Outraged eBay sellers plot strike week
Boycotts by irate sellers are nothing new for eBay - but organizers hope this time, they'll have critical mass.
(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Ever since eBay (EBAY, Fortune 500) announced changes to its feedback rules and fee structure last week, sellers have been irate, exploding onto message boards and blogs with discussions about how the new policies will affect their businesses. But when the idea of a strike was floated, some sellers and buyers decided to get more organized about expressing their displeasure.
A discussion thread on eBay's own forums with the title "Sign the pledge_no sales Feb 18-25!" has received 4,000 posts in nine days, many expressing members' intentions to join the boycott. The strike is scheduled to overlap eBay's planned Feb. 20 launch date for its new policies, which include fee hikes, a 21-day hold on some funds sent through its PayPal payment service, and disallowing sellers from leaving negative feedback for their buyers.
Facebook and MySpace pages dedicated to the strike are circulating, along with an online petition, and a mailing list called the Online Seller Cyber Union has gathered more than 700 emails in a week. A YouTube video on Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) entitled "Feb 18-25th 2008: Worldwide Ebay Strike" has racked up more than 16,000 views since Saturday.
"It's like a rallying cry for other sellers," said Valerie Lennert, creator of the YouTube video. "It was another way of letting people know that they were not alone. My inbox is overflowing with people that are ticked off."
Past boycotts fizzled
EBay boycott attempts are hardly a new phenomenon. The eBay community has always been stridently vocal about the fee and policy changes that the company introduces nearly every January, and previous seller strikes, such as one protesting eBay's 2006 fee hikes, were largely ineffective.
"We've seen a lot of these. They haven't really changed eBay's mind before," said David Steiner, president of AuctionBytes, a trade publication for online merchants that has followed the online auction industry since 1999. "But this is a pretty severe one. People are much angrier than last year."
EBay says it's unworried by the rebellious rhetoric.
"We have a passionate community, and we are not surprised to hear them voicing concern," eBay spokesman Usher Lieberman said via e-mail. "However, when our sellers have had ample opportunity to evaluate the entire package we now offer and consider the traffic and trading velocity we deliver every day, we are confident that they will conclude eBay remains their best business partner."
Nonetheless, support for the planned strike later this month seems to be snowballing. Some sellers see it as their last resort for protesting changes more drastic than any eBay has previously unleashed.
Joe Hackney of Sadetha, Kan., has run a business selling used motorcycle parts through eBay auctions since 2002. His decision to take part in the boycott means losing a week of business: about $6,500 in gross sales, plus the cost of wages for two employees who will be sent home on paid leave.
If the action is successful in persuading eBay to change its new rules, Hackney thinks it'll be worth it. Otherwise, he expects the new fees to cost him an extra $4,000 a year, an expense he says he has no choice but to pay.
"I'm scared because there isn't anywhere else to go," he said. "I've looked at other sites and there's no one there."
Other upset sellers are hoping to colonize new sites with a fresh influx of fleeing eBay merchants.
Joyce Wilson of Marion, Ohio, makes scrapbooks and sells them on eBay through auctions and a storefront. She plans to boycott eBay, but she's also already moving her products to Etsy.com, an online store for handmade items. She knows that she won't get as much traffic as she does now, but she's confident that she can start bringing some of her eBay customers to the new site.
"I'm in the process of looking into other options," she said. "But I'm going to see what eBay's reaction is. It's up to their reaction whether I stay or not."
YouTube videomaker Lennert, who has also been handing out boycott fliers at her local post office in Anaheim, Calif., feels she has no choice but to protest and hope eBay takes note. Last month, she quit her job as a social worker to instead sell doll clothing on eBay full-time. Less than a week later, the fee changes were announced, and Lennert realized that they would put too much pressure on her bottom line.
"Now I'm interviewing for another job because I don't think I can pull it together enough to make a profit on eBay," she said. She plans to boycott eBay both as a seller and as a buyer.
"That's it. No more, until something is done about these changes," she said.