Over the last two years I have heard a continuous rumble of discontent among fellow small businesses on eBay, some of which have led to shops closing their doors on the platform altogether. They centred their concerns on the new and more detailed feedback, top-rated and power seller systems, all of which I use daily. Whilst I remain completely sympathetic, my own experiences had been more positive than negative up until that point; both with the selling platform and its management. Yes, there aren’t always things I agree with, but generally I trade peacefully and with a high standard of feedback from customers… something that I strive for and pride myself on. This isn’t to say these other sellers didn’t do the same, just I think at that time I was able to see both sides of the new rules being implemented and whilst I didn’t agree they were fool proof (far from it, in their generalisations), I had up until the beginning of 2010 traded well for 4 years under Sara’s Texture Crafts.
During this time my relationship with the selling platform had also been a good one… I had helped beta test new tools and systems and I had been invited to meet-ups where a group of sellers were selected to talk directly with eBay representatives from the European eBay HQ. I felt a part of the community… a valued part of the community.
Since then my feelings have slowly changed and I find my experience with the platform deflating, unrewarding and increasingly and unnecessarily difficult.
Why the change? Well, I hadn’t set out to air my frustrations… I try to remain professionally up-beat as much as possible, particularly when I discuss business. I feel that this is tremendously imperative for customer relations… no-one wants to buy from a moaning-mini, right?! Far better the smiley face of a happy seller. However, I feel I need to explain the conclusions about my future presence on eBay and share what I feel many other small business sellers are experiencing.
First I should explain the (in brief) the areas of my concerns;
- Detailed Feedback – Originally just a positive, neutral, or negative symbol with a line of explanation, feedback was at best something customer’s rarely filled out and felt they did not have enough room to express their full opinion about the service and products they received. This was revised a few years ago to include a number of sub-feedback bullet points that customers could score the seller in a way that they felt was much more informative… a good move on the whole and it saw an increase of fairer feedback and identified areas of improvement for the seller.
These included feedback for;
- Item as described
- Seller communication
- Seller dispatch time (not to be confused with postal service delivery time)
- Postage and Seller Charges
It did not stop those who used the feedback system to be unfair or abusive, unfortunately those unsavoury few remained… but that’s always going to happen and unfortunately Sellers will always suffer unrealistic approaches to buying and community from those few. Likewise it didn’t stop those sellers whose approach was more ‘couldn’t give a damn’ and ‘get it in, and get it out quick’, which had plagued eBay from the beginning!
This new system worked well, until eBay went further and instigated a newer version, which would see sellers’ item visibility on the main site highered, or lowered depending on their rating. This was to be called their Top Rated Seller Performance.
Again you would think this a welcomed idea… and for me it was at first, but not anymore.
- Top Rated Seller Performance – Performance is rated souly on the detailed seller feedback system above and was intended to alert the buyer to those providing excellence in service. Sellers achieving this status are given much more promotion on the site, as a way I guess to free eBay from the ‘scam community’ reputation it has battled against and show off the best companies to purchase from. It also boasts transparency and buyer confidence.
Again I welcomed this… to me it was the perfect way to use my good feedback to help me sell more. However, I have since found that it doesn’t seem to work like that.
Late last year (2010) I was stripped of my Top Rated Seller badge. The reasoning was that whilst I had 100% positive feedback, some customers had given me low scores on the detailed feedback system. These were for postage and seller charges. Now I have never added any extra charge for a buyer, so it could only have been customer’s reaction to postal charge increases from Royal Mail. A little flustered and confused when eBay gave me a courtesy call, I explained that I charge less than Royal Mail actually charge to ship items and that customers either don’t understand the new weight vs. size pricing of Royal Mail, or they are being unfairly unrealistic. EBay fully agreed with me, not one of my prices could they contest and they felt I was being extremely clear about pricing. In fact in most cases they felt I was under charging by too much!
They presented an idea to me… free P&P options. Sounds great, right? Well, whilst appearing to be free to the customer; in fact I was asked to add the cost of shipping onto the item price. By doing this I would now automatically get top marks for those feedback criteria. I was astonished and disgusted… wasn’t this not only cheating the system, but misleading the customer (in some cases over charging them too); something I did not want to do. As an aside it would also mean that I would now be paying eBay more money each month (as fees are based on unit costs not postage costs, combining the two together increases the unit cost) and I was already dealing with a spiralling fee system. Was I now paying them extra to cheat? Was this not classed as unprofessional? Surely this was not transparent?
Was eBay disbelieving their own policy? If so, why is it so hard to schedule a review process? But to be honest their stand point is contradictory at best. Whilst I am told I am an unfit seller, I am also told in the same breath that if I cheat the system I can be accepted back into the fold… I am at a loss to comprehend.
Threatened with closure and an already limited ability to sell, as eBay had started to hide my products from customers, I delayed my changes as long as I could. I looked at my competitors and found they were all hurrying to do what eBay had suggested… but I lagged behind whilst wrestling with my conscience and what I felt was my moral obligation to customers.
After a few months I finally caved in… it wasn’t something I wanted to do and it did not sit well with me, but lost business had already started to run into the thousands. In making the changes I did lose customers… I explained in newsletters my position and that those original prices would remain the same on my personal website www.SarasTextureCrafts.com, so ‘please shop with me there instead’... Some customers followed and some left completely. However, I did gain new customers and generally eBay business very slowly over the next 6-8 months picked up and I was rewarded back my Top Rated Seller badge.
Am I back to where I was a year ago? No, but I think this is for a few reasons… not only the recession, but there are now many more competitors in my area who have a higher buying power to discount retailing prices much lower than I and can also offer lower shipping prices, as they can court courier companies who wouldn’t entertain the size of my small business. As a result of eBay’s restrictions I feel I have also lost my footing in terms of sales there… the impact has been devastating.
Fortunately my business has grown dramatically on my own site and via other selling platforms, including shows, which compensates. I have also taken this further by now listing on eBay’s competitor sites, whose fees and rules seems to be generally more fair to both sellers and buyers.
EBay wrote to me again last week… and despite my continuing 100% positive feedback rating I have had 7 customers in the past 3 months give me a low mark for dispatch time and this will now lead to me losing my Top Rated Seller badge once again. Now I dispatch within 24 hours, as my terms state (bearing in mind I run a ‘cut to order’ product line, not a quick ‘pick and pack’ operation) and despite my recent illness every order has gone out on time, so I am quizzical as to why I have received these markings. I spoke to a couple of these customers who happened to email me regarding this (feedback rating are anonymous so I cannot track who left which mark), so I had the opportunity to ask. The replies showed that each low mark had been given for Royal Mail’s seemingly late delivery. Occasionally this happens and can in no way be avoided and if I am alerted to this, I always apologise on their behalf and do my best to sort out issues… but the fact remains that this part of the feedback system is not for grading the courier’s delivery service, but instead for how quickly I get items out to be delivered… something that a few buyers seem to completely over look, even when prompted by the eBay system at the point of feedback. In fact one customer wanted an item to reach her within 24 hours?! Yet she not only purchased a second class service, but had not accounted for my dispatch time (I work alone and have more than just one order per day), or in fact any of the information given clearly both at purchase and the following stages, which indicated exact time frames. Now I do realise you are always going to get the occasional feedback that is left unfairly and I accept this, but my problem is that while I retain a service level far higher than most, I am being penalised unfairly for a percentage target not achieved through low levels of feedback left (even though they are all positive) vs. sales.
How am I going to be penalised? Well I face 3-4 months of restricted selling on eBay, which at this time of year means a great deal of money lost and 6-8 months of hard work recouping the level of sales I will lose with these restrictions.
My question to eBay has been… How can this be construed as fair to the Seller? I have 100% positive feedback and at least a few of those sub-marks have been wrongly or unfairly given… exposing what I think is a very big loop hole in eBay’s Top Rated Seller system. Unfortunately the very patronising and ignorant answer I received from eBay is that buyers have the right to leave feedback as they see fit… they totally ignore that I am not arguing this, but instead pointing out where the system fails the small business!
Further to this I now question the realistic validity of the Top Rated Seller system as a whole. Let me explain further… As a buyer on eBay I have recently come across a number of larger companies who seem to be ‘playing the numbers’ in order to keep hold of a badge that should be rating them as a top professional seller, but instead hides the truth about their practises. This was further pointed out to me by a few customers who have congratulated me recently on being one of the very few sellers they have come across on eBay with a 100% positive feedback rating. This they say is to be commended… if only they knew!
An example… recently I wanted to purchase a few items for personal and business use. I knew what I wanted and searched the catalogue of eBay products… whilst I don’t always shop with Top Rated Sellers (preferring instead to look at the quality of feedback) I always have a look at what they are doing, just in case I can gauge a better practise that I could adopt. I was frankly very disappointed at the number of these so called Top Rated Sellers who had at least 700 neutrals and 700 negative feedbacks in the last 12 months… yet they still managed to retain their Top Rated Seller badge! Surely this is misleading to eBay customers?! Surely it defeats the point of the Top Rated Seller badge at all, especially if customers still have to wade through feedback positives, neutrals and negatives to see if they want to shop with a seller? Wasn’t it the point of the Top Rated Seller badges to highlight the best sellers to shop in confidence with?
Well it seems they are indeed ‘playing a numbers game’ to cheat the system and this is how it seems to work... They firstly have a higher turnover, so as the rating system is worked on percentages, bad feedback is percentage-wise much lower, than say if I (as a small business) had a bad remark left. So they are able to keep their rating high, yet not providing a great service in all areas… while the smaller business has to work a whole lot harder for the same results. It also seems that by allotting to give feedback automatically on a purchase from a customer, rather than on receipt of feedback as I do (as some customers don’t want to let their customers know where they buy their products) they are increasing their chances of feedback in return from customers. I have seen this work for a few of my main competitors and it artificially inflates feedback. It works in their favour to beat the percentages even if some of what they receive in feedback is either unfair, or justly neutral, or negative. As their business has grown, partly as a result of this I have seen some of their standards slip, which has been reflected in their feedback… not to be completely unexpected as the transition from small to medium size business and coping with work flow from just 1 employee to say 2-3, will always have suffer teething issues… though that is certainly nothing that can’t be rectified long-term. However, it does feel like they are playing a numbers game to stay top on eBay… I always hold the customer as my top priority, but what eBay are indicating I should do is cheat the system and ultimately cheat the customer. If I do this I am fully accepted as a valued member of the community. If I continue as I am… holding the customer as my first concern, I am looking to be closed down… not directly by eBay, but by the trading restrictions they impose against me.
So again I ask eBay to consider not just the percentages, but the quality of feedback left. No seller with 700 neutrals and/or 700 negatives should be rated as a Top Seller… that’s just simply ridiculous! Likewise just because I am a small company, I should not be held to ransom over a handful of sub-feedback marks that have been left as part of a whole positive rating. There needs to be some kind of scale imposed that can set a balance that works for all levels of business. A fair scale that will help the seller to deliver a truly transparent and confident shopping experience.
Now I find myself in a quandary as eBay refuse to relook at their failing system… do I conform to yet another rule I do not agree with in order to avoid, or shorten the time frame eBay restricts my business? Do I play it by the numbers, putting customers second and in effect cheat the system?
I just don’t know how I can justify this to myself right now… where do I draw the line?
- Power Seller Status – This is a seller reward scheme, mostly out dated now, but still in use to reward those sellers selling well (higher turnover) with a reduction in monthly fees.
It was a system that provided each rewarded seller with a badge against their user ID. It was originally intended to show customers those who were doing well, to help encourage further sales. However, it very quickly became apparent that this was not really relevant to customers as it only showed sellers who got discounts for selling more through eBay, it did not ensure you were buying safely. Whilst some sellers continue to use the badge as a boast to increase sales, it was regarded as outdated and meaningless very soon after its introduction. EBay later introduced the Top Rated Seller system, as what they hoped to be a true reflection of high service standards. Buyers were ensured ‘they could buy with confidence’.
The Power Seller badge is still in use behind the scenes and if you are doing well in volume sales, you can gain up to 30% off of your final value fees on eBay each month… which is great if you are able to maintain sale numbers, but sometimes this hits smaller businesses hard, particularly when sales fluctuate throughout the year between levels of reward. It makes fee paying difficult to indicate until the final bill appears.
Due to my current threat of restrictions I now face lower levels of power selling achievement. In these cases this will mean a lesser reduction in fees and a halt to reduction in fees if eBay stripped me of my Top Rated Seller badge. This leaves me in a position where I will struggle to list as much as I do each month, resulting in a very hard catch up at the other end… which does push me into playing the very numbers game I wanted to avoid. This leaves me sickened at the prospect of a business now out of my control… don’t get me wrong, I agree selling platforms and internet selling as a whole needs rules and guidelines, but I draw the line at dictations. Particularly dictations that go against what I regard as ‘good practise’.
Maybe I’m missing the point… maybe I should focus more on financial gain, but I’m not a ‘Dragon’s Den’ business, I wholeheartedly confess… I am a hobby business! That doesn’t need to be a bad thing, ok it won’t make me a million, but at least I can provide a solid service to my customers and produce some of my own products... I can even go and hand pick the fleeces I choose to work with. I can also stay working from home and live this business as a life-style choice. That doesn’t mean I work any less, in fact I rack can up around 11 hours per day, 6-7 days a week… most weeks, if not more. Despite this I am able to retain a passion for what I do and the customers I serve… something I would lose if I grew to a size where I took on a number of staff and a big warehouse… leaving my business faceless and out of touch.
So I feel pushed.
So where do I go from here?
I will find out at the end of the month what eBay’s ruling is and I’m told this is not contestable. If I am stripped of my Top Rated Seller badge, which will be without fair practise from eBay then I will be forced to reduce my presence there. I do not feel valued as a customer to eBay and I cannot see that the community they preach as ‘fair, happy and fun’ exists anymore. This may be contrary to what some of you believe, but my recent experiences have been building for some time to sway my particular view… A system with so many loop holes and bad practises is not good for a company’s image and so I will try to move away from this over the next year or so, unless eBay review their system. You will still find me on platforms like Amazon, Etsy, DaWanda, Ravelry and Folksy where policies are much fairer and transparent to sellers and buyers alike and where small, as well as larger companies are welcome. I will also be working on my website more as the main hub of my business, as it is now starting to be.
So find me at www.SarasTextureCrafts.comfor my full and varied range… here you pay the true price with fair postage costs as paid to Royal Mail.
Apologies to anyone who thinks this has been a very long rant… I couldn’t announce my decisions without some sense of ground work by way of explanation. I am frustrated, but know from other small business sellers that I am not alone in feeling this… so instead please view this as a reinforcement to myself of my decision to move on.