David Brackin, managing director of Stuff U Sell, the leading eBay trading assistant in the UK and a regular Tamebay contributor. Today he takes a look at the eBay Authenticity Guarantee and questions whether it’s fully supporting sellers or if there are too many false positives built in which can negatively impact the shopping experience for high value buyers:
If you sell everything, competitors will come and cherry-pick valuable categories leaving you the harder sales: Watchfinder and Vestiaire Collective have been dining handsomely on eBay’s lunch for years. High ticket items in these categories mean buyers need to give a lot of trust and eBay also gives ground to new-comers here. In the early 2000s eBay suffered from many fakes and scams and as a result invented most of the answers to reputation and trust in ecommerce. Not all of these were good – for example the terrible VeRO scheme that was born of the 2004 Tiffany lawsuit – but overall buyers can be confident that they can buy genuine goods and always return them if they are not happy. However, somewhat unfairly, eBay’s reputation is yet to catch up, and in any case on high ticket items, errors – even if resolved – are bad experiences.
With GMV lagging and the alternative being the death spiral of charging sellers ever more, eBay has decided to fight back. During last week’s Q2 results, CEO Jamie Iannone doubled down on the “focus categories” and in particular “investments in trust” in those categories. The main investment in trust is the eBay Authenticity Guarantee programme which has rolled out in the UK for sneakers (over £100), watches (over £2,000) and handbags (over £500). A pilot for fine jewellery has started in the US.
The Authenticity Guarantee works by putting eBay in the middle of the transaction – the seller sends the item to the authentication centre which inspects the item and then sends it on to the buyer with a little note to reassure them that it has been fully checked – or rejects it and sends the item back to the seller, refunding the buyer. The buyer gets their item a little later but with a full guarantee.
So that’s the theory, but how does it work in practice? My business sells a lot of branded goods, in particular sneakers, so we have been involuntary guinea-pigs.
Getting directly involved in the logistics is high risk for eBay – but this isn’t it’s first time: the Global Shipping Programme remains one of the better eBay products – but that was always optional, grew slowly and developed over many years, and built out customer guarantees to ensure that it was never worse for buyers and sellers. Unfortunately the Authenticity programme has been rushed out, is poorly integrated into the existing product flow and has little by way of support for sellers.
The first returns we saw were a complete surprise given that we weren’t selling fakes. The return notification email has no detail and you have to dig into the returns section of the website to find the few words that might help you understand what is wrong. It seemed the authenticator had an issue with our description and in particular the condition statement. I pay good attention to eBay’s announcements but this is when I first learnt that the authenticators of the Authenticity Programme are concerned with more than just authenticity – they claim to be expert in all the subjective areas of the description. Authenticity does more than it says on the tin. I hope that this nuance wasn’t lost of our buyers who may have left with the impression that if our item failed Authentication then we must sell fakes. With a dozen detailed photos and plenty of words detailing everything on the shoes, this highlighted a problem with eBay: the condition categories just aren’t fit for purpose. Any buyer will have been fully aware of exactly what they were buying but the tickboxes were “wrong”. A short discussion on how to fix this was had and we resold the shoes. Only to have them returned a second time. Apparently the next authenticator disagreed with the judgement of the first so we had to make another change. Two disappointed buyers and a lot of effort later they were sold to a third buyer. We’ll never know if the first two buyers would have been happy with the shoes in the condition described and photographed as they never got the chance to see them.
Then came the accusations of inauthentic goods. Several pairs of shoes sent back that had impeccable provenance. Chanel. McQueen. All mistakenly rejected. Customer Services were not well briefed on how to handle these errors. The authenticators are assumed to be infallible. “I’m not 100% sure what to do – there is no way to appeal the decision”, one agent told me. With no way to appeal there must be no way for eBay to know what is going wrong. Were my buyers being told I sell fakes? Apparently eBay tries to call each buyer twice but it was clear that my buyers had not been spoken with. My reputation with these high spenders was tarnished. And then came the account sanctions – ended listings, suspensions and all items hidden in search to start the weekend.
What about returns – does this programme at least protect the seller there? Well the integration into the returns flow has been shoe-horned in. Communications are not customised so templated emails are now nonsensical. Funds are mysteriously placed on hold. Despite the checks, if the buyer says it is not as described, then you still pay for the return postage label and the item is sent to the authenticator who then checks it and refunds the buyer before posting it back to the seller. This reverses the normal inventory flow where the stock return triggers the refund and then the relist.
I must say that in each case customer services, once you speak with the right person, were excellent at working through and escalating the problem and trying to get fixes. But each one probably takes an hour of my time as well as several emails and multiple calls – and what happens if you don’t have access to the right person? Account sanctions are so serious that they take precedence over all other activities – sourcing new stock, merchandising and delighting customers must all take a back seat. These errors – even if resolved – are bad experiences.
The Authenticity programme is an honest effort to solve a genuine problem, but it is so poorly executed at a product and operational level that is does more harm than good. The individuals doing the work are likely experts at sneakers but not at eBay, and the tech and communications that surround them is badly flawed – it looks like no one has even bothered to read them. eBay needs to limit its ambition in the early days of this programme, listen more closely to feedback and have the humility to recognise where it is failing. It needs to focus on better execution rather than rolling out this out across further categories at full speed.
If this is as important as the CEO suggested it is, then it needs to be properly resourced and executed. eBay needs to hold itself to as high as standard as it does its sellers. Juvenal famously once asked who it was who should guard the guardians. eBay needs to figure out who will authenticate the authenticators.