Introducing The eBay Buy Box

Despite having dedicated an untold number of hours of my life to selling products on eBay over the past decade, when I arrived in Las Vegas at eBay Open 2017, it was actually the first eBay-hosted conference I have ever attended. I decided it was time to see firsthand what the twenty-one year old marketplace has up their sleeve.

There was plenty of talk in Las Vegas about the forthcoming Guaranteed Delivery program being launched on eBay, clever demonstrations of future image search technology (a nod to Mohan Patt for those), and many sellers griping about postal rates and box quality. I attended keynotes and several pedestrian breakout sessions. All in all a typical e-commerce conference experience, marked by one significant revelation worth sharing.

ebay-open-2017-conference

For me, after two full days of drinking nothing but eBay flavored Kool-Aid, there was a singular massive takeaway. So massive a takeaway that, in the past three weeks, I shockingly have not heard it mentioned by another soul. Not in person. Not in print. Not on the web. Not on TV.

That’s because eBay has done a Houdini-worthy job diverting sellers’ attention away from, what I will call with zero pretense, the birth of the eBay buy box.

(In fairness, eBay is not calling this new functionality a “buy box”. They’re using the term “product pages” instead.)

I opt to refer to it as the eBay buy box because, plainly, eBay is knocking off Amazon’s digital catalog structure in an effort to correct the one great flaw that has plagued eBay for the past decade.

What is that flaw?

Duplicate listings. eBay has a ton of them. Maybe even a BILLION of them.

Our stat-savvy friends at Marketplace Pulse wrote on July 21, “For a while they’ve (eBay) been talking about the 1 billion listings catalog, but are starting to admit that it is mostly duplicates, and the real size of the catalog is at best a tenth of that, based on our estimates. Yet the work to transition eBay from a website of listings to one of products is a monumental task.”

eBay’s CEO, Devin Wenig, even went so far as to say, “we’ve been pretty aggressive about that right now because it clutters the site and it depresses conversion.”

Devin summed it perfectly. Duplicate listings create a less-than-desirable shopping experience. Care to sift through 487 nearly identical listings while shopping for a pair of Beats™ headphones? Didn’t think so.

The fix for eBay is simple. A catalog system. An Amazon-style digital catalog system leveraging structured data.

One where a single product (possibly even in multiple conditions or with many different variations) is presented on a single screen. Product pages provide the shopper the ability to quickly make an informed buying decision.

eBay knows this is the path forward. They, admittedly, are investing significant manpower into building product pages. Want to see the future of eBay for yourself? Here is a live eBay “product page” for Beats Solo3 Wireless Headphones.

ebay-product-page-buy-box-future-is-here

Notice that you can get "Nearly New" Beats™ headphones for just $11.69? Oh wait. That’s a “Box Only” listing. Better be careful with that Buy It Now button! (Looks like these product pages still need some work, eBay.)

Why do I consider the installation of product pages with Buy It Now buttons to be the biggest takeaway from eBay Open 2017? 

This new product page / buy box reality is bad news for small sellers.

eBay claims to have 21 million sellers. The huge majority are one man (or woman) armies. These modest, “spare-bedroom” eBay operations are going to get left behind. Anyone who sells full-time on Amazon.com will tell you that the buy box is everything. 

Got the buy box? It’s fireworks and clear skies and cocktails on the patio. Lose the buy box? It’s tumbleweeds slowly blowing by.

Despite the less-than-optimal shopping experience it presents, eBay’s current listing-centric marketplace format provides small sellers the best opportunity to actually generate sales. Sure, the alpha seller with the highest feedback, best pricing, and free shipping will get the lion’s share of sales on a particular product, but he/she will not get them all. A second tier seller with reasonably competitive pricing, simply because his listings exist, will still get plenty of views and, in turn, some sales. These sales might be just enough for a small seller to eek out a modest living or supplement a primary income. 

This reality, though, is coming to an end as eBay quietly transitions to an Amazon-style digital catalog decorated with blue buy boxes. The future is one where the alpha seller gets all the sales. eBay is okay with that because they knows that a great marketplace shopping experience will be one with fewer listings and fewer sellers.

Of course, they’re not going to say that. They don’t need to say it. Their rollout of tens of thousands of “product pages” speaks for itself.

What do I think the future looks like for eBay? It’s an interesting question I still find myself trying to work through. 

At this point, I believe the eBay of the future will be an Amazon/Etsy hybrid. (Albeit much smaller in scale than Amazon.com.) 

Mainstream product sales (phone cases, jewelry, apparel, electronics, sporting goods, etc) on the eBay marketplace will be dominated by a small number of highly efficient, professional, third party, multi-channel sellers. The rest of eBay will be populated by one man and one woman armies selling unique items. Perhaps secondhand goods or custom items.

Whatever the future may hold, times are a changin’ at eBay and there are roughly 20.9 million sellers who need to be paying attention.
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