Why You Might Not Want To Ask eBay To Sell Your Stuff For You

eBay’s Valet program, which sells people’s items on eBay on a consignment basis, has sparked criticism in its first year of service, but is improving. Here’s what consumers should know about eBay Valet.

A lot of us have stuff that we don’t use, that clogs up our drawers and closets and basements and attics without imparting joy or value to our lives. We know we should eject these extraneous objects from our homes, but we’re busy, we’re tired, we don’t know the best way to get rid of them. If only there were an easy, efficient option for selling these unwanted items and making some money…

Is eBay’s “Valet” consignment service the solution? eBay would like us to think so, but the real answer is…it’s complicated.

Valet is eBay’s latest version of the “sell-my-stuff-on-eBay-for-me” services that have cropped up over the years, such as eBay drop-off stores and eBay “Trading Assistants.”

eBay drop-off stores—physical shops where people bring items and consign them to eBay-based businesses—still exist, but only in certain regions. (These stores are not run by eBay.) Trading Assistants were independent eBay sellers who registered with eBay to sell items for other people on a consignment basis.[1] eBay established the “TA” program in 2002 and ended it in September 2013.

Valet, which launched a year ago in December 2013, aims to be even simpler than these prior options, in part because people don’t need to hunt for nearby stores or sellers to participate. eBay says selling through Valet consists of three basic steps. Step 1, according to the company’s main Valet website is: “Send in your stuff.” This occurs primarily via mail. Shipping costs are prepaid. Step 2 is “Sit back and relax” since “Valets take care of selling your items on eBay.” Step 3 is “Get paid,” with eBay specifying, “You get 70% of the sale price if your things sell.”

eBay’s three-step description of the Valet program

The process sounds as effortless as mailing a letter.

However, some consignors say the Valet program is not as foolproof or as profitable as eBay purports. Consignors have complained about Valets losing their packages, selling their goods for surprisingly low prices (or failing to sell their items at all) and taking multiple weeks to transfer payments into their online PayPal accounts. For these consignors, the meager amount of money they received from the program was not worth the aggravation they felt.

In March, one consignor deemed the service “The absolute worst experience I’ve ever had” after Valets allegedly misplaced his/her package for a month and then, after finding the items, sold them for much less than he/she had expected. A consignor named Andy Ludlow had a similar experience around the same time, which he documented in a series of short YouTube videos. After holding a “candlelight vigil” for items that he thought his Valet had lost, Ludlow lamented the relatively low price that one of his recovered items fetched, and the fact that another item, which he thought was promising, did not sell at all. (Ludlow attributed the latter loss to his Valet’s botched pricing strategy.) At the end of his six-week saga with the Valet program, Ludlow concluded, “I couldn’t recommend [eBay Valet] to my worst enemy.”

Other consignors say that Valets permanently lost their packages, necessitating reimbursement negotiations with eBay.[2]

Payment problems are another recurrent Valet theme. In May, one consignor noted that his item had sold, but a technical issue prevented him from being paid, causing him to “lose all patience with eBay.” Other consignors report that they didn’t receive payment from their Valets until they threatened legal action or filed complaints with the Better Business Bureau.

This is not exactly a “Sit back and relax” type of system. What’s going on with eBay Valet?

First, it’s important to note that eBay Valets do not work at eBay.

An image from eBay’s Valet website

eBay describes Valet as an “eBay-run program” because eBay handles Valet marketing and customer service and sets the program’s product roadmap, among other tasks. eBay’s brand dominates Valet: Valet webpages sport eBay.com URLs, Valet-related emails originate from eBay.com email addresses and Valet shipping boxes are emblazoned with eBay logos. However, the companies and workers who actually sell Valet products are “third party processors” and “independent contractors” — basically, logistics companies that have eBay contracts. When people consign and mail items to the Valet program, their boxes get shipped straight to these third-party Valet companies—not to eBay.

Many of the Valet packages go to Bloomington, Indiana, where eBay’s main Valet partner ModusLink PTS is based. ModusLink is an Indiana technology company that specializes in repairing TV circuit boards. ModusLink also runs an eBay store called Liberty Store that sells items consigned through eBay Valet.[3]

Liberty Store stocks thousands of products, ranging from handbags and shoes to cameras, laptops, smartphones and collectibles. Clicking on a Liberty Store item brings up a handful of photos and a few sentences about the item’s condition. eBay characterizes Valet listings as succinct and straightforward. Some consignors have been more disparaging. These consignors say their belongings were listed with lackluster photos, overly terse item descriptions and, in some cases, inaccuracies, such as misspelled brand names and new items classified as used. One consignor called the results “amateur,” another “horrible.” An unhappy consignor even griped online, “It’s like [the Valets] did everything they could NOT to sell anything.”[4]

Time pressures may be to blame. eBay mentions at the very end of its Valet FAQ that Valets must have the “ability to list 100,000 listings each month.” Liberty Store isn’t yet at that level, but it does upload as many as 750 listings a day. One eBay discussion-forum commenter described the Valet program as a “production-line operation.”

To move inventory quickly, Valets price items low and limit auctions to a few days even though eBay allows auctions to run as long as 10 days. [5] The effect is something like an online liquidation sale — a scenario that generally favors buyers, not consignors.

Many consignors may not mind this approach. These consignors are happy to earn even a few dollars from items they weren’t using and didn’t want.

(There are also people whose items don’t sell, but who feel content that they at least tried to clear their clutter.) But other consignors end up disappointed, in part because they mistakenly equate the Valet program with eBay and think they will benefit from some type of expertise in listing, promoting and selling items.

Ludlow, the YouTube commentator, was one such consignor. Ludlow has been casually posting items on eBay for more than 10 years and selling full-time on it for about a year and a half through his Indiana-based retail business, Andy Bob’s Threads and Thrift. Ludlow says he heard about the Valet program via an eBay marketing email and tried it as an experiment. He wanted to see if the Valets could fetch higher prices than he was able to on eBay. He was also curious whether the Valet program was similar to Amazon’s ‘Fulfillment by Amazon’ [FBA] program, in which Amazon handles warehouse storage, packing, shipping and customer service for independent sellers. (In addition to his eBay store, Ludlow sells clothing, shoes, toys and collectibles through Amazon.)

The Andy Bob Threads and Thrift logo

“With Amazon FBA, Amazon sells products for you and you get a percentage of it, which can be a big time-saver,” Ludlow explains. “I was hoping eBay Valet would be similar. From the way it was described [on the main eBay Valet webpage], I was thinking it was like FBA, where Amazon has its own warehouses.”

In February, Ludlow submitted two items to eBay Valet: a new-in-box computer webcam worth $100 and a new-with-tags winter jacket worth $350. After more than two weeks passed without any word from his Valet, Ludlow assumed the package had gone missing. It wasn’t until he called the eBay Valet helpline that he learned the package had actually been received, but his Valet was “just taking forever to get it processed.”

Ludlow learned something else during that helpline call: eBay wasn’t handling Valet listings itself. (Ludlow would have realized this earlier if he had looked at eBay’s Valet “Terms of Use” webpage. But, as he explains, “I read the gist of [the main Valet website] and it sounded good on the surface. I didn’t read the legal stuff.”)

Ludlow describes the subsequent Valet selling process as “quick but bad.”

His jacket was listed with four photos: front, back, and side views. There were no interior or detail shots, which are common for clothing items. Ludlow’s webcam listing had a different problem: one of the photos showed the gadget’s packaging obscured by a large barcode sticker. Valets had affixed the sticker, presumably to track the webcam inside their warehouse. They then left the sticker adhered to the packaging while snapping photos for the item listing.

Ludlow wasn’t impressed by his Valet earnings, either. His webcam fetched $52.50, which left him with $36.75 after the Valet took its 30% cut. Ludlow had recently sold the same webcam model on his own eBay store for $70. “I sold it faster, for more money,” he notes.

Ludlow’s jacket didn’t attract a buyer, perhaps because the Valet priced it at its manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $350. Ludlow says he would have listed the jacket at a discount. “No one goes on eBay and expects to pay full retail for anything,” he points out.[6]

Reflecting on his experience, Ludlow says he would advise others to either sell their items in a yard sale or to “lower [their] expectations significantly” if they opt for the Valet route.

Fortunately, eBay and its Valets have refined some of their strategies over the past four to six months.

Valet product listings now feature clearer photos, a greater number of photos and more precise item descriptions. Valets have also switched to a faster shipping service so they can receive packages more quickly and reduce consignors’ initial waiting time.

The eBay Valet app

In June, eBay introduced a dedicated eBay Valet app that lets people submit photos of their items to Valets and receive estimated sales prices. The app is designed to give people some key information upfront before they decide whether to send in their items for consignment. eBay declined to provide specific usage numbers for the app, but said some people have returned to it multiple times to consign items—indicating those users were at least satisfied with the Valet program.

In October, Valets stopped charging consignors $10 to retrieve items from Valet warehouses. The policy, which was deeply unpopular from the start, applied to items that either failed to sell on eBay or were rejected by Valets as unsuitable (and thus were never listed online for sale.) Valets now mail unsold and rejected items back to consignors for free, a change that eBay says makes the program “risk free” to try.

Customer feedback likely prompted some of these modifications. eBay has been soliciting comments from Valet consignors via brief online surveys. The polls ask consignors how likely they are to recommend Valet to a friend and inquire, “How could we have improved your eBay Valet experience?”

There are signs that eBay needs to keep listening. Consignors are still airing grievances on the company’s online forums. On December 13, a consignor groused that his Valet had held his item for more than two weeks without updating him on its status. The consignor also said he was having trouble contacting the Valet. Ludlow says he hopes eBay will keep tweaking the program. “I like eBay,” he notes. “But I have yet to see anyone say anything positive about Valet.”


Footnotes

[1] During the duration of the Trading Assistants program, eBay listed “TAs” in an online directory. Consignors would search the directory for nearby TAs and arrange in-person meetings to show and hand-off their items. The Valet program essentially replaced the TA program.

[2] eBay says it compensates consignors up to $300 for items that are lost or damaged during shipping.

[3] eBay’s other Valet partner store, Eastvale Store, is based in Eastvale, California. Eastvale Store is newer to the Valet program than ModusLink/Liberty Store and stocks fewer items.

[4] eBay clearly states on its website that consignors have no control over the way Valets list their items. Consignors can completely withdraw a listing if they are unhappy with it, but they can’t revise the prices, descriptions or photos in their Valet listings.

[5] Many Valet items can also be purchased right away using eBay’s ‘Buy It Now’ option.

[6] The fact that consignors have criticized Valets for both pricing their items too high and too low shows how tricky the consignment business is.


Elizabeth Woyke is a freelance business & technology reporter and the author of The Smartphone: Anatomy of an Industry. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.