The History (and Future) of Online Selling for the Small Guy on Amazon and eBay

I’ve been selling online for over 20-years, ever since my friend, Dave, encouraged me to try eBay. It was sort of a new thing at the time. My previous experience had been disappointing, because the web interface wasn’t working well. But after I tried it again it was better. I could get a sale posting through.

In those twenty years, in retrospect, I’m feeling like I rode the best wave eBay will ever offer. We were in the radio business for a long time. A friend who was also in the business told me he made five-thousand-dollars selling his personal CD collection. DJs tend to have enormous music collections.

I sold thousands of Flippy Flopper pet toys, and asked the company, BMB Pet, if they’d consider giving me an exclusive as a reseller, but they were not interested. After a few years, lowballers started ruining the profit margins, which were slim to begin with.

The pet toys I sold were sold at PetSmart for $15 – way overpriced. People came to me on eBay when WalMart stopped selling the product, and I was in the right place at the right time. I sold them for about $8 each. With no price control from BMB, anyone could resell them, and within two years there was no longer fifty cents profit to be made, as Joe Lowball came onto eBay and found he could sell them and tolerate unbelievably low profits, if he starved his family and waited long enough.

It was years-ago I gave up on that platform. Amazon came along, and I was an early third-party seller there. At the time, eBay’s big advantage was its really excellent feedback system, where feedback could let a buyer know quite a lot about the history of the individual eBay seller. Amazon’s big advantage was so simple it was bound to go stale soon : checkout. Simply the trust the public had in using the Amazon website to pay money. Both Amazon and eBay have had growing pains ever since, which can be seen in the very strange systems both companies currently use for “feedback.” Both allow BOTH a product review AND a seller feedback. It’s agonizingly paperwork-ey for a consumer, and the buttons to press are hard to find. Gone is eBay’s advantage, and now the landscape is nothing BUT low-priced sellers, mostly from China.

On Amazon, the China sellers have become famous for doing anything they can to get positive feedback. They put zero effort into selling anything. This is because all they have to do is list an item and get lots of positive feedback, and the Amazon machine automatically prioritizes them. This is aggravated by Amazon’s “customer is always right” policy regarding returns, defects, shipping issues or refunds. The seller will almost always lose any case about any complaint from any customer. The trend has been very strong for many big-traffic sellers to forget about selling, and instead work the Amazon “machine.” The buttons on the machine say “good feedback” and “bad feedback.” For good feedback, the machine will sell more shit for you. For bad feedback, you can EASILY have your account suspended.

And even if you don’t have your Amazon seller account suspended or privileges completely revoked, which happens very frequently, by getting any bad feedback you’re basically taking a shot to the foot on Amazon. The system will automatically downgrade your item’s visibility.

This long story is going somewhere. Amazon will probably become bigger, following the Microsoft route of world domination without apologizing, buying or destroying anything in its way, and eBay will continue to serve a more and more limited purpose, based on it’s mediocre quality. Some items you can only find there, but antiques and collectibles are also for sale at other, more reputable outlets, boutique online selling platforms that cater to only women’s clothes, vinyl records or guitars, for example.

The biggest damage we’ll continue to see is a by-product of Amazon’s leanings and seller reactions (trying to get good feedback); an unintentional but probably inevitable scenario, and the protagonist is the greedy consumer. There’s a huge trend for customers to try to rip off sellers.

Because China is far away, even making goods for cheap, they still have to deal with shipping costs, in order to continue to manipulate Amazon. This is what happens. I ordered a lava lamp. It came from China. It’s difficult on Amazon to ascertain basic things about what you’re purchasing, but the item arrived within a week or so, and everything seemed fine. I plugged it in, and the bulb popped. I emailed the seller, without thinking too much, told him the bulb popped, and maybe he could send another? I figured it’s like five cents. The seller immediately replied (through Amazon), to tell me I should keep the lava lamp (about $30 USD) and he’ll send another.

Now I have two.

The trend is, keep it, it will cost too much to ship back.

You can see where this is going.

Shipping is like a crowbar in the business of small time international trade.

Amazon now has its own international shipping service. As a seller, if I sell something to a customer in, say, Puerto Rico, it could be prohibitively expensive to ship it from here on the mainland US. So Amazon tries to make it work, requiring me to only send the sold item to a hub. They give me a US address, and they get it to PR for me. They do it.

I sold two studio monitor speakers, in two large, new boxes. I shipped them to Puerto Rico. It took more than a month for them to get there, the whole time the seller asking me like I have some say in the matter. When he finally got them, he immediately said something vague about how he may not be satisfied for some reason. It was weird, like a fucking script. Like I was watching a movie and my heart sank, thinking “did I take enough photographs, of my packing, serial numbers, anything, everything?”

It turned out he didn’t follow through with his threat of dissatisfaction, but had he opened a case with Amazon, he would have had a very good chance of Amazon giving him the benefit of the doubt, as customer, and me being required to give him a refund and let him keep the monitors. I’m not kidding. I had a case once on Amazon which was so trivial, over a $250 complicated electronic device I sent across the country; so trivial I put it off in my mind. I missed a required deadline to “reply” in the ongoing “case,” which the customer had opened. She did not know how to use the device, it was clear, and I had responded once. But failing to respond again, made the case close, in her favor, automatically. They told me I missed my deadline to respond. I had to let her keep the device and give her a full refund of $250.

Amazon doesn’t care. They have no humans involved. As long as their machine keeps making money, they’ll let it keep running.

My recommendation is to boycott both Amazon and eBay, other than for items you can only find there. It used to be a habit for me to just look on Amazon for anything, but I don’t any more. Support other merchants, and local merchants! Amazon will not, ever, support the US economy, other than by its taxpaying presence, which is certainly availed at a discounted rate by cities across the country. They are loyal to no-one.

That’s how I’d answer your question.* They can do whatever they want, it seems, and the buyer can rip you off, and if Amazon is an indicator, they might even be able to keep the item. Ebay is more seller-centric than Amazon and may be more fair, but they will often favor the “customer.”

Ebay has a retaliatory feedback button, with which you can report such a thing; Amazon does not (they have an automated system that tends to do nothing!). Both platforms rely on feedback for their automated brains to work, while both have also severely diluted the effectiveness of feedback, by creating feedback for both the item and the seller; it’s 100% more confusing and 50% likely you’re reading the item feedback when you’re interested in the other … well, it’s confusing.

So, both platforms will never again be as useful to the “small guy,” or a person selling just one or two things. Buyers lie, and unfortunately, it’s becoming a trend. I’d suggest using eBay very carefully. You’ll learn through experience, and it may or may not feel fair. I’d also suggest looking for a boutique selling platform for the item you’re selling.

Sometimes it’s all done through a phone app these days – you are encouraged by some platforms to get their app, use your phone to photograph and sell items, and use your phone to buy things. There’s a generation of people doing everything on their phones! Also, pay attention to their rules and how they handle escrow, payments, disputes … and be sure to photograph EVERYTHING before you mail it out.

Hope that helps! Have a wonderful evening!

*Original question on Quora: How would you handle a refund request on eBay if you feel the buyer is in the wrong? And you wouldn’t be able to resell the item because you feel buyer had tampered with it to strengthen their claim. Can you get negative feedback for refusing returns


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