For many of eBay's 125 million users around the world, there's nothing simpler than selling stuff via the online auction site and then shipping it out. But not for all of them. "It seems like a pain in the neck," says Rosalie Labovitch, a fashion consultant from West London, who wanted to sell a cashmere dressing gown but didn't want to deal with the nuts and bolts of the process. "I lead a very busy life. I just want to get rid." With no time to write a blurb and take digital photos of the gown, submit them to eBay, monitor the auction, and await payment before shipping the item, Labovitch instead brought her gown to Auctioning4u a two-year-old London company that did it all for her. The firm got her a $630 selling price, and took just over $200 of that for itself.
Welcome to the latest in eBay piggyback businesses. Fostered by eBay's breakneck growth in the U.S., leading independent drop-off businesses offering to collect unwanted items through a network of store locations and trade them on eBay for a share of the sale price are now shipping as many as 5,000 items per week in the U.S. And with eBay business outside of the U.S. now soaring international transaction revenue leapt 64% to $344 million in the last quarter, compared with 24% growth within the U.S. the drop-off sector is taking off in Europe. Auctioning4u CEO Christian Braun began trading from his London home, but his company now ships 60 items a day, collecting goods from its five London stores and handling every stage of the eBay selling process. For that, it takes up to one third of each item's selling price. "You drop it here, then get a check six weeks later," says Braun, a 37-year-old former private equity manager in London. Braun, who now has 19 employees, says he plans to open 30 more stores in and around London by the end of the year.
Given the size of the eBay economy goods worth $34.2 billion were sold through the online mart last year Braun has plenty of competition. London-based AuctionAssist this week unveils a deal making its fledgling drop-off service available to as many as 10,000 British post offices over the next 12 months. Munich-based dropshop, which sold more than 15,000 items through eBay last year, expects to expand into Britain in 2005. And California's iSold It, one of the largest drop-off chains in the U.S. with around 5,000 items sold each week, is planning stores in Britain and Germany over the coming months, with U.S. rival QuikDrop International readying for its own U.K. opening later this year.
Is outsourcing your eBay experience worth the price? Drop-off services claim they'll take a better quality picture than most sellers, and lace the items' blurbs with keywords that buyers prize. "Expert sellers can give an added value," insists dropshop CEO Bart Swanson. Moreover, for buyers put off bidding by a seller who has little or no positive feedback from other eBay users, drop-off services can offer peace of mind: many of the more experienced ones are part of a kind of approved guild in the competitive world of online selling. Typically, drop-off businesses will also exploit the eBay Shop service, which offers any serious trader his or her own dedicated Web address, and allows buyers to search each seller's own "shop" for listings.
Officially, eBay claims that it tries to treat all sellers equally. "We demand that drop-off locations follow the same rules that every other trader follows," says Hani Durzy, eBay spokesman. "That they're open, honest, communicative, and that they ship fast." But as drop-off businesses' sales climb, eBay "can't ignore people who have volume," says Ken Sully, CEO of iSold It. "When you start to become a bigger player, of course you're going to get looked at a little differently." Sully says he hopes to strengthen marketing and promotion ties by working closely with the company.
But might eBay help itself instead by launching its own drop-off service? Durzy admits that the growth of U.S. drop-off firms took eBay by surprise, and that it has considered launching its own facility. But, he says, "we need to focus on what we do best: making it easier to connect buyers and sellers." Or perhaps it's waiting for a market shakeout. California-based AuctionDrop, one of the biggest operations in the U.S., recently closed four of its five stores, shifting focus to drop-off points inside parcel-courier UPS' stores. That might not be the best move, says Scott H. Kessler, an Internet retail equity analyst at Standard & Poor's in New York City, suggesting that UPS employees "don't really know a heck of a lot about the AuctionDrop service." Regardless of who's running it, the eBay drop-off business is in Europe to stay. Satisfied with her regular forays into the eBay world, Labovitch says others are in the same rushed position she is. "I think there's a little seedling," she says, "waiting to explode."