News

Users are upset, but will eBay listen?

Matt Nauman
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Momentum is growing against eBay's changes to the fees it charges to sellers and the way it handles feedback, with word of a "strike" against the San Jose online auction company gaining traction.

"I expect this to be the largest boycott of eBay to date, and I think this year will be very rocky for eBay," said Ina Steiner, editor of AuctionBytes.com, a Massachusetts-based publication for online merchants, and author of a book about selling on eBay.

Steiner said that eBay changes always prompt reactions, and she admits that striking against eBay has been "difficult" in the past, as non-striking sellers see an opportunity when rivals stay away from the service.

Still, she said, "eBay is shifting more of the burden to sellers, and there's no question in my mind that for a certain percentage of sellers, it will be untenable."

In January, John Donahue, who becomes eBay's president and chief executive officer in March, announced changes to the fees eBay charges. The cost to list items will be cut 25 to 50 percent, but the commission that eBay charges for completed sales, what it calls its "final value fee," will increase.

Besides those fee changes, eBay also said it will hold some PayPal payments for up to 21 days on certain transactions and will prevent sellers from leaving negative feedback comments about buyers.

Those changes prompted an immediate reaction that now includes YouTube videos, online petitions and pressure for eBay buyers and sellers to boycott the site from Feb. 18 to 25.

Valerie Lennert, an Anaheim, Calif., woman who sells doll clothes on eBay, has emerged as one of the leading proponents of the strike.

"They're literally gutting the entire system we're familiar with," said Lennert, who quit her job as a social worker in January to become a full-time eBay seller.

Her YouTube video announcing the action, seen by 36,000 in the last week, calls for a worldwide strike by both eBay buyers and sellers. In it, she says, "millions of buyers and sellers already are on board."

She said eBay has banned her - not from buying and selling - but from communicating her opinions, so she turned to YouTube and MySpace to get the word out about the strike. (An eBay spokesman wouldn't comment on her particular situation but said the company has "striven to be lenient" regarding how it monitors discussion boards about its forthcoming changes.)

In an interview with the San Jose Mercury News, Lennert's voice was scratchy - from talking to so many reporters, she said - and she said she's getting more than 400 e-mails an hour. Most support the strike.

A comment by huge2na, attached to Lennert's video, is typical: "who made ebay rich? sellers by paying fees."

The changes are due to take effect on Feb. 20.

EBay isn't too worried about the possibility of a seller's strike, according to spokesman Usher Lieberman. He said the company isn't considering altering or postponing its policies due to the outcry.

"We've had hundreds of threats in the past, and they don't seem to have had much impact," he said.

Changes to the feedback-rating system - buyers will be able to leave positive or negative comments, but sellers will only be able to leave positive ones - seems to have generated most of the heat, he said. "Feedback draws a lot of passion from our community. It's one of our great innovations, so it's going to elicit a lot of input," Lieberman said.

Lennert's worst fear is that she'll have no recourse if she gets a negative comment from a buyer - or, she said, from a rival posing as a buyer.

"We don't want to damage eBay's bottom line," she said. "All we want to do is to get their attention."

EBay did announce a further price cut Monday for what it calls its media sellers - those offering books, music, video games and movies. Lieberman said that one of the changes it announced last month, allowing sellers to post photos for free, didn't really benefit media sellers.

"We've never had any category-specific pricing before, and we've been looking at it for a while," he said.

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