eBay struggles to keep die-hard users happy

By Brian Bergstein, The Associated Press
Saturday June 15, 2002

SAN JOSE — Twelve eBay users from around the country have been invited to company headquarters to give the Internet auction site’s executives pieces of their minds: Customer service is lousy. The search engine is weak. Pop-up ads are deplorable. 

The eBay manager writing down their gripes quickly fills a large sheet of paper, then two, then three, eventually taping so many onto a wall that new ones go on the door. 

Michael Benson, a baseball card collector from St. Louis, adds his complaint: “eBay is going with the big sellers over the little sellers.” Murmurs of assent can be heard around the table. “You’ve got to get back to mom and pop sellers,” nods Judy Tomlin of Mecosta, Mich. 

That complaint is not new, but it is becoming increasingly common among longtime eBay users. Many say eBay, committed to growth, is giving big companies an unfair advantage by prominently featuring their brand-name wares, creating tough competition for the millions of regular folks who made eBay huge. 

“It’s so infuriating to see the stock continually rise and know that it’s happening because the little guy is taking it in the shins,” said collectibles seller Tricia Spencer of Riverside, Calif., who was not among the 12 users invited to headquarters. “It’s like a kingdom where the serfs have done all the work and the king eats hale and hearty while the serfs starve.” 

EBay executives say the charge is unfounded. But they acknowledge that after eBay’s astonishing rise in recent years, it is more difficult than ever to stay connected to its treasured “community” — the hobbyists and small businesses that trade everything from AstroTurf to zithers, and dole out “feedback points” that reflect their online reputations. 

“Our communication, frankly, to the community is broken,” Bill Cobb, eBay’s director of marketing, told the group of 12 at eBay’s most recent “Voice of the Customer” session. “We have to figure out a better way.” 

EBay hopes relations get a big boost from its first “community celebration,” called eBay Live, June 21-23 in Anaheim. More than 3,000 users are expected to mingle with company managers, trade advice on how to buy and sell things in more cost-effective ways, hear a speech by CEO Meg Whitman and attend an awards ceremony. 

Founded in 1995, eBay is by far the world’s top Internet auction site, with nearly 50 million registered users and sites in 27 countries. 

It long ago shed its roots as an online flea market. With big companies such as Dell and IBM now unloading goods on eBay, the site is more like a giant mall with a flea market and a used-car dealership in the parking lot.