Is EBay's eBay Express Too Different?

Efforts by the Web's top auction site to have a service that sells products without an auction are stumbling, according to a report in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal. (Note: Subscription may be needed for that link to work.) The story discusses lackluster sales results for longtime eBay sellers and cites Hitwise stats identifying eBay's traditional auction site as the number one consumer destination among online retailers in November, while the non-auction unit (eBay Express) sat at #87 for the same month.

Much eBay Wall Street discussion recently has put pressure on eBay Express as the way of the future for eBay to compete. I respectfully disagree. Although it would certainly be pleasant for eBay if this new service went well, there's a simple explanation for its weak showing. It's not what people expect from eBay. Consumers are creatures of habit and comfort. If they want the auction experience, they go to eBay and that has been a stunningly successful strategy for them. But moving into the non-auction world is diluting their branding and is playing into the strengths of others. People love to have their expectations realized, even if the quality is better somewhere else. Sites that have focused on text stories but then offer multimedia versions are finding low clicks on the multimedia content because it's not what their readers expect from that site.

Lesson for eBay: monkey with your consumer expectations at your own peril. Better is terrific. Different—for a consumer—can be very bad.

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