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Dec 2011

The eBay shop: win or fail?

Posted in Business tactics | 2 Comments »

So, if you toddle off down Soho’s fashionable Dean Street in central London in the next several days, you’ll pass a shop that you probably never thought you’d see in real life. An eBay shop. No, really. It has second-hand stuff in it, and you pay using your smartphone. There are weird ideas, and then there’s this. And I think it’s pretty original.

“But I don’t have a smartphone!” you cry. No problem – HTC have provided the shop with tablet computers for you to use.

“But I don’t have an eBay/Paypal account!” Why? What century are you living in? I’ll admit there’s always going to be people who feel a little unsure about Paypal, but realistically one could argue they’re a damn sight more open to helping you than your bank is.

“But I don’t want second hand stuff!” Then don’t worry. There are plenty of shops with new things in. But if you’re looking for a great deal on something you might not be able to find new, then this is a good idea.

It’s not often I go all voluntarily gung-ho on promoting an idea that’s not mine, especially a corporate one, but I really like this – I walk in, use my phone, pick up my item, and walk out. There’s no messing around, I operate my own till, and I can finally see the eBay auction in person, which, if you buy expensive stuff from the online auction house, is pretty important.

But it proves that a great business on the internet is fully capable of actually making the 2011 transition in reverse – moving from the digital to the physical space. It’ll be interesting to see how this would work on a larger scale – if professional eBay sellers would “rent space” within the shop, or whether or not they’d remain on the high-street or aim for an IKEA-sized warehouse.

But is it worth it? One of the main reasons people like eBay is because of the sheer range of rare and cut-price goods to be found there, and all without leaving your house, or worse, actually visiting a flea market. Or even a shop. The horror.

It’s an idea that’s going to have to be test-run several times – this is by no means the first eBay shop in the UK, and this one only runs till the sixth of December (future people, it’s 2011 at the time of writing, so don’t send me hate mail if it’s not there just before the Mayan-predicted apocalypse next year). But if it goes well, we may just see a whole lot more of them. I’m totally up for it – what are your thoughts?

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Mar 2011

Has eBay given up on being eBay?

Posted in Business tactics | 0 Comments

Two-point-four billion dollars. The highest purchase eBay’s ever made, and now GSI Commerce is theirs, they’ve got access to a mind-numbing amount of brands, in an ongoing attempt to transform themselves from the site that’s sold everything from your old wardrobe to one person’s virginity and someone else’s blackness, to something more similar to Amazon.

Sadly, it’s not going to work. If you found yourself on the principles of an open market, an auction house that allows anyone to sell almost anything, and find success beyond your wildest dreams, you have one main advantage: your service tends to make Amazon’s Marketplace look fairly bad.

A crisis meeting may have been called. Evidence that Amazon Marketplace is, in fact, very reliable, was probably shown to company directors. And of course, most eBay users do not log on to buy anything from eBay itself.

In their new direction, I think this may be what eBay are missing – they are not an online shop to most people. They are the site where people sell their stuff, nothing but a middle-man. To start selling products out of their own garage is going to throw people, slightly. I’ve seen their brand pages, and even after getting over my aversion to eBay a wee while back (my old argument being it’s being run by anonymous users with infinitely less accountability than corporations – incorrect, I know), I wouldn’t touch them with a tent pole.

It’s worth asking what makes me feel that way, and I guess the answer would simply be that they’re not a company I buy things from, just a site I use to buy things from random people around the world. I’d stick with that angle, because no one’s ever going to out-do them.

Competing with Amazon, even if you’re just as big, if not even bigger, is a fairly silly idea. As is Microsoft’s attempt to rival Google’s eponymous engine with Bing. It begs the question of why, exactly, companies this large haven’t yet realised that they are their own brand. Amazon is “buy new stuff, at a shop on the web.” eBay is “bid on auctions”. They all have their unique angles, and bar Apple and Google, no one’s done that well by attempting to branch out.

Arguably, the range of brands is impressive, with GSI Commerce having deals with everyone from Ralph Lauren to Hewlett-Packard. The problem this raises is that sellers are now going to need to slash their prices.

It’s a buyer’s market – if I know eBay’s doing a Ralph Lauren polo for £80, I can guarantee someone’s selling it, with postage costs included, for £75. It looks like a bizarre eventuality, of eBay competing in a price-war with its own users. Then again, if it wasn’t going well, it wouldn’t be expanding, so we’ll wait and see.

Still getting my new stuff from sellers and Amazon, though. For now.

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Dec 2010

Are businesses losing out by not selling through eBay?

Posted in Business tactics | 0 Comments

As Christmas approaches, we’re all on the prowl for the perfect gift. Wishlists are made and given, shopping becomes frantic or triumphant, and placing orders feels like digital victory. But for a long time, I’ve avoided one source of Christmas presents that I don’t think I will, next year – eBay.

When it was still on the rise – it was an odd, ephemeral place, full of random people selling second-hand stereos and drinks cabinets for prices that started small and worked themselves up into heights of financial desperation usually known only to those frequenting back-alley bookies. For a long time, I saw it as dodgy, and it’s taken me years to get over that. The irony of trusting gigantic multinational corporations over normal, everyday individuals is a little silly, I’ll admit, but my logic seemed sound at the time – real people don’t want to deal with refunds or unhappy customers. They usually are the unhappy customers who want refunds.

Nowadays, I think it’s amazing. Anything I might need, from headphone spares to modelling and hobbyist equipment and it’s there in front of me in moments, sold by people who’ve sold it to two thousand other people. Now I compare that to a local hobby shop or a HMV who either don’t stock them or have only ever sold ten, or none, and who’s more likely to be able to help me should something go wrong?

I can’t help but wonder – if you’ve got a seller’s account on eBay, the small investment per month nets you an insane amount of auctions at once, an interface, a communication tool and a public rating system that’ll work better than any word-of-mouth you’ll see on the web. It’s a perfect medium for selling niche goods, and small businesses tend to specialise in these if they’ve not ballooned out into something huge within a few years, or so I’d hope – it’s certainly the safe option.

But recently, the small business has been messed with a little by eBay, and it’s due to their new ranking system. Only last month, a then-anonymous person wrote into AuctionBytes to talk about “The Game of Ebay Monopoly”. In their letter, they stated that small sellers who’d worked up their rankings to the point they could quit their day jobs were suffering because of power-sellers who had the same rating as they did, just more of it.

In the old system, if seller A and seller B had the same ratings, their products would appear together. Now, however, it seems that if A has 29o 100% positive ratings, and B has 290 thousand, their products will hit the first page, and yours won’t hit the tenth. This seems a tad unfair, and reminds me uncomfortably of Google’s rather broken rating system. However, if there’s a technique to help sellers even the odds, then this should assist small businesses in gaining back their pole position.

But how can you train a system that relies on only one statistic? Engineering feedback is a no-no and plain dishonest. But buying ad placement, getting involved with the community and finding niche markets for small goods (one guy has a virtual monopoly on acrylic modelling paint, and his feedback’s into the five digits. Where’s he run it from? His house, probably!) can hopefully turn the tables on a system that sadly may not work quite the same.

But the advantage? None of the big boys (or girls) have moved in yet. Take your time, build up your reputation, because when large brands arrive on eBay, and some of them inevitably will (Zavvi, for example), they’ll have to work for a decent rating, something that for once, you’ll already have. So get selling, and don’t forget that picture frame! Auction ends in two hours!

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Nov 2010

Are company websites still worth the effort?

Posted in Business tactics, Web 2.0 | 0 Comments

Co-Founder of Alltop Guy Kawasaki made some pretty incredible insights into the advantages of not bothering with a company website recently. Instead, he pitched an idea I can only describe as genius to you, even if it does feel like a bit of a double-edged blade: make your company website on Facebook instead. It may seem like a mad idea, but think about the sheer volume of advantages and freedom it brings, not to mention the fact you’ve got one of the biggest companies in the history of Web 2.0 doing all the major maintenance jobs.

It’s tempting to design a slick website that requires constant administration, troubleshooting and above all, tons of cash to pay the designers, but is it really going to benefit you any more than something that’s instantly more accessible, easier to find, update and customise, and links you to your customers on an unrivalled personal level? Imagine being able to send people messages to their Facebook inboxes. It’ll come up with the rest of their personal social media experience, and suddenly you can market products and services by going under their guard.

Of course, there are other, more obvious and slightly less driven reasons for wanting to get a Facebook group set up as a replacement for the dinosaur that was your 1992 display of top-of-the-line HTML coding, neon pinks and blues sitting alongside ASCII profile pictures of your CEO and his board of directors. One of them is that Facebook, as a whole and definitely in comparison to the thousands of business websites I’ve seen in my lifetime, looks pretty damn nifty. Those subtle blues, the nice font, the great layout and the integreation of the “like” button means worrying about which widgets to put in your sidebar suddenly becomes a secondary concern.

Of course, as Jon wisely pointed out to me as we discussed this idea, it’s not just Facebook that’s convincing people to give up the idea of personal websites – eBay power sellers have been doing this for longer than Facebook’s been the Next Big Thing, I’d wager. Your own store, listing on a huge database, and of course, a feedback system and a community that means once your reputation is soaring, it rarely comes back down. If you can make a living from eBay, more power to you – some of the most trustworthy online transactions I’ve ever made outside of Amazon have been on that site. I used to view it as dodgy, as a kid – too many random people and it was still quite young in the late ’90s/early ’00s – but now I think it’s the best thing since, well, since before eBay.

Amazon Marketplace also use a similar system, and of course you’re forgetting the growing popularity of websites like, which allows plumbers, builders, electricians and the like to post their skills online, get rated, and apply for a seemingly endless amount of jobs being posted onto the site by people who don’t want to flood their new bathroom. It’s a genius system, because you’ve got the reliability of a community rating system from a consumer perspective, and of course, the infinite amount of freelance work from a tradesperson’s perspective. Win-win, right?

If I had the time, I’d set up an eBay shop. It’s a fantastic way to make money, and my few Marketplace selling experiences have shown me that people are remarkably quick to buy something if you’re selling at honest prices. Whether you’re offering an extension built in ten days for ten grand, or you’re a large company offering financial advice, consider that some people might take more quickly to you if you’re hanging around their Facebook homepage rather than drifting through the sea of endless Google-SERP clones of what you’re offering the consumer.

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