When Hurricane Sandy struck seven years ago, its aftereffects harmed as many as 100,000 small businesses, many of which folded shortly thereafter due to the storm’s devastating impact. Adam Wexler’s electronics dealership barely survived, but it was spared partly because of its nontraditional model. For 20 years, Wexler has made a living on eBay, via his virtual store High-End Audio Auctions.
Instead of displaying his wares in windows and on shelves for customers passing through a brick-and-mortar outlet, Wexler stores his merchandise in a Red Hook warehouse. But after Hurricane Sandy, “All my inventory was seven feet under water,” Wexler told an audience of more than 100 other eBay sellers, at a gathering in Greenpoint last month that was organized by the company.
He put the corrupted stock online for sale anyway, disclosing on his store’s page that the goods had been damaged in the storm. He was pleased to find plenty of buyers nonplussed, who figured they could either fix the devices themselves or make use of some of the parts.
“I sold every single waterlogged item on eBay,” Wexler said. “Thanks to eBay, my losses were minimized.”
After those remarks he issued one correction, saying that technically not all his items had drowned completely. “Speakers float, by the way,” he said.
Wexler was part of a panel discussion during an eBay meeting of corporate officers and plebeian sellers on Wednesday, Nov. 6, at the Greenpoint Loft.
Dubbed the eBay “UpFront,” the gathering was the fifth and final such event for the company in 2019. Other UpFronts were held in Dallas, Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles, with the Brooklyn iteration acting as a defacto northeast regional gathering, drawing eBay devotees from across New York, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and New England. This was the first year the online retail giant has organized the regional meetings in its near quarter-century existence. For such an experience in previous years, though on a much grander scale, sellers had to schlep out to Las Vegas for the eBay Open.
The crowd in Greenpoint was diverse, with grandmothers seated next to mustachioed men one might expect to see mixing a cocktail behind a bar on a Saturday night. The event was formatted not just for interaction between company leaders and sellers, but for the sellers to meet each other, cultivating a sense of community.
“We consider ourselves to be the ‘human e-commerce company’ because we do connect human beings together, buyers and sellers,” Harry Temkin, eBay vice president and head of seller experience, told the Brooklyn Eagle. “We don’t compete with our sellers. We simply provide the technology for them to expose their inventory to a global community of 184 million buyers.”
Temkin added that when sellers share stories with him of how they’re able to support themselves financially, or put their kids through college, “it is very empowering.”
“It’s what wakes me up every morning, and it’s why we’re all super excited to be here,” he said.
EBay — perhaps best known for its real-time online auctions, though Temkin said during the panel that these only constitute 12 percent of all sales — has become so popular that, in 2018, 857,000 sellers generated $4.9 billion worth of gross merchandise volume in the tri-state area alone. (Globally, the gross merchandise volume was $94.58 billion.) Brooklyn’s 55,000 eBay sellers have already generated $388 million worth of gross merchandise volume during the first three sales quarters of this year, according to the company.
One overarching piece of advice Temkin had for sellers seeking success on the platform is to put time and care into describing the products they’re putting up for sale.
“The more detail that you can give us about your listing, the more visible it becomes to buyers,” he said. “So the title and the descriptors that you give us, and of course [a reasonable] price … those two things are the most critical.”
Judging by the engagement level of the audience in Greenpoint that night — who cheered for impressive sales figures, asked pointed questions about new platform features and nodded acceptingly at Temkin’s repeated apology on behalf of the company for a technical screw up that interrupted some transactions one day in October — eBay is serious business for many.
And yet, sellers are eager to share tricks of their techy trade, often abandoning their desk chairs and computer screens at home to chat with other sellers in person.
“These people are very willing to help each other, which I find very unusual in this day and age, because people are more into competition,” said Diane Lassonde, a Boston area-based virtual store owner who organizes eBay seller gatherings. “You’re not taking anything away from me if I help you. There is so much out in this world that we can all sell.”
Temkin said some eBay sellers offer overstock from already existing brick-and-mortar stores that they either own or partner with, seeing customers in the flesh daily. The platform also has messaging capabilities, allowing for negotiations to take place. “So it becomes very personalized,” Temkin said of the buyer-seller experience.
Though online stores like eBay have helped fuel the decline of brick-and-mortar retail — and the person-to-person connectivity inherent in its existence — this particular platform has also apparently spawned a social community all its own.
EBay plans to continue the UpFront programming next year.
Michael Stahl is a freelance writer and editor. A former high school English teacher, he has written for Rolling Stone, Vice, the Village Voice, Narratively, Splitsider, Outside Magazine and other publications.