eBay’s new economy: 69 million users buying, selling

Selling and buying online has been made easy and enticing by the granddaddy of all e-commerce sites – eBay.com. Kevin Pursglove lives and breathes eBay culture as their senior communications director. Want to do a little shopping through their 16 million items for sale or supplement your paycheck by selling your neglected trinkets?

Kevin tells us about the fun to be had dabbling your feet in the waters of eBay – and how eBay can help you sail through tough economic times.

Q: Most people probably don’t realize how diverse the selection is at eBay. How broad is your database?

Pursglove: A lot of people remember eBay from its early days when people would clean out their garage or attic and sell merchandise on eBay. But eBay has branched much further than that. There are 26,000 categories on eBay right now. On any given day, eBay users have a choice of 16 million listings and eBay users will create 2 million new listings each and every day. Those listings are in categories as wide ranging as antiques, books and sports memorabilia, which were around in the early days. Some of the newer categories are business, industrial, home furnishing, computers and electronics.

Q: What are some of the unusual things available on eBay?

Pursglove: Elvis Presley-related merchandise has always been one of the more popular categories on our site. I have seen everything from used bowling shirts with Elvis Presley’s image, some very early 45s as well as a recent listing where a seller suggested they actually had a tooth, a lock of Elvis Presley’s hair, as well as one of his early recordings. If you did a really quick sample on eBay of Elvis-related items, I wouldn’t be surprised if you found 14,000 items available on the site.

Q: It’s fascinating that all these items are coming out of the woodwork that you couldn’t conceive someone would sell.

Pursglove: When eBay first started in 1995, it was not unusual for us to hear stories of those no longer limited by their region in terms of their trading. Now they could sell merchandise across state lines. As time went on, people could sell anywhere in the United States. Now close to 10-12 percent of the merchandise bought and sold on eBay crosses international boundaries.

Q: Is eBay growing into those other countries rapidly?

Pursglove: Despite the company’s phenomenal growth over the past five years, there’s a possibility for us to grow even further because eBay is only scratching 2 percent of the overall accessible market area. Part of that is the international reach. eBay sellers now conduct about 37 percent of our business through international transactions. eBay is in the United Kingdom, there is eBay Germany, eBay in Seoul, Korea – all of the sites are growing at very nice rates right now. In the not too distant future, eBay International will actually outsell eBay U.S.

Q: eBay has created a lot of new businesses as people have looked at selling as an employment opportunity. With today’s economy and so many people out of work, are you seeing a big boom with people earning their livelihood through eBay?

Pursglove: It’s hard to get precise numbers, but just anecdotally we’ve done some research and we estimate that somewhere in the neighborhood of 165,000 eBay users now regularly make a full-time income on eBay, either as a sole proprietor or as the operator of a very small business that may employ 5-10 people. That could be anywhere from people selling automobiles, toys or pet supplies. It really doesn’t matter which category sellers are located. The chances to make a full-time income or substantially supplement one’s income are very real on eBay. Of course, as everyone knows who has started a business, it can take a lot of work and a lot of hours.

Q: eBay is known for selling used items. Are you also moving into selling brand new items?

Pursglove: We do a little bit of it. Where eBay can really add value is where inefficiencies exist in the current marketplace. For example, when a brand new item’s first coming out and, for some reason, the item will be available on eBay before national retailers will get hold of the product. This is typically a very short period of time – one to two weeks – where the item becomes very popular and high in demand and the people come to eBay to find the item. Six or seven months down the road, when the item has fallen out of season or comes to the end of its lifecycle, that again is where eBay will be a good place for the buyers and sellers.

For example, the retailers are getting ready for the fall season and might start stocking jackets and sweaters. It’s possible some retailers may test market the merchandise on eBay in the very early stages. The item is in very limited supply and there is high demand on eBay. After that it will find its way into the retailers across the country. Then in another seven months, the jacket will be out of season and you’ll see it on eBay again. It is at those double ends of the lifecycle of the product that eBay feels it can offer value.

Q: Can you explain your philosophy on how eBay has built this rabid group of buyers and sellers?

Pursglove: eBay was really built by the users. Employees at eBay consider themselves stewards of the marketplace. What we do is watch the trends of our buyers and sellers and then make strategic decisions on how to help them buy and sell. The community is really the heart of eBay. The best thing that eBay can do is stay out of the way, watch what our users do, and provide them with the tools they need.

A great example of this is eBay Motors. We just watched a group of buyers and sellers in our miscellaneous category buy and sell automobiles for a period of four to five months. We began doing surveys of our users to see if they were really interested in selling and buying cars on eBay. So we started providing the tools like on-site mechanic inspections, the escrow service and insurance shipping that made the market grow bigger and bigger. But it was really the users that came up with the idea.

Dana Greenlee is co-host, producer and engineer of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based radio and Webcast show featuring technology news and interviews.