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Selling on eBay and Amazon – The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

If you sell products online, you’ve no doubt wondered about eBay and Amazon. Is it worth it to set up shop on either of these sites, given the steep commissions they charge?

I’ve been managing my client’s e-commerce on Amazon for the past five years and on eBay for the past three. Both sites sell a good number of his many automotive accessories. But the price he pays, along with numerous accompanying annoyances, make it a questionable relationship at best.

What They Charge

First, to stay competitive, we offer free continental U.S. shipping on both sites which can range anywhere from a few dollars to $35-$40 per order depending on weight. Amazon then takes 12 percent of the total cost. With eBay, which has an incredibly confusing system of fees and charges, it’s next to impossible to figure out what it is getting per item. After wading through the murky waters of its monthly listing fees, I figure a $100 item costs my client $11.20 or 11.2 percent. Add to that the three percent PayPal fee he must pay when buyers charge their accounts. What’s left must cover his manufacturing costs, company overhead and taxes.

Buyers are Protected; Sellers are Suspect

Although my client sells his products on his own website as well, with many fewer complications, when he sells on eBay or Amazon, buyers seem to have more reasons to complain. “The product was not what they expected.” “The product didn’t fit the vehicle as described.” “The product arrived damaged.”

Both eBay and Amazon stand behind their buyers, putting the fear of God into sellers who will end up with a bad rating if an issue goes unresolved. It’s easy to stipulate in your company policies that the buyer must pay return shipping. But when it comes down to a problem where the customer says the seller is at fault, it is easier and safer to just pay the return shipping and get rid of the problem.

Bad seller ratings can devastate a business.

Sellers: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

One morning I opened my e-mail to learn that a large Asian automobile manufacturer for which many of my client’s products are made to fit had alerted eBay that one of my client’s listings was counterfeit and was infringing on its copyright. eBay promptly removed our listing and provided the e-mail of the source of the complaint. After conferring with my client’s lawyer, we decided to just ignore this incident and relist the item, which the lawyer had confirmed was totally valid and legal in every way. With some 130 other listings on eBay all presented in a similar way, we worried that next we might see all of our listings removed without warning. We have heard nothing of this issue since.

Questionable Technical Support

Of the numerous problems we have encountered on Amazon, the most frustrating has been our inability to get our 180 to 200 products listed in the automobile part finder search engine. For years we’ve been trying to determine the cause of this roadblock. Amazon first claimed our listings were non-compliant with their listing format. Yet, after all were corrected, the products still did not enter the part finder. We were recently told that our products needed to have UPC codes. My client obediently paid the $1,500 annual fee to the national registrar, and I promptly registered our first 20 products.

After much waiting and further pleas to the Amazon help desk, those parts failed to enter the part finder. We were then told our products had to be included in the American Aftermarket Association’s ACES database, the implementation of which would require the engagement of a specialist. It was then my job to provide him with a very detailed spreadsheet database of every product specification so he could re-scramble that information into an XML file to ultimately submit to Amazon. Once again, after paying his fee and submission of his 500-plus product file (since every color variation must have its own file), we find ourselves still not in the part finder. This time we were told there was a disagreement of data in the specification of our brand name. Having added a missing space in our company name to be consistent with older Amazon records that are now obsolete, our specialist resubmitted our data and we await the results. With so much time, effort and money spent for the purpose of this goal, it hardly seems likely that our sales can possibly increase enough to justify all these expenses, even if we do manage to get in the part finder this time.

Out of Touch with Reality

On eBay, whose listing template includes a compatibility chart, we cannot specify that our accessories will fit the 2013 car models until January 2013. Yet, anyone shopping for a vehicle can purchase a 2013 model as early as August 2012. Although eBay suggests that we include text in our listing confirming the 2013 fit, not a day passes when a buyer distrusts our listing because it does not confirm the 2013 fit in the compatibility chart.

While I have to admit communicating with the eBay support staff is far easier than that of Amazon, satisfying results are still hard to accomplish on both sites. Usually eBay phone reps must confer with background technicians who rarely have solutions to problems. But unlike Amazon which keeps phone contact mysteriously impossible, a live eBay rep can be reached by phone within as little as two minutes. That is reassuring, at least.

When Hurricane Sandy hit us hard this month, eBay offered exceptional assistance in protecting sellers from customer shipping delay ramifications. Amazon offered no such support. I personally was without electric, heat, hot water, phone and Internet access for six full days. Our inventory was flooded and UPS shipping was temporarily suspended. Luckily I was able to post a note on our website in time to alert buyers that delays were unpredictable before our power was rudely cut off.

Inconveniences Galore!

Because eBay stipulates that we must keep our total listings under a certain maximum dollar value, I must monitor our sales on a daily basis to safeguard against delisting if we sell out. For instance, with many of our products priced between $100 and $300, we can only list an available quantity of two or three of each so our 130 products don’t exceed our total monthly allowance. If a product delists, we have to pay a relisting fee when reinstated. If I catch it before it delists (at a quantity of one available), there is no relisting fee charged. During the Hurricane power outage, my Internet access was dependent on using my local library’s Wi-Fi that sometimes could not accommodate me due to an overcrowded bandwidth. As a result, I was not always on time to prevent delisting. Fortunately, Amazon has no such requirements for our 200 products, allowing me to assign a quantity of 50 items or more per listing, which is much more convenient.

Please, Release Me!

However, unique to Amazon and inexplicably obtuse, if you want to change any of your company policy information, you must first set up a “release date.” And you cannot release any of your changes until you “approve” your release. You cannot approve a release unless you have a future release date set up simultaneously. Huh? After five years of consternation about this illogical, cumbersome system, I still stumble through the process whenever I need to update our returns or shipping policies.

Yet I can set up a sale on a moment’s notice without the need to release anything.

Template Differences Affect Your Sales Appeal

Although eBay has a template which controls listing format, it offers an area where you can present your photos and text however you prefer as well as add interactive links to related pages or documents associated with the product.

Amazon’s format is very rigid and does not allow use of interactive links or design formatting of any kind. In fact, within the last year, Amazon terminated use of its relatively easy online listing template.

This was replaced by the need to use a temperamental Excel Spreadsheet format that habitually prevents successful upload due to coding errors out of the user’s control. My only recourse when that happens is to keep removing the offensive items until the file finally uploads and then restore the missing information or photos separately. Thank goodness that works.

However, neither site allows global management of all listing data. This means that each of our 330 files must be edited separately, which becomes a monumental job when quick changes are needed.

Changes made to an eBay listing are evident immediately. Changes to an Amazon listing can take up to 12 hours to appear – not too efficient if you’ve just sold out of something.

Several days ago, when our website server went down for a few hours, eBay could not access any photos, logos, referenced documents or links associated with our website, leaving our product pages eerily empty. Amazon did not suffer the same consequences since all of our artwork is uploaded to their server, not accessed from ours.

Search Engine Considerations

If I search Google for any of the products my client sells, his website comes up at the top of Page 1. If I add the words “on eBay” or “on Amazon,” his listings on each respective site are at the top of the list. Preferring to sell from his own website first, since that is most profitable and customers usually pay shipping (unless we have a sale with free shipping), he is quite pleased with his search rankings.

My client also appreciates that eBay and Amazon have their own legions of followers who enjoy the safety of customer protection and intervention in case of a problem. This is one of the main reasons he agreed to set up extensive stores on each site.

Despite the many difficulties associated with selling on eBay and Amazon, I believe my client is resigned to continuing with them because his notoriety on Google has compounded exponentially as a result of his associations with these Internet behemoths. While he makes very little from product sales on these sites, his presence could be considered free advertising to an entire planet of customers.

Someday he may capitalize on the many global requests he gets now by setting up an international distribution network that would allow him to offer his products worldwide.

Until then, both eBay and Amazon provide us with excellent exposure we could never afford to purchase, sometimes netting us a small profit in the process. By staying cognizant of customer feedback on both sites, we’ve maintained fairly high seller ratings as well as good reviews. It may take a little extra effort but, in the long run, I’d say both sites serve a very good purpose.


Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 36 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics, writing and web design. As a specialist in branding, she assists many of her clients with management of their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but also through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at http://www.midhudsonmarketing.com.

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Marilyn Bontempo

Marilyn Bontempo, president of Mid-Hudson Marketing, based in Holmes, New York, has been developing strategies for business success for more than 45 years. A professional writer and graduate of Bard College, she has won numerous awards for excellence in marketing, photography, graphics, writing and web design. As a specialist in branding, she assists many of her clients with management of their social media and public relations initiatives. In addition, she handles e-commerce for a number of online merchants not only on their own websites but through eBay, Amazon and others. View her work at https://www.midhudsonmarketing.com

6 Comments

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  • I love shopping on EBAY and using PAYPAL, because it is so Cheap ( competitive ) and Easy( shop from home ), just like me ( Cheap and Easy ). The internet has changed from ordering products on TV and using the phone or driving to and from stores to a seamless on-line system.

  • Excellent story but you forgot to mention AZ claims. They can literally destroy a seller. Amazon only allow a couple of % occur in a month, but buyers are using them more frequently and completely abusing the system. It is getting to the stage where customers are using them to get freebies!! Amazon expect you to resolve issues “anyway possible” before a AZ claim is raised, what the mean is that the seller needs to refund without thinking! Terrible for sellers. Ebay is the same with their disputes! Everyone should higher there prices on these sites and sell cheaper on your own website! Around 15% cheaper when you take commission…

    • Yes…AZ claims have progressively gotten more brutal as time has passed (since this article was written a couple of years ago.) And I agree, sellers are positioned as the “bad guys” which is totally unfair. Unfortunately, Amazon’s policy is that you must offer the same pricing you use on your website. However, I haven’t seen evidence of much checking in that regard so your suggestion is probably a good strategy. Thanks for your comments.

  • Amazon is the worst place to sell because of the seller central rating data that is very hard to achieve 100 percent because it’s designed that way so that the seller will have poor rating than the Amazon fulfilled sellers. Customer service is very poor too and mostly through messages that seems like it all programmed and ends up with no real answers but just frustration for sellers. Seller pay monthly for a bad customer service and get very poor rating because of spoiled customers who make many bad excuses about the product they buy so as to return them and Amazon take their side to avoid bad image. They don’t care about the sellers at all because they can sell most of the products themselves and they are also competing against the sellers.

  • 16 year ebay power seller wanting to migrate business over to amazon…Never in my life have I encountered such a cluster of non-stop BS, including the stream of coding errors trying to upload ONE simple product that we manufacture, into the automotive category…the coding error stated I didn’t have this item in a children’s size..yes thats right, an external car part, in children’s size. When I finally got the work around for that, another error pops up, and another, and another. I was up until 4am trying to simply get ONE product into my inventory, and never was able to. If it wasnt that, it was UPC code requirement – again, for my own product…oh, you can apply to exempt out of that, but good luck, that dept was worse then Seller support, which was of NO help, telling me at one point, they couldn’t locate my web site…the same web site they referenced back to me when I under went the initial verification process. WTH!…its was literally 2 weeks of constant documents, emails, total and non-sensical BS and red tape to which I never was able to get past. I had heard that amazon was a ruff go, getting set up as a seller, but I had no idea. It was a total nightmare and complete waste of my time, to say nothing of the horror stories Ive heard about buyer scam-back (a-z returns) BS picture policy regarding branding MY OWN products, etc. NO thanks, Ill stick with ebay, least there the system is somewhat configured to help you sell, unlike amazon!