eBay's Revamp is Taking Too Long

eBay’s 2017 Q1 earnings were mostly in-line with expectations. Gross Merchandise Volume for the quarter was $20.03 billion, up by 2 percent from $19.58 billion last year. But for comparison, US e-commerce is growing 15 percent.

eBay marketplace now has 169 million active buyers, 2 million more than last year. But growing this number is costing eBay more - last quarter they spent $562 million on sales and marketing, up by 4.5 percent from a year ago.

They also spent $278 million on product development last quarter, up by 16.3 percent from last year. This, combined with increasing marketing costs, is worth paying attention to.

eBay’s future, at least in public, has been about structured data, new user experience development and efforts around AI and machine learning. Structured data has been the most visible one, talked about in every earnings call.

Structured data idea is simple: When two people (or 2,000 people) use eBay to sell the same thing, each in different condition and each with minor variations, eBay wants to know that they are the same product or related products.

Once that is achieved, eBay can build many features competitors have. From improved search relevancy, to recommendations, to tools for sellers for increasing their sales. But there is a problem - eBay has been talking about the structured data initiative since at least the start of 2015, so it’s been two years, and there isn’t yet much to show for it.

We think the biggest issue with the structured data initiative is it is taking too long.

Obviously the catalog of over a billion products is a big undertaking to modernize, but our consensus is still the lack of urgency. Many companies undertaking multi-year projects tend to struggle, and in this case a more agile approach of improving gradually might have worked better. Today eBay is a mix of old technology and new initiatives, clearly visible when browsing eBay.com online where some pages are fresh and modern, while many are still the same like they were 10 years ago. It is unclear just how much more work is left to get done.

eBay plans in the next several months to introduce a three-day delivery guarantee on millions of products. This is a great example of a user experience improvement, since it relies on data eBay already has - tracking numbers. It will make buying easier for many customers, and doesn’t seem to require long and expensive technology investments. These are the sort of gradual improvements we want to be seeing.

This is why over time eBay has disappeared from many tech and investor magazines and newspapers. There is a lot of talk about new technology investments, but it is taking too long, and so far has not contributed to GMV or users growth in a measurable way.

It might be somewhat baffling to see eBay put so much attention on an initiative like structured data. It is like a car company reporting to stockholders that it is investing in a new alloy for brakes. But eBay’s future is pinned on structured data. It is the first step of becoming a Big Data company, utilizing data, machine learning and AI to build customer experiences. We are just unexcited how long it is taking, as competition is not standing still.

eBay’s turnaround is not here yet.

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Juozas Kaziuk─Śnas

Founder of Marketplace Pulse, Juozas wears multiple hats in the management of Marketplace Pulse, including writing most of the articles. Based in New York City. Advisor to other startups and entrepreneurs. Occasional speaker at conferences.

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