Buyers more equal than sellers in e-commerce

The share prices of Ebay, Amazon and Yahoo!, the Web’s three biggest brands, have been on a roll in recent weeks. Amazon and Yahoo! have been coming back from fractions of their dot-com heyday heights, and Ebay, which never bombed out, is now valued at an awesome $27bn (&£17bn).

The reason why investors kept their faith more in Ebay than in any other internet newbie is that this auction site quickly became profitable and, more importantly, stayed profitable.

As an early customer of UK-based QXL, I quickly realised how hopelessly amateurish our homegrown competition to Ebay was.

Ebay triumphed and I happily embraced yet another example of superior American know-how, vision, marketing and execution. But my unalloyed admiration was dented this month, when I received an e-mail informing me that I had to pay back the &£150-odd I’d made last December when selling a mobile phone. Plus there was a &£10 fee for the privilege.

It turns out I’d sold to a thief, who had paid with a stolen debit card. This transaction was made via Billpoint, an online payment system which had been bought by Ebay and will soon cease to exist. Ebay now prefers to use the services of PayPal, which it also acquired.

The good news is that I probably won’t have to cough up, since I’m led to believe that Ebay will not be chasing up Billpoint’s bad debts after the company is officially wound up on April 31. And quite right too, considering Ebay’s super-rich valuation and the subtly increasing fees it now charges.

But what this experience has brought home to me – someone who had considered himself a seasoned user of online commerce – is that when I sell a product via a so-called peer-to-peer site like Ebay, I am no longer a customer.

When it all goes wrong, I am effectively on my own – a vendor, a trader, someone who is assumed, in the eyes of the law, to be a business in my own right. Unlike the protection I can expect to receive when I buy from someone else on Ebay, as a seller I must fend for myself.

This has serious implications for the future of online commerce and brand building. The previously clear boundaries between company and consumer, buyer and seller, are, thanks to the internet, becoming increasingly blurred.

Companies keen to encourage trust in e-commerce, especially those, like Ebay, trying to promote radically new forms of trade, cannot expect consumers to trust them if they suddenly pull the rug from under their feet. The unwelcome message it sends is: “This is your mess, you clean it up – nothing to do with us!”

Robert Dwek, editor

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