eBay has ambitious plans for the mobility space and it wants expert retailers on-board to help it achieve its goal of becoming the market’s one-stop-shop for disability aids.
eBay is one of the world’s most powerful marketplaces and with a reach of around 179m active buyers globally, has access to a massive consumer base.
So when it unveiled ambitious new plans for the access and mobility market two months back, it was fair to say that ears pricked up across the industry’s supply chain.
The internet juggernaut revealed that it had established a special space online for mobility products and living aids and explained that eventually, it wants to make itself into a one-stop-shop for independent living.
The initial stages of eBay’s new mobility initiative have seen the creation of an Independent Living Hub, which pools products and disability aids from various categories together in one space.
It is a dedicated online space designed to make it easier for consumers to find and buy products such as wheelchairs, scooters and living aids and is part of eBay’s ongoing strategy to capitalise on the expanding healthcare market.
Keith Metcalfe, head of UK lifestyle trading, eBay UK, explains that the new launch is based on a large piece of research the firm conducted two years ago which explored the health category and discovered some very high growth areas.
He notes that eBay quickly picked up on the commercial opportunity the growth in its health category presented combined with increasing government austerity in the UK leading to an expanding demand for affordable products from private providers. To capitalise on these trends, eBay decided that it had to improve the shopping experience where mobility products were concerned.
Metcalfe explains: “We found that we actually already had quite a strong business with sellers selling on eBay in this space already. But by spending a bit more time improving the platform in terms of how buyers can find products, for example, everyone can benefit. The other thing is that we found that consumers weren’t exactly sure what they wanted.
“We found that there were consumers who were being innovative with lots of different products that might not have instantly been marketed to people as medical or mobility solutions, but were actually really useful, for example grabbers.
“We thought: ‘What if we have some way of helping buyers to find all this mobility inventory on one platform?’ Our job at eBay is to link all of this great inventory that our sellers list with the people out there who want and need that product.”
“It’s difficult to have a crystal ball and know exactly which mobility retailers will grasp that mantle and succeed. But I’d be amazed if we didn’t uncover some success stories”
eBay’s ambition to link its inventory and become a one-stop-shop for disability needs will not happen overnight. Metcalfe cedes that the transition will take place over a number of years and says that it will be key for the platform to partner with expert mobility sellers who understand their niches well.
While he notes that eBay’s categorisation process means most products are easily found, Metcalfe is adamant that building strong relationships with sellers will be crucial to growing the proposition.
One example he draws on to illustrate how eBay will aim to make products easier to find is the furniture category. This segment is packed with various products and specialist chairs like rise and recliners can sometimes get lost among general furniture.
Metcalfe says categories like furniture are an opportunity to improve the buyer experience. He adds: “We’ve pulled all of those more easily structured products together in one hub, but we’ve got the long-term goal of making a one-stop solution for all which will involve pulling in more things from other categories.”
He adds: “We’ve pulled all of those more easily structured products together in one hub, but we’ve got the long-term goal of making a one-stop solution for all which will involve pulling in more things from other categories.”
The role of retailers in eBay’s new hub
Years of battling with online sellers has bred suspicion among independent bricks-and-mortar stores so it was not surprising to see some jitters in the market when eBay made its announcement.
Fearing that it would be entering the space as a retailer, some smaller dealers were initially apprehensive about eBay’s intentions. But Metcalfe assures that eBay’s model is based wholly on partnering with sellers and has no intention of competing with the retailers it works with.
“eBay partners, we don’t sell products ourselves,” Metcalfe states. “We’re a marketplace for sellers to come and list on the site. What we’ve done so far is identified some of the biggest sellers of these types of products and we’ve gone out and spent some time with them to understand the unique challenges and opportunities within this field.
“And we’ve built some trade plans with them. We have done and continue to be interested in building relationships with the manufacturers of these products, but whether that’s ultimately going to be them selling the products themselves and going direct to consumers on our platform, or whether it’s through our authorised seller programme, we don’t yet know and it will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer.”
eBay’s authorised seller programme sees manufacturers and suppliers selling via a specially selected distribution partner on the online marketplace, rather than selling direct to consumers over the site.
Metcalfe explains that eBay has a three way relationship between itself, the authorised seller and the manufacturer to bring products to life on the platform by showing consumers that the authorised reseller has the training and aftersales service. He says that he would be very keen to develop more of these types of authorised seller relationships with brands in the mobility space.
So for the resellers that do partner with eBay, what are the benefits of the new Independent Living Hub for them? With eBay expecting to see 20% year-on-year growth in mobility over the coming year driven by the improved buyer experience, there certainly appears to be obvious benefits for dealers who choose to have a presence on the marketplace.
And Metcalfe expects that the sellers that choose to engage with the site can probably expect to see faster sales growth on eBay than the overall 20% figure predicted for the category.
In the scramble for sales against discount internet sellers, the prospect of partnering with an online giant will no doubt be attractive to some of the market’s smaller players.
For Metcalfe, it is in fact essential for online to be a key part of any retail strategy in today’s climate. Illustrating how eBay has run schemes in the past to aid independent outlets, Metcalfe draws on the example of its ‘Retail Revival’ initiative in Wolverhampton.
“We absolutely value those small, independent bricks-and-mortar retailers who are looking to evolve their business. Every business is a big part of our platform and that’s what makes us so strong”
He says: “We partnered with the city to see how we could help sellers within to understand what the opportunities are on our marketplace to be a viable online version of what they do. It’s not just about Wolverhampton, it’s about developing expertise and solutions that can then be scaled to businesses all over the UK.
“It’s an omnichannel strategy that we would encourage all retailers to have. We absolutely value those small, independent bricks-and-mortar retailers who are looking to evolve their business. Every business is a big part of our platform and that’s what makes us so strong.”
Metcalfe says that mobility is a relatively new category for eBay when it comes to engaging with the seller base. But he adds that across all categories there are numerable examples of traditional high street retailers who have trialled the marketplace, only to find it has become as large, if not larger, than their traditional channels.
“It’s difficult to have a crystal ball and know exactly which [mobility retailers] will grasp that mantle and succeed. But I’d be amazed if we didn’t uncover some success stories. And hopefully we’ll see businesses think: ‘Wow, here’s an opportunity to get my product in front of customers, not just in the UK, but on the global marketplace’.”
One of the questions dealers who are toying with the idea of partnering with a marketplace like eBay might be around the value of the deal. For example, retailers selling through eBay earn between 50% and 70% of revenue on items, and with margins in the mobility market tending to be relatively thin as it is, dealers might question whether it is worth it.
Metcalfe insists that there are a number of factors that make it worthwhile having a presence on the marketplace but outlines that the main benefit is the power of its reach. Undeniably, eBay is a colossal brand, not just in the UK but around the world.
It estimates to have around 25m active buyers in the UK, which works out as more purchasers than households in the country. These kinds of consumer bases are certainly a resource many in the market would like to tap. Aside from its sphere of influence, Metcalfe also believes eBay’s expertise in online retail makes its commission policy worth a dealer’s time.
He says: “Wherever we know buyers are going and searching products, whether that’s places like Google or whether it’s on places like Hot UK Deals, we’re always there trying to partner with those sites to be present and that drives traffic onto our platform. There are commissions to be paid on eBay but we are confident that they are really competitive rates and offer fantastic value for sellers.”
One of the other questions professionals may have when it comes to selling their products on a third party marketplace is where eBay stands on heavy mobility products. There is much debate on how or whether products like scooters should be sold online at all because of safety concerns.
Metcalfe’s stance is that any product’s safety should be a priority and that sellers ought to be experts in their field and know what is required to ensure the consumer has a good experience.
“I don’t think the launch of this hub changes that factor at all,” Metcalfe says. “For me, sellers have a responsibility to ensure the product they’re selling is going to be received safely and that the buyer is going to have a good experience. What eBay does offer to buyers is the eBay money back guarantee. Where the buyer does have any issues we do have safeguards that are designed to keep the buyer safe.”
Of course, sellers will ultimately make the final decision on what they are comfortable selling over sites like eBay and many will limit themselves to products that are not considered to need thorough assessment.
Still, many – particularly smaller – retailers in the mobility space are sceptical of change and can sometimes be stubbornly traditionalist. These dealers may need more convincing.
However, it is almost universally agreed that all physical retail concepts need an online channel nowadays to survive and for those that do not have the resources to run their own full-scale e-commerce operation, marketplaces like eBay are a viable option. Metcalfe’s message to dealers who are considering making the leap is to start small and experiment.
“Give it a try. eBay has been around for 24 years and over that time we’ve been building better and better solutions to remove friction from the selling process. We have so many businesses selling on the platform because we make it so easy.
“Start with a product that you might have a bit too much stock of, try it on eBay, see how it goes and get some experience and an understanding about how the eBay shopper might be different to the shoppers that you’re used to dealing with.
“See what sort of questions come back and what the expectations are on shipment times and so on. Dip your toe in, especially if you’ve had no e-commerce experience in the past. And then you’ll just learn from what works.”
He suggests dealers visit the various online blogs, such as Tamebay, and other resources advising on how to get into marketplace selling and make the most of it. There is an entire industry built around eBay and online marketplaces, Metcalfe explains, that can help with specific parts of the journey, whether it is scaling, how fast you can get listings on the site, international shipping, fulfilment and so on.
He concludes: “Those resources are available on eBay’s business site. Selling online, going global, a lot of it is about partnerships and finding those experts in the supply chain who can pair with your expertise and passion for a specific product or consumer base.”
Despite eBay’s clear intentions to make itself the go-to place for mobility products, it certainly looks as though its Independent Living Hub strategy and its plans for the space revolve around the sellers it partners with. This is likely to be welcome news to the market’s smaller retailers, who may have initially been suspicious of its intentions.
In what is a generally cautious industry, it is perhaps unrealistic to imagine droves of distributors suddenly leaping onto the marketplace, all fighting for a scrap of eBay’s enviable consumer base. Some will no doubt have more questions to ask before signing themselves up.
But the fact remains, it is impossible to ignore the power of online marketplaces in today’s retail climate and it is arguably trade suicide to disregard e-commerce altogether. For many businesses in the sector, the Independent Living Hub could be the springboard needed to finally take the fight to online competition