Buyer vs. Seller Bias on eBay

The "bias" problem and what it means for eBay culture


“eBay has a pro-buyer bias.”
“eBay has a pro-seller bias.”


These statements can't both be true, but when I receive mail about eBay these days, it's as often as not from an angry eBay member repeating one of these statements to me almost verbatim.

Sellers, say many eBay buyers, run ever-more amok—providing increasingly poor service and posting listings with such volume and ambiguity that it becomes difficult to find what you want to buy—not to mention the fact that if you leave them negative feedback over a poor performance, they will simply “neg” back in retaliation.

Buyers, say many eBay sellers, are increasingly impossible to work with. They ignore the terms and descriptions in auction listings, fail to pay promptly using seller-approved methods, and maintain unreasonable expectations about service and item quality that are as strict as or more strict than the expectations they have about retail stores. Add to this the fact that they have an incredible amount of leverage over sellers, able to “neg” for almost any reason at all, deserved or not—a potentially bad blow for any seller.

Is it possible that both buyers and sellers are right? That both buyers and sellers are wrong? What is to be done about the state of affairs on eBay, given their pro-buyer (or is that pro-seller) bias?

Times Change and So Does eBay

One reason for the increase in apparent “bias,” whether you're an eBay buyer or seller imagining the worst about your eBay counterparts, is the growth that eBay has experienced in recent years.
Incredible growth has caused the eBay marketplace has simply become much, much bigger than it was only a few years ago, with well over 200 million users by 2007, nearly 100 million of these “active” in their eBay use. This increase is closely tied to a number of realities about eBay that simply can't be wished away:
  • Many people on eBay are new to eBay. In practical terms, this means two things. First, that there are a lot of people on eBay at any given time who don't quite know what the limits or typical practices of an online trading site like eBay are; they may have expectations that are unreasonable, or at the very least, that match those that they have about other types of buying or selling. Second, it means that older eBay members will continue to inevitably see eBay's culture “shift” as more and more new members join, bringing their expectations and techniques for buying or selling with them.

  • Listing and sales volume are increasing. No matter how great the rules and management of any commerce site like eBay are, an exponential rise in the number of items for sale at any given time is going to mean a similar rise in the number of complaints from buyers, as well as in the difficulty that prospective buyers have in using search tools to find that one item that they want to buy in an amazingly huge haystack of millions of eBay auctions.

  • eBay has to adapt its rules and processes. For a a wide variety of reasons, some related to managing network traffic and server resources, others related to law enforcement and an ever-more international market to go along with an ever-growing user base, eBay has to change with the times. More users means more potential for trouble—and thus more rules. It also means more computing and management overhead to cope with ever-increasing complexity—and thus more costs and a greater need for revenue to continue to function effectively.

  • eBay has to respond to its shareholders. With the amazing growth of eBay has also come its increasingly public nature. eBay is a publicly traded company and whatever else happens in the midst of this growth, it must respond to the needs its ever-more-diverse base of shareholders. No longer a company with a single goal, eBay's goals are now twofold: to provide the best possible trading platform for buyers and sellers, certainly, but also to maximize return for its shareholders, both in the short term and over the long term in an increasingly crowded e-commerce market.
    Together, these changes mean that conflicts between “buyer culture” and “seller culture” are simply bound to happen as times change and the eBay membership changes and increases along with them.

    If you're a longtime eBay buyer, it's true that there are more auction listings than ever before to wade through for any search. It's also true that there are many more “professional” sellers on eBay than there once were, and that many more items are now “international” and/or come with more complex payment or shipping terms. It's also true that the need to maintain strong feedback profiles leads many sellers—especially those that are much more interested in making money than in preserving any “old” eBay culture—to respond to negative feedback in kind and to adopt a more caveat emptor (“buyer beware”) attitude than the one to which many veteran eBay buyers are accustomed.

    If you're a longtime eBay seller, it's just as true that there are many more buyers than there used to be who will not read listing terms carefully—who will expect you to accept payment in ways that you can't, or to ship to places that you don't, or to find included in a shipment things that aren't. It's also true that many of them increasingly expect customer service of a sort that eBay sellers aren't traditionally accustomed to providing, including real warranty service, immediate shipment and immediate exchanges, phone access and instant communications, and even new-quality goods all the time, regardless of whether an auction listing says “AS-IS,” “used,” “refurbished,” or “new.” Finally, it's equally true that a growing reservoir of eBay buyers exist that will happily “neg” you before giving you a chance to resolve a problem, or that will do so even in cases in which your terms are clearly spelled out in your auction listing.

    All of these things are are true. What, therefore, is to be done? To hear the comments that I receive from dedicated sellers or longtime shoppers, all that has to happen is for eBay to take a stand against poor practices. Unfortunately, the matter of whether the stand should be pro-buyer or pro-seller is precisely what's at issue.

    After all, eBay has to balance the needs of buyers, the needs of sellers, the needs of its investors, and the pitfalls of rapid growth—all at the same time. It is not surprising that nobody is getting everything they want, least of all those who remember the way that eBay “used to be.”

    The process of “keeping eBay usable,” therefore, is every bit as much the responsibility of its users as it is of eBay itself. eBay users will have to adapt or go elsewhere—and to do the latter is to run the risk of not having a tremendous resource like eBay available to us in the future.

    Coping Tips for Buyers

    Though eBay will likely never again be the informal, limited-size-and-scope buying and selling marketplace that it once was, it's still possible to find and get good deals on eBay. (I, for one, continue to buy about 80 percent of everything I use on eBay.) The important thing to remember is that it is up to you to ensure that you find and get the deal that you're looking for.
    • Learn to search effectively. Rather than simply typing in a single search term from eBay's home page, the time has come to learn to use advanced search features—to use features like custom searches or product finders, as well as to save items that you're interested in once you've found them.

    • Be much more alert as you shop. As a buyer in an increasingly crowded marketplace full of an increasingly diverse body of sellers with varied backgrounds and customer service practices, you'll need to be sure to protect yourself. Become more strict about your feedback standards, read item listings very carefully multiple times to be sure that you're getting what you want under terms that you prefer, and pay with PayPal to protect yourself should anything go wrong.

    • Be more careful about knowing your own needs. Depending on the type of shopping you're doing, take the most careful measurements possible, check compatibility beforehand, ensure that the shipment method(s) offered correspond to times and places when you can be present to receive an item.

    • Make peace with buyer-seller communication. Given an increase in retaliatory feedback, be ready to pursue negotiation more carefully as an avenue for the resolution of conflicts. Contact your seller early and often in the process to ensure that you're both on the same page, and to press them to resolve an issue should anything go wrong.

    • Develop your patience. The increase in the size of eBay's membership, the number of auction listings that are live at any given time, the complexity of eBay's own rules and processes, and the shift in eBay's market position means that the time needed to resolve a dispute is simply going to increase as eBay becomes more and more like other buying and selling venues and less and less like a little world unto itself. If you're unwilling to be more patient or feel that you can't be more patient with sellers than you are already being, then it's time to re-read the first three items above and become ever more strict in your shopping habits on eBay.
    Together, all of these factors should suggest to you that if you're a longtime eBay buyer looking for the intimate, community-oriented eBay of old, those days are simply over. If you're going to be satisfied with your eBay transactions today, you need to treat eBay like any other marketplace you're familiar with. Be wary of sellers you don't know, take pains to ensure that you're getting the good deal that you think you're getting, and assume from the start that you're going to have difficulty with returns or exchanges—so it's better to take the time to guarantee a good transaction up front than try to fix a problem one after the fact.

    With the influx of new buyers from every segment of the population and from all around the world, an eBay seller that wants to survive as a business increasingly has to know how to run a proper business, complete with policies, rules, customer service, and hard-nosed tactics. The important thing for you to remember is that your business is yours, so it's important that you give it the dedication and quality that it deserves.

    • Be professional. The biggest sin of many of the sellers that eBay buyers complain most egregiously about is a simple lack of professionalism. Remember that buyers are people, too, and that this is a sale you're making. Don't do anything in handling any situation (from posting an auction to resolving a dispute) that you wouldn't do when face-to-face in a retail store.

    • Be flexible and plan for difficulties. This includes things like accepting exchange or refund requests, being able and willing to respond to customer inquiries, offering “business-like” payment methods like PayPal and credit cards, offering detailed information about any non-“AS-IS” products that you sell, and offering explicit warranties or guarantees of one kind or another most of the time.

    • Develop a sound set of business practices. Any disorganized or haphazard business is destined to upset at least a few customers. The more disorganized or haphazard the business, the greater the percentage of customers who are going to feel as if they've “slipped through the cracks,” and who will become not merely dissatisfied, but active in their pursuit of satisfaction at your expense. Develop a process or workflow for everything. Set aside time to answer your email and to phone people back that have asked you to call. Track your shipments as carefully as your customers do and know when they've gone wrong. (It goes without saying that you should implement processes to ensure that every customer receives payment and shipment confirmation, along with any tracking number involved.) Be not just willing but ready to handle exchanges and warranty claims in an organized manner. Keep meticulous books for everything you do so that you'll always be able to respond to customer inquiries or complaints quickly and informatively, and so that customers don't have to keep repeating their circumstances to you with each new contact.

    • Be careful about knowing your marketing audience. Too many professional sellers simply buy what's available as a wholesale lot and expect to turn it all around on eBay without any further headaches. All products, however, are not created equal, and neither are all listings. Don't market complex, difficult-to-use, or “advanced” products to “beginner” audiences that expect plug-and-play style goods with a minimum of hassle. The same goes vice-versa. Market your goods carefully to an appropriate audience, and feel free to explicitly state that you do or don't want to provide lots of after-sale service. Feel free to use terms like “Expert buyers only, please!” if you don't feel like guaranteeing that “We can give you all the assistance you need at our 1-800 number, free!” Don't work to disguise your item's flaws any more than you want to play them up. Be honest about them and be to make them visible to every potential bidder.

    • Make peace with buyer-seller communication. Buyers are going to come to you with their problems, even if you tell them not to in your auctions—even, in fact, if you declare an item to be sold on an AS-IS/WHERE-IS basis and state that you never want to hear about it again. What else is a buyer to do? They're looking out for their own interests. Refusing to communicate with buyers is not only bad form, but it can lead to negatives simply for that reason. A buyer that feels you're there for them—that believes you're listening and responsive—is going to hold off on giving a negative so long as they feel like you're working with them in a fair and honest manner. Prompt, professional communication is essential for buyer satisfaction, whether or not a transaction goes wrong.

    • Learn to provide customer service. Times on eBay have changed. Like it or not, eBay is no longer a cross between a flea market and a swap meet where idiosyncratic buyers are happy to buy eclectica or to have infinite patience for eBay sellers that are “just like them.” A good portion of today's eBay buyers expect a store-like experience. Those sellers that prosper are those that are best able to provide it. You will rarely, if ever, receive a negative after offering a prompt refund or an exchange in which you pay for the shipping both ways. It eats into the bottom line, sure—but it will also keep negatives and bay and return buyers coming back. It's a calculation that you have to be prepared to make.
      Together, these factors should suggest to you that if you're a longtime eBay seller who has prospered because eBay was “different” and didn't require you to act so much “like a store,” it's time to change. eBay buyers and shareholders increasingly demand a retail-like shopping experience on eBay—which means that eBay policies and culture will increasingly seek to put pressure on those that are unwilling or unable to provide one. That's just the way it is.

      Bringing Buyer and Seller Together

      What's really needed as eBay grows—as is so often the case in the other areas of life in which we have to interact with other people—is an increase in basic professionalism, open communication, and flexibility.

      Those eBay members that are going to prosper as eBay continues to evolve are those that are careful, prudent, reasonable and patient (in the case of buyers) and those that are organized, responsive, and service-oriented (in the case of sellers).

      The truth of the matter is that eBay has one bias these days, and it's not toward buyers or sellers. Instead, the bias is toward the kind of marketplace that eBay intends to be—something less structured than an Amazon.com, perhaps, but certainly something more structured that it has ever been in the past. For many, that's a very good thing. For others, it's something to be dealt with, with reservations.

      Either way, it's where eBay's headed.