Wining, Whining and Winning on EBay

Forever searching for more items to add to the list of “things that can be sold on EBay,” the Internet auction giant has turned to the local liquor store.

This month, EBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) will start a trial period in which hand-picked sellers will find out the answer to the burning question: Can wine be sold this way?

What? That question wasn’t keeping you up at night? Me neither, but apparently, the EBay people think it’s fairly important.

Maybe they saw the dollars that were spent on overstock from the dying dot-coms that only sold wine. Maybe they figure current events will drive more people to drive Internet wine sales.

Sampling the Wine

Whatever the motivation, EBay deserves applause for taking it slow. The wine-selling test period involves what it calls “licensed, vetted sellers” that have presumably been screened to ensure they won’t bring infamy and lawsuits unto EBay.

My guess is that EBay’s got a drawer full of these items, ideas whose EBay-ability has to be proven slowly. They’ll be brought out into the light one by one over time, as EBay tries to keep on its rocket-fueled growth projections.

Sampling the Whine

The wine test will run through the end of the year. In the meantime, EBay has found itself dealing with a lot of whining from its own members.

Many sellers became angry recently when EBay instituted a new “Checkout” system. The feature asked buyers for their shipping and billing information and was designed to streamline transactions.

However, sellers said they had their own ways of doing things and that Checkout only made more work for the buyers and the sellers. Enough users complained that EBay backed out of making the new system mandatory.

EBay did seem to leave the door open for changing its mind again in the future by emphasizing the timing of the upcoming holidays in its decision.

Puzzle Pieces

How is the wining related to the whining? They are both examples of EBay’s willingness to try new things and, even more important, for EBay to fail.

Of course, EBay never comes out and admits failure. That’s not the point, though. The point is that EBay isn’t hiding behind a consultant’s report to justify new features. Nor is the company testing markets with some stealth campaign.

By its nature, EBay is a transparent entity. For things to work, everyone has to be on board. That’s part of every reference to its “members” instead of customers — and “community” instead of customer base.

Risk Takers

Of course, EBay’s biggest risk in recent memory was to give itself a goal of raising US$100 million in 100 days through its Auction for America.

With six weeks or so to go until the December 24th deadline, most reports put EBay well behind schedule.

Last week, EBay got some help from corporate America, with AOL, Taco Bell and Starbucks along with several other major companies, pitching in with big-ticket items. Wednesday, the U.S. Congress donated several items to the cause, including a flag signed by every member of Congress that immediately drew four-figure bids.

Defining Success

Must EBay count the Auction for America as a bust if it falls short? Will CEO Meg Whitman admit misjudging its member base if the auction doesn’t make its goal?

Maybe not, because EBay is about more than short-term success or failure.

Whitman understands that many of EBay’s members are in the business of selling items via auction, just as EBayitself is in the business of facilitating those auctions.

She won’t begrudge them making a profit and while they might gloat a bit if EBay falls short, the sellers will undoubtedly hope she doesn’t change a thing about the winning way she does business either — all whining aside.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.

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