March 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Many Masters

(Page 2 of 2)

To capitalize on these quirks, Champions on Display may include shipping in an item's retail price on eBay, while separating out the shipping cost on Amazon and Buy.com. "There isn't a benefit to standardizing our pricing," says Walters. "We look at the marketplaces and figure out how to use them to our benefit."

Placement is crucial because shoppers aren't likely to search for a particular retailer, says Eric Best, CEO of Mercent Corp., which helps retailers sell on web marketplaces. Retailers, he says, "have to focus on what will enable them to win the buy box."

On eBay, in addition to offering free shipping, retailers can boost their position by winning the designation of Top-rated seller, which is denoted with a badge on a merchant's product page. To get that badge, sellers must score at least 4.6 on eBay's one to five rating system, which is based entirely on consumer feedback that can be unpredictable. "Consumers who hate you for no reason can give you one star," says Scot Wingo, CEO of ChannelAdvisor Corp., another service provider for retailers seeking to sell on web marketplaces.

Losing that badge can be devastating to a seller. For instance, when Champions on Display added custom order items to its eBay store that took seven to 10 days to ship, the longer ship time led consumers to ding the retailer in their ratings, dropping the merchant's overall rating to below the 4.6 threshold. Without the top-rated seller's badge, the retailer's eBay sales dropped more than 30%. Champions on Display responded by pulling those custom items from eBay.

Differing philosophies
Rather than relying on consumer ratings, Amazon rates retailers using criteria such as a seller's cancellation rate and its ship times. Many, if not most, of those measures that can nick a retailer's placement on the site can be mitigated by participating in Fulfillment by Amazon, a program in which a seller ships inventory to Amazon, which then handles delivery.

Retailers can achieve the same end by improving the efficiency of their own fulfillment operations—although it may be hard for a small retailer to match the performance of larger players—or to engage a logistics specialist with the scale to deliver with the speed Amazon favors. "Retailers have to figure out how to build themselves up to scale," says Mercent's Best. "If they can't, they need to figure out who they can work with that will help them do so."

Part of the fulfillment question is how to handle returns of items sold on web marketplaces. Here again, there are significantly different rules.

To sell professionally on Amazon, which means selling more than 40 items a month, a merchant must give consumers at least 30 days to return an item. On Buy.com, the retailer encourages sellers to adopt Buy.com's 45-day return policy. And on eBay sellers only have to specify a return policy—which can include not accepting returns.

Fiddling with feeds
Staying competitive can also mean tailoring the items a retailer sells on each marketplace. That's why home furnishings retailer CSN Stores LLC, which sells on Amazon.com, eBay, Sears.com, Walmart.com and Buy.com, adjusts the items it sends various sites based on a variety of factors, including ship time, which can avoid potential knocks on its performance, says Michael O'Hanlon, the retailer's vice president of corporate and business development.

"Some of our lead times for furniture are going to be four to six weeks," he says. "From Amazon or Buy's perspective, where their orientations are books or electronics, that's going to hurt us because they have a bias to shipping quickly."

To account for a site's standards, such as Amazon.com requiring items to be shipped within 30 days, CSN Stores' in-house team built an automated system that determines whether to list an item on a particular marketplace based on ship time, the item's category, and the potential return on investment of the listing. "Basically we're saying that if the processing time is longer than X days, don't send the feed to the marketplaces where that's not acceptable," says O'Hanlon. The result is a different mix of the retailer's more than 2 million SKUs on each site it sells on.

Figuring out how to leverage the various site's rules helps both the retailer and the seller, he says. "The rules are what they are," says O'Hanlon. "Both parties are just trying to please the customer." Unfortunately, for the many online retailers selling on these marketplaces, each site seems to have its own view of how to keeps its customers happy.

zak@verticalwebmedia.com

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