Helen Forbes expected a busy auction day on EBay Inc. Monday. She was selling mostly low-cost items, including plates, a candy dish, and a salt-and-pepper shaker set. Ten of her auctions were scheduled to end Monday night. But most of her items received no bids, and those she sold went for opening bid.
It's not that no one was interested. "People contacted me [Tuesday] morning saying they were interested in bidding on my items," she says. The problem was a service outage at EBay.
For almost an hour on Monday night, many EBay functions were unavailable. The problem was a power outage at one of the Internet service providers EBay uses, says Kevin Pursglove, an EBay spokesperson. From 5:57 to 6:47 p.m. Pacific Time, customers could not list or view items, or place bids. Also unavailable were the registration functions, the Feedback Forum, and My EBay, which lets you track specific auctions.
During the last hour of Forbes' auction, which is typically the busiest time, no one could view or bid on her items. "People often wait until the last minute to bid," she says.
And now Forbes, like many other EBay users, is left with little recourse.
"I'm required to sell my items to the highest bidder, which in this case is the only bidder," Forbes says.
Forbes was selling low-cost items, but says money's not the issue. "Sure, it's small potatoes dollar-wise, but the principle is the same whether its $3 or $3000," she says.
EBay is no stranger to technical difficulties. The site experienced some high-profile outages last year, including a 22-hour outage in June 1999. Since then, EBay has beefed up its technology and its technical staff and has, apparently, been running smoothly with only a few minor outages. In fact, the EBay site was named the Best of the Web by PC World in the August 2000 issue.
Monday night's outage was not related to technical difficulties within EBay itself, Pursglove is quick to explain. "The problem was simply a power source issue with an ISP," he says but will not disclose the name of the ISP.
To many whose auctions ended during or shortly after Monday's outage, that explanation simply doesn't matter. EBay's message boards are filled with postings from angry users who want EBay to extend their auctions to compensate for the time lost during the outage. But EBay won't.
EBay has a posted Hard Outage Policy, which was "developed over time through constant consultation with our users," Pursglove says.
"For any hard outage (when bidders cannot place bids) lasting two or more hours, EBay will automatically extend listings for 24 hours and will automatically credit associated fees for affected listings," this policy states. The policy covers any listing scheduled to end during the outage or in the hour following the outage.
Because Monday night's outage lasted only an hour, the policy does not apply. EBay answered one customer's request for an extension with an e-mail stating, "Unfortunately, in accordance with EBay's Hard Outage Policy, auctions will not be extended. If your listing ended with a high bidder, you are obligated to sell your item to that bidder."
Customers can contact EBay's billing department and ask for a credit on the listing fee, which typically ranges from 25 cents to $1, Pursglove says. "But if you sell the item, you're indicating that you're satisfied" with the selling price, he notes, and EBay may not credit you the fee.
What's a Seller to Do?
So EBay's letter from customer service tells you that you are obligated to sell the item to the highest bidder, but by following the rules, you may become ineligible for the credit. What's a seller to do?
Forbes says, "If I refuse to sell them, I'm in violation on EBay's rules and regulations, and I can receive negative feedback."
Feedback is an important indicator to potential buyers on EBay. Some will not buy items from sellers who have received negative ratings. Pursglove says one negative comment is not likely to affect a seller's chances on EBay, but Forbes and others were unwilling to take that chance.
EBay's advice: Contact the high bidder and negotiate a deal. If the high bidder agrees, you can put the item up for auction again. But only if the high bidder agrees.
"These are very unusual circumstances, and the bidder may be willing to work with you," Pursglove says.
But should it be the seller's responsibility to negotiate like this?
"A lot of [EBay] users are very dependent on the dependability of the site," says Preston Dodd, a senior analyst with Jupiter Communications Inc. "It's not the end user's fault or the end user's problem. Maybe it's not EBay's fault, either, but they chose that ISP."
Customers agree. "That's just not a good business practice," says Sonja Mazzucco, who sold an RCA Corp. DSS Satellite System on EBay Monday. "It's not my fault that this happened, so why do I have to wheel and deal?"
She'd seen satellite systems like her family's unused unit going for as much as $500 on EBay. "I was hoping to get at least $350 for it," she says. But when she logged on to EBay Monday night to watch the end of her auction, "I couldn't access any listings. Sometimes this happens for a few minutes, and then it comes back," she says. By the time Mazzucco could access the EBay listings, her auction had been over for almost 15 minutes. And for the last 30 minutes of the auction, potential bidders were unable to access her listing. She ended up selling the satellite for $300. It's not far off the $350 she had hoped for, but she wonders how much it would have brought if those last-minute shoppers had been able to place their bids.
Web sites need to make sure that their users are aware of and understand their policies for handling these types of situations, Dodd says.
EBay's policy is posted on its site for its users, Pursglove says. "At some point, the user has to take responsibility for educating himself" by making the effort to read the posted information, he says.
Though dissatisfied with their recent experience, Mazzucco and Forbes say they are both are likely to return to the cyberspace auction site.
"There's nothing that compares to EBay. If there was a better alternative, I'd consider it," Mazzucco says.
Forbes acknowledges the technical difficulties in running a site like EBay. "I know they won't be able to say that [outages] won't happen, but I'd like to see a more caring policy toward their customers when these things do occur."