eBay and the CEF

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 |  Includes: AMZN, EBAY
by: Scot Wingo
This is Episode 3A in a 4 part series. Here is the outline for the series:
Episode I - Q408 in-depth analysis - available here with Q+A covered in an addendum (IA) (link)
Episode II - Introducing the ChannelAdvisor Ecommerce Framework (CEF) (link)
Episode III - eBay, Amazon and the CEF (you are here - I have split it into to parts A (eBay) and B (Amazon) )
Episode IV - How to fix eBay (coming soon)
It is strongly encouraged that you read them in order as they assume the reader has been following along as they build on each other.
In the last episode we took a break from anything specifically dealing with eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) to look at a general framework for evaluating any e-commerce site. We looked at a couple of interesting examples - Zappos that focuses on selection and ease of use and Ideeli which focuses on value at the exclusion of selection.
In this episode, we'll use that framework to evaluate what's going on at eBay and Amazon to cause the near 50% growth rate benefit Amazon is enjoying over eBay. Finally, in the next and final episode, we'll look at some suggestions for eBay to get back into the fight.
The CEF looks at e-commerce through five pillars:
1. Selection
2. Value
3. Ease of use
4. Trust
5. Merchandising
eBay and the CEF
One of eBay's biggest challenges to this day is that they do not think like a retailer. In other words, they don't look at elements like the CEF as a retailer would. In the early days when competition was slow to move, this didn't matter, but today it clearly does as the challenges the company faces illustrate. That being said, in eBay's Q408 presentation to shareholders, they offered the following slide that shows they are starting to catch on, but as we'll illustrate later they are substantially missing the mark on each of these.
Episode3_img1
We'll reference this graphic a good bit in the CEF review of eBay and it shows a very interesting window into how eBay is thinking and the challenges they will continue to face with that mindset.

1. Selection - Declining since 2006

In February 2006, eBay made the fateful decision, seemingly without any forethought, analysis or testing, to introduce what is commonly known as SIF in core. They took Store Inventory Format (SIF or store listings as we call them) and put them right into the core search engine. Thus, a seller paying $2 for an auction listing had the same exposure as a seller that paid back in that time .05 or less for a store listing. You can imagine what happened - sellers left the auction format and bulked up on store listings. By March, eBay turned this off, but they had started in motion a severe debalancing of the marketplace that their subsequent actions to rectify actually amplified to the downside as far as selection is involved.
It's my belief that the SIF in core event, even today, has dramatically lowered the selection on eBay to the point that the site is no longer competitive. As we'll explore in the next episode, subsequent policies (such as the DSR system) rolled out in 2008 have accelerated the decline as an unintended consequence.
Prior to 2/06, the eBay marketplace was 'working' pretty well. Prices on auctions were a little on the high side, but manageable and the balance between auction listings (high insertion, lower fvf and store/fp listings - low insertion, higher fvf) was beneficial to buyers. If you were looking for something commonly available (iPod), you found a LOT of options to buy at different value/service points. If you were looking for something 'long-tail' (a "Back to the Future II" DVD), you found that too as sellers were able to list literally millions of items in the $.02 range.
Media sellers are a group I'm very familiar with and I believe they are eBay's canary in the coal mine primarily for selection, but also for value and other elements. Most media sellers operate in a long-tail world where selection is king to drive margins and repeat business. Since 2006 and the subsequent hikes in the store listing format, media sellers have been leaving the platform at an alarming rate and thus taking millions of items with them.
Where did they go? Many have a happy new home at Amazon, but just as many have setup shop online and are doing very well with their own websites, leveraged with smart SEO, comparison shopping and search.
Here you have a category that with a < $20 ASP should be a slam-dunk for eBay, that is in shambles. This category is essential because it is the single best way to activate a new buyer on a 'safe' transaction. After dabbling in media, buyer s then move on to higher ticket items once they get the feel of eBay.
If sellers can't survive and thrive in that category, then sellers in categories like shoes, auto parts, etc. will go down the same path, not far behind media sellers.

One last concerning trend I've noticed on selection is due to the unintended impact on cross border trade (CBT in eBay-speak) that the DSR (detailed seller rating) system has caused. The short version of the story is that in order for sellers to maintain their DSRs, many sellers have stopped selling internationally. Personally, I've always found interesting, hard to find items from international sellers. That inventory is now noticeably gone from the US site and folks in the UK report the same. The DSR impact on CBT is another contributor to the decline in selection.

Since 2006, I have been saying that eBay has chopped off their long tail, and I believe that is still the case, and if anything, it is worsening.

Listings are not selection

Before putting eBay through the rest of the CEF framework, I wanted to make an important distinction. If you look back at the Q408 graphic, you will see that counter to what I'm saying here, eBay believes selection is dramatically increasing (first chart on the left - 'new listings in millions'.) In the chart you see the listings on eBay go from 550m to over 750m. eBay is totally off on this metric as each popular or relatively common product on eBay has been flooded with listings since the 2008 price changes, yet the long tail is not flushing out as it was prior to 2006. Here's a great example - as I write this there are 4506 Nintendo Wii systems available on eBay. so that is a 5000:1 listing:sku ratio. This is an extreme example, but if you take the 750m listings, if they all had that ratio, you would be 150,000 actual products. Also, on eBay there is no facility for listing products with size and color differences together. Thus a shoe or shirt SKU on any other e-commerce site that would be 1 sku mushrooms into as many as 50-75 'listings'.
Why doesn't eBay report on the number of products or SKUs available? Well I don't think they a) think that way and b) even know. I can guarantee you Amazon knows exactly how many SKUs are available on any given day, in every category.

2. Value - declining

Since 2006, eBay has raised fees considerably, sellers have reflected the fees in their product prices and thus value on eBay has declined as item prices have increased. Also as other channels have opened for sellers, sellers have realized that eBay is one of their most expensive channels and have started to raise prices accordingly.
In 2008, this has gotten even worse as eBay has become obsessed with free shipping. Certainly free shipping seems like it would decrease the price of goods and thus increase the value of goods on the site, right? Here's where unintended consequences have hit eBay again. Let me illustrate with an example.
Let's say it's 2007 and you have an item that is $50 and your cost on shipping is $5. You may mark up the shipping for a little margin - maybe it becomes $8 - total price $58. Your margin is let's say $5 on the core price and $1 on the shipping for a total of $6. Your eBay fees for this item (assuming 100% sell) is $3.07 for FVF plus $1 for insertion or $4.07.
Now it's 2008. eBay 'turns' the search engine, DSRs and other 'dials' to 'advantage' you to have free shipping or not sell anything as you are either a) invisible to shoppers or b) kicked off the site or c) both a+b.
So you implement free shipping, but want to keep your margin of $6. You can't price the item at $58 because now your eBay fees go up as they effectively include S+H. Now your eBay fees are $2 for insertion and $3.35 for FVF or $5.35 vs. the $4.07 you paid before the wonders of free shipping. At this point, you may be saying, "Scot this doesn't matter, it's $1.28 - so what?" well, this is effectively a 31.4% fee increase to the seller. Here's where it hits the value pillar of the CEF. As a seller you want to keep your $6 margin, so you raise your price $1.28 right? Nope, you can't because everything you add to the price, eBay takes their FVF of at about a 10% clip, so to get to the $6 point, you have to 'gross up' to more like the $60 mark.
Now your eBay fees have gone up 31%, your price has gone up effectively 3.5%, and in today's competitive market that will chop your conversions dramatically.
My point is many of these policies make sense on the surface, but if you scratch just a little bit below you will see that they negatively impact things like value on the site.
The bottom line is that today in early 2009 as eBay faces unprecedented competition, I believe most of eBay's prices are a good 5-10% higher than anywhere on the internet due to their near obsessive push into free shipping (passing the cost to the seller, who passes to the buyer) as well as due to the very high direct and indirect costs for selling on the site. Several stock analysts have
If you look back at the first graphic, you'll see that eBay defines value as the '% of listings with free shipping'. This is really scary as not only does it have little to no relevance to value (prices), the metric has gone from 5% to 25% - or a 5X increase on free shipping, which I believe is actually a negative that implies there is a 5X growth in overpriced products on the site. A 'real' value metric would be 'SKus we have the lowest price on'. Like selection, this is a metric I don't think eBay understands or tracks appropriately.

3. Ease of use - declining

I could spend pages and pages talking about how eBay continues to be too hard to use. Many of the changes made of the last year have intended to improve the ease of use, but similar to DSR, free shipping, etc. have actually made things worse. Anyone who has shopped at eBay is pretty familiar with how hard the site is to use, so here is a brief summary along the different subsystems we introduced with the CEF.
  • On-site search (eBay calls it Finding) - In the last year, eBay has rolled out Finding 2.0 with BestMatch that is pretty universally considered a step back. BestMatch now mixes auction and fixed price listings into a hodge podge of items that makes it hard to find things. Additionally, eBay has started putting copious sponsored listings above the search page navigation as shown here.


Episode3_search1

In the above example, I did a search for golf clubs, and here you see five very large and highly relevant sponsored listings for timeshares, the Thunder Gun, an mp3 player, some foreclosed real estate and last but not least the Cellerciser. After these value-add advertisements, I can then scroll waaaaay down and figure out how to get to page 2 of my golf clubs. How many people do you think have the patience to go to page 2?

Finding 2's implementation of featured also 'locks' featured items on the screen, so even if you select 'show me the products from most to least expensive, you get some really messed up results like this:

Episode3_search2

Notice how the prices go down from $5k to $40, and then back up to $100k right after the $40. Can you imagine using a search engine like google and having it not show you the results in the order you asked for?

I could go on and on here, but you get the picture - eBay's finding system is very very broken right now and is going backwards instead of forewords. Ok, one more. Let's say you ask eBay to sort things by "Least to most expensive." and the 'store discoverability' kicks in where they show you store listings after core. The store listings flip to be most to least expensive. Here's an example:

Episode3_search3

In the above undoctored screen shot, as a buyer, I specifically wanted to see lowest to highest, which eBay does for core, then when the store listings come up, it inverts to highest to lowest or maybe it's BestMatch - heck I can't even tell it's so chaotic.

  • Cart - eBay unfortunately doesn't have a cart. eBay Express had a good start on a multi-seller cart that I think was a good direction, but eBay put a bullet in that.
  • Checkout system - One of the downsides of Paypal and its virtual monopoly on eBay is in order to buy anything on eBay, buyers effectively have to double register - once for eBay and once for Paypal. If you don't remember how challenging and confusing this is, you should try it as a new buyer sometime. Can you imagine going to retailerX.com and having to register once to buy something and then a second time to pay?

eBay's checkout system is so limited that most large sellers can not grow due to its restrictions and thus third parties such as ChannelAdvisor augment the checkout by an open platform (this is actually smart and eBay needs to do more of this as it allows third parties to innovate around the platform) called checkout redirect.

  • Order tracking - eBay has an exclusive deal with UPS and thus only UPS items can be tracked 'on-site'. Thus most sellers avoid this system and implement their own order tracking outside of eBay.
  • Returns processing - eBay just asks that seller list a return policy and does not provide any common area or process for buyers to process returns. Both eBay and Paypal do have various systems for disputing a transaction which are complex for both the buyer and seller.

4. Trust - eBay - declining

In 2008, eBay implemented the much maligned DSR system along with several major changes to the rickety feedback system. I've been very vocal on the DSR system's numerous flaws, so won't go into it in detail here. Suffice it to say that the DSR system is driving sellers to free shipping which destroys the value part of the CEF equation on eBay
  • Increasing the customer support costs on eBay which were already higher than anywhere else
  • Driving lots of great sellers out of business
  • Slightly increasing the quality of sellers.
I'll offer an alternative to both DSRs and the trust issue in the next episode, but basically DSRs have caused much more harm than good and eBay still hasn't addressed the basic trust issues.


The first figure shows that eBay has gone from 5% of GMV from 4.8+ sellers to today's 30%. The bulk of the sellers that achieve that level of DSRs will have had to turn off CBT as well as implement free shipping, thus while eBay may have improved the trust some, they have done it at the expense of two very important pillars of the CEF (value and selection).

Here's a summary of trust problems on eBay:
  • It's hard to understand if you are a buyer, how and how much are you protect. The protection comes from Paypal, what's that mean when you buy on eBay?
  • Who do you call if you've been ripped off?
  • Which emails from eBay are valid, which ones are phishing (yellow button)
  • eBay allows anyone to register and re-register - thus bad buyers AND sellers are never really kicked off the site
  • eBay to this day has the worst password authentication, testing and resetting of any site dealing with money that I'm familiar with. Yes, you can have your userID as your password. Thus account takeovers on the site are still rampant.
In the CEF episode, we talked about other indirect elements that can erode trust. I believe that eBay's trust problem is contributed to by irrelevant advertising, too much emailing and shenanigans that sellers employ within the grey areas of the site.

In conclusion, eBay still has a huge trust problem and isn't moving fast enough to fix it. In fact many of the changes they are making in this area have negative unintended consequences. Buyers are confused about the relationship of eBay/Paypal and how it relates to trust as well.

5. Merchandising - eBay - has never left the starting blocks

eBay knows a lot about its users - what they search, buy, etc., but for some unknown reason, eBay has never been able to leverage that data to do effective merchandising. eBay's merchandising is so off the mark that it's probably best if it was turned off IMO.
Here are some (painful) examples. In my personal eBay account, I largely buy star wars collectibles. Whenever I login, eBay forces me through a 'message from eBay' with their first merchandising, illustrated here:

Episode3_merch1

It's odd enough that they push me through this 1990's style interstitial page, but I've found the items that are recommended here are never, ever relevant to anything I am either looking for or have ever purchased.

Now as I go to the homepage, I am presented with these sections:
  • Cool stuff for you - seemingly random, I have no interest in these items.
  • My ebay at a glance - this is the only thing useful here, but it's stuff I've added to my watch list, so eBay isn't really predicting what I want, I've already told it.
  • Want great buys? - doesn't seem relevant to anything I've ever bought or searched
  • More fun finds - also not relevant or helpful
  • Shop your favorite categories - a long list of categories that doesn't seem to be organized for me at all.
  • From our sellers - this is always the best to look at, there is the wackiest, most random stuff you will ever find here.
Here are examples from the site today of some of these sections:
Episode3_merch5
Episode3_merch4

Bottom line - here's a site where I have 300+ transactions and the best they can do is show me stuff i've added to my watch list that is relevant. eBay clearly isn't thinking about how to put relevant products in front of me based on my purchase history and based on the advertising, my search terms either.

Conclusion

The CEF has given us a framework for evaluating ecommerce sites and also helps illustrate the areas eBay is losing ground in as the rest of the ecommerce world moves forward. If eBay is the laggard in the market, then Amazon is the clear leader. In the next post (3B), we'll see how they do in each of the five categories.
Disclosure: Author is long Google and Amazon.