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Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Ups and Downs of Dealing with eBay

I have "been away" from stamp collecting for a few weeks. A few months, actually. Life-- as John Lennon once said-- is "what happens when you're busy making other plans."

Truth be known, my wife and I have several business ventures that have been demanding a lot of our attention since the new year-- and since I am not retired, my philatelic endeavors have been pushed into the background as "less important."

That hasn't actually been so hard to do, as I am a little disgruntled with eBay, these days. I suppose "being disgruntled with eBay" isn't new to many stamp collectors who deal with the online auction giant on a regular basis... although most of the complaints I see seem related to "high fees." Mine are not.

So, I'll share a "story" and see what you think... please DO leave a comment, when you're finished reading!

I have been a regular stamp seller on eBay since 1998. I'm not really a "pro" or a "dealer;" more like a "busy hobbyist." Over the years, I've watched the site morph from something akin to a giant online garage sale and collectors' mart to something more like a giant e-commerce platform for large companies and professional full-time sellers. UNlike many, I have no particular issue with eBay's focus on being a GIANT marketplace... it's a publicly traded corporation; they are "in it" to make money, not to make stamp traders happy.

However, I discovered this year the extent to which some of their policies simply don't make sense. I don't mean that as an expression of "my opinion," I mean that as "does not LOGICALLY make sense."

Back in the middle of 2012, I got an "alert" from eBay to let me know that my account performance as a seller was now "Below Standard," with the further message that I needed to "improve my performance" to bring said standards up to required levels.

I found this a little puzzling given that I have 100% positive feedback, going back several years. Once I got past the initial surprise, I decided I needed to understand this better... I called eBay and asked for them to explain exactly what was going on. I eventually spoke to "Steve" in Mumbai (sidebar note: I have NO issue whatsoever with talking to tech support in India. I DO have an issue with someone obviously named Ranjit or Arjay pretending his name is "Steve"... how stupid do they think I am???) who explained it a little better, but was otherwise deaf to my appeals that this didn't "make sense" given my 100% positive feedback and 15-year clear selling record.

So I did a little poking around in my account, checking my feedback, looking at old performance records to show me how I could suddenly have TEN "low ratings" against me but no negative feedback. As it turned out-- after a little detective work and process of elimination-- the ten "strikes against me" were low grades for "shipping cost." So I suddenly had about 5% "low scores" in ONE category... beyond the 2% permitted by eBay guidelines.

This is where it starts getting a little weird.

The "10 strikes" were all from ONE buyer who bought 10 items and left me 10 positive feedbacks for his purchases. His comments were even positive: "Nice stamp, promptly shipped, BETTER than described-- recommended seller." But yet... 10 low ratings for shipping costs.

Now, as anyone using eBay knows, when you make a multiple-item purchase or sale, and leave feedback for 10 items from the same seller at once, it only "counts" as ONE feedback point. Yet-- evidently-- if someone leaves you 10 low "detailed seller ratings" as part of the process, they all count against you. Basically... PLUS ONE point for doing things right, MINUS TEN points against for my shipping costs.

This gave me some serious pause for thought.

I'll add here-- just for the record-- that my eBay stamp shipping charges are 75 cents for the first stamp and 10 cents for each additional stamp in the same transaction. The buyer had paid $1.65 in postage on an envelope that cost me (at the time) $0.85 to mail-- and was evidently very angry about this-- even though my shipping charges were clearly spelled out, both within the listing AND in the "shipping information" area. The overall transaction was over $120.00, so this was not a person trying to "nickel and dime" me on cheap material. And, he left me positive feedback!

I called eBay customer service to ask if it could really be "right" that positive feedback counts only "per transaction" but negative detailed seller ratings count "per item." I spoke to someone who took lots of notes and did lots of typing (I could hear the keyboard) and then was put on hold-- then transferred to someone else, who took lots of notes and did lots of typing and put me on hold for five minutes-- then transferred me to a different department... where someone took the entire story once again, typed extensively (there must be a small BOOK about my call in their phone system!), commiserated, put me on hold, came back on, told me he'd forward me to a manager who "would be able to help me"... and then the call was dropped after eight more minutes on hold.

At this point I had been on the phone for 83 minutes and needed to go to an appointment, so I didn't call back, that day.

A couple of days later I had more or less resigned myself to the fact that I would have to spend the next couple of months listing a TON of stamps so I could get the several hundred positive "detailed seller ratings" needed to go from -4.5% to -2%. It may not look like much... but not all buyers click the stars when they leave feedback, so you actually have to have more transactions than the straight math suggests. I figured I needed about 400 positive transactions, just to be safe-- a lot of work, but NOT impossible. I'm just a hobbyist so it would be a fairly stout workload while also minding my day job.

But wait! Not so fast!

As I was about to embark on my marathon listing endeavor, I discovered something else. In the meantime, eBay had taken it upon itself to impose "selling limits" on my account. Suddenly... I could only list or sell "200 items per month." On top of that, I had already received a notice from PayPal that my account had been tagged as "high risk" due to my low seller rating, and that all incoming payments would be held for three weeks before being available to me, until further notice. Given that I already had more than half of the 200 item limit used up by existing listings, my hands were suddenly pretty tied...

I thought about this, for a bit-- feeling not so much angry as simply baffled by the way it made no sense. I was also grateful that I wasn't dependent on selling stamps for a living!

Part one, eBay wants me to improve my seller rating. Fine, I accept that.

Part two, HOW do I do that? By selling lots of stuff to HAPPY customers, so my average score improves.

Part three, now my account is "LIMITED," so I CAN'T actually DO what you want me to do???


And all this because ONE person got to give me TEN "bad marks" for ONE transaction.

The breakdown in logic that lies at the heart of this situation is not even about ME. I could deal with that. eBay says "YOU are a bad seller, so we punish YOU." But that's not effectively what's happening.

I see eBay-- as a publicly traded corporation with shareholders to keep happy, through PROFITS-- now having policies in place that means they are actually agreeing to reduce their revenues? Think about it-- if I am "encouraged" to list a ton of stamps in order to improve my performance, it means they will make a bunch more money from seller fees. Instead... they have policies that dictate that I can't actually DO what they "need" me to do, to comply with that policy!

Once more, I called eBay-- primarily to see if I could find some person, somewhere, who could actually see and comprehend the faulty logic in the policy. I went through another cycle of "explain-hold-transfer" to three different people... and wouldn't you know it? My call was somehow "dropped" during the 4th transfer/hold segment.

HOW do I remember all this, all these months later, you might be wondering? Well, I used to work in the IT industry-- and before that worked customer service at a retail store-- so I got quite used to documenting (with computer screen shots, even) customer and tech support phone calls down to the N'th degree, getting everyone's name, rank, serial number, department, time, extension number and what have you. I have a pretty much EXACT record of what's in eBay's phone recording and monitoring system. I don't DO "hearsay" and "he said/she said" unless I feel capable of potentially backing it up with hard documentation in a court of law.

But I'm digressing.

A couple more months passed. I worked within my selling limits as best I could, trying to improve my ratings-- which really made very little difference.

Then I got another "alert" from eBay, this time to let me know that my eBay Store Subscription would be canceled unless I brought my monthly sales levels up to the required levels to maintain the subscription. But WAIT! My account has selling limits, making that an impossibility. Bye-bye store...

A cynical part of me briefly considered the possibility that this was the way eBay was planning to make up for the lost revenue because I could no longer list and sell freely... instead of discounted store listings, I would now have to pay the full "rack rate" for everything listed.

The other thing that seemed illogical about the whole thing was the email from eBay stating that sellers with lower sales ratings would have their listings reduced in "rank" in searches. So basically... in a single paragraph:

You want me to improve my performance (fair enough!) which I can ONLY do through listing and selling MORE items, which you will NOT allow me to do, AND the lower volume of items I CAN list you plan to bury in search results somewhere in western Wyoming where nobody will find them... BUT it is "really important" that I improve my selling performance, because otherwise you will take away my store, which is my MEANS to do what you are asking me to do.

Did I miss any nuances, there?

Am I the only one for whom-- from a totally objective perspective-- this just doesn't MAKE SENSE... from a financial-- let alone ethical-- standpoint?

Needless to say, I have just not felt very "inspired" to deal with eBay on ANY level, including using it to buy new stamps for my collections. And certainly not to list anything new... seem the best strategy right now is just to let the "bad marks" quietly expire... they drop off my "counting score" once they are 12 months old, and then resume trading when that occurs. eBay has been one of those places I've relied on to find interesting collections to "cherry pick" for varieties... and then sell what I don't need. It'll be a while before I can do that, again...

If you've actually read through this entire saga and have arrived here, I'd love to hear your perspective on this. I'm really not in the business of "eBay bashing" (as many are), but I AM curious about this, and about whether it seems like I'm reacting unreasonably. So please leave a comment!