’m being nickel and dimed to death. Some such increases are expected, but there have been enough of them that I get a sense of greed. I’m left with the feeling that eBay really only cares about profit. That’s not the way of collectors and dealers. True, dealers care about profit, but they also care about their customers. I don’t get that feeling from eBay—perhaps others do, but if so I have yet to meet them.

One change I’ve noticed over the years is that professional dealers seem to have taken over eBay. This concerns other areas of eBay more than the antique and collecting areas, but I still find it frustrating. In the early days of eBay, people sold off their unwanted stuff and it was possible to pick up some good deals. It still is at times, but more and more I’m faced with prices that are equal to or higher than what I can find in most retail stores. To me, an auction that begins with a starting bid over retail isn’t an auction at all—it’s merely selling at full retail price. I don’t go on eBay to browse listings by professional sellers. I go to purchase from everyday people who are selling items they no longer want. I want to insert a disclaimer here. I have no problem at all with full-time antique dealers listing on eBay. Most of them set starting bids that are quite reasonable. Some even take a huge risk and start their items out for a song. Even when I pay what I consider full price for an antique I consider that I’m getting a good deal. Not so with many non-antique items on eBay.

Shipping is another problem with eBay, although to be fair it’s more the fault of the U.S. Postal System and individual sellers. I often refuse to bid on items due to exorbitant shipping costs. I’m sorry, but I’m not paying $3 to ship a postcard that could easily be mailed for under $1. I allow some expense for packing materials, but some sellers are just downright greedy. I’ve shipped a lot of packages in my time and I have a good feel for the costs. I often see shipping charges that are double and triple the actual cost. I quickly turn away from such sellers. If you’re not familiar with shipping costs do keep in mind that that fees charged by USPS are quite high. Don’t assume an eBay seller is charging too much. What seems high may be the actual cost to the seller. Do keep an eye out for those who overcharge, however. Unfortunately, their numbers seem to increase daily.

I see eBay in the press quite often and it’s usually linked to eBay’s failure to root out fakes. I belong to a Yahoo Group called ancientartifacts (which deals with the collecting of antiquities) and it’s amazing how many fakes are exposed there. What is truly frightening, however, is eBay’s refusal to eject sellers who consistently sell fakes. I know eBay can’t possible police its listings, but I’m left with the feeling that eBay cares far more for profit than protecting buyers. Perhaps fakes on eBay is a problem that eBay is trying to solve, but I’m still left with a rather bad impression.

Am I saying that collectors and dealers should avoid eBay? No. Am I saying it’s a bad place to buy and sell? No. What I am saying is that eBay has changed. It feels more like big business than the friendly local antique store. eBay has grown larger and larger over the years until it seems like a hulking cooperate giant. I don’t know if I’ll bother to sell on eBay again, but I know I’ll continue to buy there. My enthusiasm is much diminished, but there’s no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water. There are still a lot of good sellers on eBay. They’re just a little harder to find. Collectors do need to keep the phrase “Let the Buyer Beware” in mind, however.

Don’t depend on eBay to protect you. You must rely on yourself. Don’t assume that pieces listed as authentic are—even if the seller has good feedback. Don’t assume the shipping costs are reasonable. Do your homework. Protect yourself. There are good buys and even bargains to be found on eBay, but there are pitfalls, too. Being aware of them and watching out for them will make purchasing on eBay a more enjoyable and successful experience.

Mark A. Roeder is the author of two nationally syndicated columns on antiques: "Successful Antiques Collecting" and "Spotlight on Antiques &
Collectibles." His expertise comes not only from researching antiques, but from collecting, buying and selling them for more than three decades.