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Archive: Leslie Walker

Posted at 1:51 AM ET, 06/16/2006

What "It" Is eBay Wants

Acrobats and an Elvis impersonator warmed up the eBay crowd at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino Thursday for the Baby Boomer-era rock concert by Huey Lewis & the News. The gala dinner concert was a fitting end to the fifth-annual "eBay Live" convention aimed mostly at people who sell on the sprawling online marketplace.

Singer Huey Lewis provided the entertainment as "eBay Live" drew to a close. (Leslie Walker-The Washington Post)

At its convention, eBay chief executive Meg Whitman announced the site had registered its 200 millionth user. And though growth is slowing, trade on eBay is vast and getting bigger every day--more than $44 billion worth of goods changed hands on the site last year. That would make it the world's 11th-largest retailer if eBay actually owned the inventory instead of merely charging sales fees, said Whitman.

While eBay is best known for its auction format, more than a third of its sales volume now occurs in fixed-price format. And that is likely to expand even more, thanks to the new "eBay Express" site focused on new merchandise sold at fixed prices, which eBay officially launched this week after two months of testing. EBay said it would launch a major national ad campaign touting eBay Express this fall, along with the "it" theme (people can find whatever "it" is they want on eBay) introduced in commercials last year.

Whatever "it" is eBay really wants, however, remains a tad fuzzy even after the extravaganza held here. EBay execs made a point of saying auctions remain the core DNA of the company, but eBay clearly is morphing into a new kind of e-commerce company as it strikes out in many new directions at once.

Acrobats and an Elvis impersonator warmed up the crowd. (Leslie Walker-The Washington Post)

Next year, "eBay Live" will be in Boston, the company announced last night. By then, there is simply no telling what eBay might look like.

(Leslie Walker welcomes your email feedback at leslie @ )

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Posted at 8:54 PM ET, 06/15/2006

Alibaba and the eBay Thieves

Two rivals of eBay came to Las Vegas to do guerilla marketing during eBay's user convention, but only one got real up close and personal with eBay.

That was Corp., the parent of eBay's main auction rival in China, Taobao.

Alibaba set up shop inside a restaurant at the Mandalay Bay resort, where the eBay convention was held, and offered free lunch to eBay sellers who stopped by to learn about Alibaba's products.

Alibaba wooed eBay sellers from a restaurant at the Mandalay Bay resort. (Leslie Walker-The Washington Post)

Several eBay employees entered the restaurant and tried to persuade the manager to kick out the Alibaba team, offering to pay the restaurant more than Alibaba, according to Alibaba employees and a bystander who witnessed the conversation.

While the restaurant did not take eBay up on the offer, the hotel insisted that Alibaba take down its signs beside the restaurant entrance inviting eBay sellers to come inside, said Alibaba Vice President Porter Erisman. Word of mouth, however, brought plenty of sellers into the large basement area where Alibaba offered speeches, food and demonstrations, including a "Trade or No Trade" game mimicking the "Deal or No Deal" TV game show.

Alibaba took a more aggressive marketing tactic here than eBay's other rival,, which wooed eBay sellers from a respectable distance at a different hotel.

But Erisman said that unlike Overstock, Alibaba was not promoting its Internet auction site, Taobao, or any product competing with eBay. Rather, he said the company came to market, a Web site that offers a service that could help boost trade on eBay. The site provides an online directory of Chinese suppliers that produce goods that eBay sellers can import for sale in the U.S.

"We are spending a quarter of a million dollars here to promote ourselves, and we are not talking about anything that competes with eBay," Erisman said.

Bill Cobb, president of eBay North America, said Alibaba is a rival and that eBay had negotiated with the hotel to make sure Alibaba was not allowed to do any marketing in the hallways of the convention area, which eBay had rented.

But it all seemed especially funny, considering Yahoo owns a 40 percent stake in Alibaba Corp. and Alibaba runs the Yahoo China business. Just last month, eBay announced a major strategic partnership with Yahoo that calls for Yahoo and eBay to cross-market each other's products.

Those, however, apparently do not include Alibaba, which must have least-favored-rival status with eBay.

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Posted at 5:36 PM ET, 06/15/2006

Back to Collectibles

I sat down here in Vegas with Skip McGrath, author of two eBay books, who lives north of Seattle. After selling on eBay for more than six years, he's seen many changes.

"In 1999 when I started, eBay was a license to print money. You cannot believe how easy it was to go find a product and put it on eBay and make money," McGrath recalled with a laugh.

But profit margins declined as more sellers came on board and flooded eBay with merchandise, pushing prices down. At the same time, eBay has steadily boosted its fees, squeezing sellers. "We are seeing some weak sellers weaned out," McGrath said. "I see that trend accelerating."

Many eBay sellers are going back to their roots now, he added. Some are abandoning the new products they have been buying in bulk and selling on eBay, and returning to the collectibles market where they began.

"Consumer products and clothes kind of took over, but it became too competitive," McGrath said.

That was a theme I heard a lot here -- eBay is so flooded with new and used goods of all kinds that sellers are seeking new ways to cut costs.

Some are even striking out into the import business -- but more about that later.

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Posted at 12:32 PM ET, 06/15/2006

eBay, live and in Person

Today is the third and final day of the eBay convention, which features a ton of educational seminars and networking events.

The goal is to give the 1.3 million sellers who earn at least part of their living from behind their computer screens a chance to meet one another and chat with eBay's staff -- live and in person. All told, eBay dispatched 720 of its more than 12,000 employees to Las Vegas to work the convention.

EBay's first customer-service rep, Jim "Griff" Griffith, right, does a spot on EBay Radio at the convention. (Leslie Walker-The Washington Post)

At the show, eBay announced that in the past year, it has sharply ramped up its staff for customer support, long an area of griping among eBay sellers. Many say they can't get help when anything goes wrong with their listings.Instead, they often get automated emails that say the same thing over and over.

But eBay has come a long way since it had one man -- Jim Griffith -- in its customer support department. For the United States and Canada, eBay hired 400 more customer support representatives in the past year alone, bringing the total for the North American support team to more than 2,000. EBay also said it has been investing more heavily in technology to help its support staff identify and resolve problems faster.

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Posted at 12:19 PM ET, 06/15/2006

In Search of eBay

At the seminars here this year, eBay sellers are showing an amazing boost in familiarity with technology compared with similar sessions I attended last year and the year before.

The exhibit floor at eBay Live. (Leslie Walker-The Washington Post)

Yesterday I sat through a jam-packed session on "search engine optimization." It was about how sellers can tweak their pages on eBay and on their own Web sites to get better play in search results when people are looking for related stuff at Google, Yahoo and Microsoft's MSN.

EBay sellers asked surprisingly technical questions, even those struggling to understand the lingo. "What do you mean by natural results?" one dealer asked. "I don't know what "natural" means."

eBay's search geeks patiently explained the difference between paid search results, which are basically ads; and the "natural" or unpaid results that appear at all the major search engines. They also explained how eBay has a big staff working full time just to optimize the hundreds of millions of pages on eBay's site, so they will appear higher in the results at Google, Yahoo and MSN.

"What's a robots.text file and do I need one?" asked another man.

EBAy's geeks explained it was a small text file some Web sites use to politely tell search engines where not to send their indexing robots on their sites. And no, most eBay dealers don't need one, they said.

Bill Cobb, president of eBay North America, told me that eBay has large teams working on every angle of search optimization, both for buying keyword ads on search engines and improving eBay's position in their natural results. In addition to optimizing eBay for "natural" display in the search engines, the company buys ads that appear when people search on certain phrases. EBAy has built a search dictionary of 15 million words and is constantly buying ads for those words.

"We have 80 to 100 people working on this," Cobb said.

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How Many Shoes Are in This Man's Closet?

EBay's high-volume sellers, known as "power sellers," are a colorful lot. Consider Edwin Dodson, who let out a belly shriek Tuesday when U.S. postmaster general John Potter announced that the Postal Service is releasing a new priority-mail shoebox available for free to eBay sellers. EBay shoe vendor Edwin Dodson watches...

By Leslie Walker | June 14, 2006; 04:08 PM ET | Comments (0)

Blogs, Wikis, Guides, Reviews ... What Next?

Ok, eBay-ers, now's your chance to blog yourself crazy writing about those vintage Mickey Mouse wristwatches you've been collecting for 17 years. EBay just launched a new free service it calls Ebay blogs, allowing anyone to create and publish a blog on the site. Who would want to do that?...

By Leslie Walker | June 14, 2006; 03:41 PM ET | Comments (0)

Hey, Hey, We're the Monkees

EBay chief executive Meg Whitman debuted many new features and policies for eBay's marketplace in her keynote speech Tuesday night, but it was the surprise concert by singer Davy Jones of the Monkees that got the crowd roaring on its feet. Davy Jones provided Tuesday night's entertainment. (Leslie Walker-The Washington...

By Leslie Walker | June 14, 2006; 10:15 AM ET | Comments (0)

EBay + Skype + PayPal = ??

EBay chief executive Meg Whitman outlined her latest vision for eBay's future this morning to the 75 or so people who showed up at the glitzy Wynn casino for the company's 11-minute shareholder meeting. After routinely electing eBay's board of directors, ratifying the selection of an accounting firm and passing...

By Leslie Walker | June 13, 2006; 02:42 PM ET | Comments (0)

EBay2Skype: Talk2PayPal!

As she did at the company's meeting with analysts last month, Whitman gave highlights of how she sees eBay, PayPal and Skype expanding beyond their original roots. Her plans for Skype may be the most ambitious, since the online calling service today earns little revenue despite the fact that more...

By Leslie Walker | June 13, 2006; 02:39 PM ET | Comments (0)

Ebay Takes Page from Google's Book

Since Google is fast becoming eBay's biggest rival, it shouldn't surprise anyone that eBay debuted its own version of Google's syndicated search advertising program here this week. Called AdContext, the new ad program will let owners of other Web sites put software snippets on their pages to automatically display auction...

By Leslie Walker | June 13, 2006; 02:20 PM ET | Comments (0)

eBay's Sweet Spot -- Hard to Find Stuff

Speaking of selling into the boonies, an eBay seller from Baltimore whom I met on the flight from BWI told me she sells a lot of merchandise to people who have trouble reaching the malls where most of America shops. It may be because they live in remote areas, or...

By Leslie Walker | June 13, 2006; 09:59 AM ET | Comments (0)

Veterans Sell Into the Boonies

One Chicago couple I talked to seemed happy with how eBay is managing the auction site and expanding into new areas, such as its purchase of Internet phone pioneer Skype. EBay "trading assistants" Janet Treuhaft and Johnny Conlisk see possibilities in the company's acquisition of Skype. (Leslie Walker-The Washington Post)...

By Leslie Walker | June 13, 2006; 09:46 AM ET | Comments (0)

Catching the eBay Wave

There's been much talk over the past year over whether eBay's auction business may be reaching a growth plateau, but here at its user convention newbie sellers are still flocking in to learn from the veterans how to start and run a business on the sprawling site. "I'm not sure...

By Leslie Walker | June 13, 2006; 09:26 AM ET | Comments (0)

eBay Goes to Sin City

The adult fantasyland of Las Vegas seems a fitting place for eBay to have a middle-age crisis, especially with the mercury hovering at 100 degrees here as some 15,000 sellers stream into the city for the Internet auctioneer's fifth annual user convention. The Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. (Leslie...

By Leslie Walker | June 12, 2006; 11:52 PM ET | Comments (0)


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