How the online marketplace paved the way for the circular shopping revolution

Laveta Brigham

[iStock]: Getty Images In 1995 eBay, then named AuctionWeb, was born. The first item ever sold on eBay was a broken laser pointer. It was 1995 and the seller was founder Pierre Omidyar. Two years later came the apex of the Beanie Babies boom, and eBay soon became the go-to […]

[iStock]: Getty Images
[iStock]: Getty Images

In 1995 eBay, then named AuctionWeb, was born.

The first item ever sold on eBay was a broken laser pointer. It was 1995 and the seller was founder Pierre Omidyar. Two years later came the apex of the Beanie Babies boom, and eBay soon became the go-to destination for TY fanatics to get their hands on its highly collectable soft toys, which made up £378 million of sales at that year. That same year, sales hit the million mark as shoppers were spurred on by the dopamine rush of placing a winning bid.

In 1999, the site launched in the UK and its status as an online collectors’ market continued to grow thanks to landmark purchases including the oldest known pair Levi’s by Levi Strauss & Co. itself making fashion history in 2000. A first edition Superman comic became the most expensive comic ever sold on the site in 2014, at £2.4 million.

In many ways, eBay was at the vanguard of taking the the second hand shopping movement global. It allowed buyers from 190 countries to become sellers of pre-loved goods to anyone in the world, making hunting for vintage finds an art form and democratising shopping in the process.

One such expert eBayer is Robyn Donaldson, the woman behind the popular Instagram account Almost Everything Off eBay, who began her account as a way to showcase her thrifty home renovation. She remains an eBay fan after seventeen years using the site, citing some of her best finds as a 1950s style Smeg fridge won at £200 (the RRP is £1,599) and a pristine gold 1960s sofa.

“At University, I’d use eBay to buy vintage clothes cheaply and I never stopped. My saved searches just expanded to include middle-aged staples like antique furniture, fabrics and ceramics. Now I use to make better, less urgent purchases”, Donaldson tells The Independent.

Today, after a quarter of a century in business, eBay looks very different to its original hyperlink-heavy dial-up format. Its business model is radically different, as well. After inserting it’s ‘Buy Now’ button in 2000 and launching eBay Stores a year later, it shifted its focus from open auction site to an e-commerce marketplace better suited to businesses than individuals profiting from a spring clean.

Now, it aligns itself more with competitors such as Amazon rather than smaller second-hand marketplaces with shops selling hundreds of thousands of items. In 2020, 81 per cent of the products sold are new and 91 per cent have fixed prices, according to its Q2 report.

“As eBay got slicker, it allowed so many businesses to expand, which is amazing, but finding the bargains has become a lot harder as a result”, says Donaldson.

While eBay adopted mobile capabilities early, it still functions better on desktop, meaning it is better suited to an older audience than younger mobile-first users. Especially as they have little patience for hacking with keywords.

Of course, eBay is still a thriving online retail destination. It recorded £2.1 billion revenue for the second quarter of 2020 – its highest quarterly growth rate in 15 years, an increase which can be credited in no small part to the effects of lockdown.

Donaldson affirms that, when it comes to second-hand shopping, eBay is still the go-to online destination for bargain hunters and niche collectors, though she says it lacks the user-friendly interface of other sites.

“Other sites with a more streamlined offering definitely provide a less labour-intensive user experience, but if you love a challenge you’ll always go back to eBay as that’s where the bargains are”, explains the blogger.

Now that eBay is dominated with accounts importing goods rather than selling their own finds, it has paved the way for smaller sites like Depop and high fashion sites like Vestaire Collective to cash in on the second-hand fashion market and refine a more social way of shopping.

Rather than relying on the thrill of the bidding war, Depop links like-minded people among its 15 million users to create community. Its Discover page and a visual format similar to Instagram mean it has the edge with the next generation of shoppers, 90 per cent of whom are under 25.

Meanwhile Vestaire has carved its niche with a focus on customer service and expertise, by authenticating and shipping products on behalf of the seller once they have decided to list them. It comes at a cost (commission is £13 for items under £130) but one that’s well worth the time saved for busy Millenials.

The peer-to-peer selling model normalised by eBay has seen a resurgence in the past few years, prompting Facebook to cash in by launching Marketplace in 2016, which was dubbed “a friendlier Craig’s List” by TechCrunch that year. It has similarities to eBay-owned Gumtree, which it launched in 2000, as it allows users to sell and buy within their local community. However, it has the advantage of being linked to Facebook’s messaging app and existing as a tab on its main app and website.

As stylist Caitriona Anglim points out: “I can sell on Marketplace without downloading an extra app or waiting for a listing to end. If an item isn’t getting enough interest I can simply edit the price or description and re-list. Sellers have a lot more control and flexibility, which matters when you’ve got a busy schedule”.

With time in abundance during lockdown and a shift in priorities putting further impetus behind the circular shopping movement, eBay has seen a huge upshot in sales of second-hand goods for 2020. Its Preloved section saw a 404 per cent increase in sales in June, compared to two years earlier. It was a sign that it hasn’t totally lost its relevance with Generation Z, as searches for the retro sportswear by Champion and Fila – and beloved by this age group – increased by a huge 55 per cent and 41 per cent. Though its highly likely that these buyers are flexing their entrepreneurial muscles and picking up bargains to sell to other time-poor shoppers on Depop for a higher price.

Circular shopping may no longer be eBay’s niche, even if it is profiting from it more than ever, but there’s no doubting the site’s success story is the reason we’re at ease with peer-to-peer shopping. With 300,000 tonnes of clothes ending up in landfill in the UK each year, and with increasing pressure from environmental groups and sustainability activists on shoppers and brands to do better and reduce spending on unnecessary new items, it’s clear that it’s success and that of the brands who have since taken inspiration from its model, will continue to soar.

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