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eBay School: The seller

Learn how to evalate feedback on eBay.
by Gisle Hannemyr
Published: 2011-04-25.

On eBay, seller's profiles is very important. Since eBay is not a shop, but a marketplace, you'll find both reputable sellers and sellers that you're better off avoiding altogether. To find the good and avoid the bad, you need to know your seller.

In this lesson I'll tell you how to make sense of the seller's feedback profile, and how to identify the different types of seller's you'll meet at eBay.

1. Feedback

The seller's feedback on eBay is one of the most important tools offered by eBay. It helps prospective buyers evaluate the general trustworthiness of a seller and his or her ability to deliver on promises. I have found seller feedback to be the most consistant predictor of quality of merchandise and satisfaction with the transaction. The reason is that highly rated seller tend to underdescribe and overperform, while sellers with low ratings tend to be deceptive about the condition of the items they sell.

On eBay, the norm is to leave postive feedback unless the transaction went seriously wrong. Sensible buyers gives sellers that make a mistake a fair chance to put things right before leaving negative feedback. As a result of this, the percentage of positive feedback in eBay is very high. When buying used equipment on eBay, I let an item pass if the the seller's feedback is not at least 99.5 %. Lower than this, and merchandise tend to arrive late and in worse shape than the listing led you to believe. Also, sellers with low rating tend to be shifty and or quarrelsome when you inform them that an item arrived SNAD (Significantly Not As Described). Sellers with high ratings care about customer satisfaction, and promptly return your money when you return a dud.

Very good sellers are characterised by having a high postive feedback percentage after participating in more than one thousand feedback ratings. The postive feedback percentage is less reliable if a seller has received a lower number of ratings. If a seller has received one hundered feedbacks in the past 12 months, a rating of 99 % means the seller has one single unhappy customer. This may be significant, or it may be that he had the bad luck of having to deal with a single unreasonable person. In such a case, you will probably need to look at the feedback left to make a call.

An example of how the feedback information may look like is shown below, with a breakdown of the datums listed.

Example of a feedback panel.

The Feedback score shown near the top on the left side is a count of the total number of positive ratings the person has received during his entire time as an eBay user.

On the right hand side of the panel is the Detailed seller ratings in the form of stars. Five stars is the highest rating, and one star is the lowest. These ratings do not count toward the overall Feedback score or Positive Feedback percentage, but gives an indication on how well the seller performed in the four categories listed.

The Latest feedback panel at the bottom let you scroll through the actual feedback left by others, including short text messages where those giving feedback may explain their choice.

However, the most important datum in this panel is the overall Positive Feedback percentage that you find on the top at the left hand side. This percentage is calculated as the total percentage of non-neutral feedback transactions for the person that were rated positive for transactions that ended in the last 12 months. If we look at the actual numbers (shown below), we see that in the last 12 months, this person has been involved in 3247 transactions rated positive and 19 transaction rated negative. The overall Positive Feedback percentage is 3247/(3247+19), which is 99.4 % rounded to one decimal number.

As the general rule on eBay is to leave positive feedback if the transaction was satisfactory, it rarely pays to try to buy from sellers with a Positive Feedback percentages below 99.5 %. However, don't expect volume sellers to have a perfect 100 % feedback score. Even good sellers run into hard to satisfy buyers, or may have an occasional glitch.

The Recent Feedback Ratings panel shown below breaks down the feedback received during the last month, 6 months and 12 months in the three main categories Positive, Neutral and Negative.

Example of a feedback panel.

To read the feedback given in a specific category, click on the number for the period and category you are interested in. Reading negative and neutral feedback may tell you more about the seller and what he does that makes his customers unhappy.

Feedback history

Note that the percentage computed by eBay only covers the feedback received during the last 12 months. But eBay retains all feedback forever, so you you can, if you have a lot of time on your hands, dig into the full history.

If you click on See all in the Latest feedback panel, you get to a page showing a log of all feedback messages the seller has received. On this page, click the 200-item-per-page option (bottom of page). Ignore the positive feedback, and read the negative and neutral messages.

Note that trivial negative remarks and feedback from unreasonable people can safely be ignored. Look at the feedback of those who left negative feedback, and if their feedback is poor and a lot of sellers report that they are cranks, discard it.

Understanding feedback may be a path to great bargains. I one saw an item I really wanted, but was hesitant to bid for it because the seller only had a 88.9 % positive feedback. Then I looked closer and saw that the seller had only received nine feedbacks during the last 12 months, and the poor rating was due to a single negative feedback from someone who felt he was entitled to free shipping when the shipping charge was clearly listed up-front in the auction. Going through the rest of the seller's feedback history (seven years of it) didn't turn up any other negative remarks. As a result, I bid and bought the item, which was just as described. I got it at a very low price because noone else had bid on it, probably because the sellers low feedback percentage scared them away.

But if you read through someone's feedback history, and find that a lot of customers complain that they did not receive what they had paid for, or that merchandise arrived broken, badly packaged, or not as described, or they complain about poor communication from the seller, stay away.

There is a lot of information within eBay's feedback record, but it may take some time to dig through all of it. If you don't have the time for all this, stick to sellers that have a lot of feedback and still maintains a high percentage of positive ratings.

Fraudulent feedback

Note that a high Positive Feedback percentage is not a guarantee that the seller is honest. If you notice that the seller has received positive feedback for only very cheap items during a brief time frame, beware. If the feedback shows that the transactions ended, were paid for, shipped and received, and positive feedback received within a few minutes, consider this to be solid evidence of fraudulent means being used to generate the feedback.

Careful reading of a seller's feedback may reveal that a criminal is using a hijacked account. See the DPanswers eBay safety guide for more details about how to spot a hijacked account.

Shooting stars and merit badges

On eBay, you may often see symbols in the form og shooting starts and merit badges, or text such as “Power seller” and “Top-rated seller”, attached to the seller's name or profile. These things are supposedly added to seller's profiles by eBay according to criteria that may or may not make sense. I have never found these things to be helpful as a predictor of the quality of the seller's merchandise or service, so I just ignore them.

2. Types of sellers

There are many types of sellers on eBay. You will find brick and mortar shops that has an eBay presence, enterprising individuals that have made trading stuff on eBay a full-time job, and private individuals that turn to eBay to get rid of unused toys and unwanted gifts. Below is my attempt to profile some of the types of sellers you may meet at eBay.

Distributors

A few years ago, nobody had heard about Cactus, Nissin, Phottix, Pixel and YongNuo. But recently these, and similar brands, has become increasingly popular with photographers interested in inexpensive photography equipment such as tripods, light stands and modifiers, flash units and radio triggers. Most of this type of equipment are manufactured in the Shenzhen Hi-Tech Industrial Park (SHIP), in southern China's Guangdong Province, just across the bay from Hong Kong.

If you want to buy products manufactured in SHIP factories in Europe or in the USA, eBay is the place to go. You can recognise these distributors by the fact that they are selling new equipment of non-premium brands, most of it manufactured in China.

I have to admit that I love cheap gadgets, so I've bought a lot of stuff from these distributors. I've learned the hard way that quality control in China is variable, so I've received my share of duds. The items have been brand new and sealed in their original boxes – but still been dead on arrival. These sellers will send a replacement item as soon as you return a non-functioning item, but they will usually insist that you pay the return postage. Because of this, their positive feedback percentage is often lower than 99.5 %. I still buy from them. I just consider having to return around 5 % of the items I receive for replacement a necessary overhead cost for buying from distributors.

Examples of distributors are:

Brick & mortar shops

Some regular retail shops with a physical visiting address also maintains an eBay presence.

These shops mostly mostly sell the same products on eBay, as they sell in their physical shop, including new equipment with a warranty, as well as refurbished and used equipment.

Some of these, in particular Cameta Camera, have a huge presence on eBay. Cameta's feedback is around 99.4 %. This is below average, but in thir case, the general good reputation of their brand trumphs the below average feedback percentage. I should also add that I've only had good experiences with them.

Buying from these on eBay is just like buying from any other online store. You will, for instance, get a warranty on new items.

Examples of brick & mortar shops with an eBay-precence are:

Photo exchanges

Some people have made it their full-time job buying and selling photographic equipment, They buy used equipment, check, clean and test it to make sure it works. If necessary, they also repair it. Then they put it up for sale on eBay.

What characterises the photo exchange sellers are that they specialize in special types of equipment, and most of them has accumulated a lot of knowledge about it.

To recognise a photo exchange, look at eBay's listings of other items by the same seller (click on: View seller's other items). If what you see is a well-organized listing of a good quality used photographic equipment, with accurate and well-writen descriptions, and clear images matching the descriptions, you have probably found a photo exchange.

Most photo excahnges maintain at least two eBay accounts, one for buying stuff, and the other for selling stuff. That way, potential buyers can't find out how much they bought an item for. They rely on their extensive knowledge to spot a bargain.

Good photo exchanges care a lot about their postive feedback percentage. It is their almost perfect feedback score that allows them to charge a markup on equipment, compared to the people they buy their stuff from. With this type of seller, feedback is much more important that with distributors and brick & mortar shops, so make sure you study the feedback carefully before buying from one of these. Good photo exchanges are characterised by having a high postive feedback percentage.

Here is a couple of examples of this type of seller. The numbers indicate number of feedbacks the last 12 months and positive feedback percentage at the time of writing:

Trading assistants

These are merchants that specialize in selling items on eBay on behalf of others. Most of these participate in the eBay Trading Assistant Program.

Trading assistans will sell anything, so their listings usually consists of a broad mix of products, but it tend to be clean and some of it may even be new overstock items (usually labeled “new old stock”).

Since they do not own the items they sell, they usually know very little about its conditon or whether it works or not. Like the scrap merchants described in the next section, buying from a trading assistent is always a gamble, but those with good feedback are more likely to be willing to make it right if they sell you something that is broken.

Here is a couple of examples stores operated by trading assistents that sometimes list interesting photographic items. The numbers indicate number of feedbacks the last 12 months and positive feedback percentage at the time of writing:

Scrap merchants

Some eBay sellers make a living by getting items from flea-markets, jumble sales, thrift stores, and even garbage cans. They sort it, make it presentable, then sell it on eBay.

Like trading assistants, they sell a very mixed bag of products. Their inventory usually looks like the mix of products you'll find in a flea-market, jumble sale, thrift store or garbage can (e.g. 1950ies furniture, unidentified circuit boards, rusty auto parts and the odd camera).

The scrap merchants have no knowledge about the stuff they sell. They usually do not know what it is, or whether it works. A sure sign that you are dealing with a scrap merchant is the sentence: “Sold as-is. Have no way to test.” in the descriptions of the item.

The scrap merchants are usually honest, and if you know your stuff, you may find a hidden gem in their listings. However, since what they sell was discarded by the original owner for some reason, a lot of it is broken. Buy from the scrap merchants if you enjoy repairing things, or if you like to gamble. As with others sellers of used equipment, analysing their feedback is the most important guide to whether you are heading for a bargain or for trouble.

Ordinary people

The last type of seller is the seller someone that just sells a few items on eBay, perhaps only a single item in a whole year. In other words, this type of seller is someone who is not doing a lot of business on eBay. Instead this type of seller uses eBay to get rid of unwanted gifts, to raise money from odd lenses that see too little use, or to sell a too expensive piece of equipment to pay the rent.

The simplest way to tell whether you are dealing with this type of seller, is to look at how much they've sold compared to how much they've bought. Dedicated sellers buy almost nothing (and if they buy, they buy from another account than their selling account). Ordinary people tend to buy more stuff than they sell.

I have very little experience buying from this type of seller. There are not very many of them on eBay, and they also tend to put a too high reserve on their auctions, so I almost never bother bidding on their items.

3. Shills

The term “shill” on eBay refers to a seller (or an associate of the seller) that resorts to “shill bidding” to artificially inflate the price of an item sold in an auction.

Shill bidding is explicitly prohibited by eBay, but this policy seems to only be enforced when someone reports this to eBay, so shills tend to get away with this practice. Here is how to recognise a shill, and how to avoid being tricked.

Shill bidding usually takes place when the seller of an item wishes to increase the selling price. The seller usually sets up special eBay disposable accounts that is used to bid on his own items. This is to make the items appear more popular and more highly valued than they really are. Some sellers also use shill bidding to “smoke out” what you entered as your maximum bid. If you're outbid by bidders with the characteristics of shill bidders (see below), and the seller almost immediately re-lists the same item with your maximum bid as the starting price, or sends you a second chance offer with a price equal to your maximum bid, you may just have crossed paths with a shill bidder.

Here's how to recognise a shill bidder:

  1. Shill bidders usually have very little feedback. This is because they place their bids, but almost never follow through with transactions Therefore they don't have anyone to leave feedback. If you click on the bid history for an auction, you will see a set of anonymised bidder ids on the format a***b. Clicking on one of these will show the a bid history for this bidder. If there are a lots of bids, but almost no feedback, this may indicate a shill bidder. (Note, however, that zero feedback does not necessarily mean that the person is a shill bidder. This may simply be a new account that has not had time to build a feedback reputation.)
  2. Shill bidders prefer to bid on the auctions of a particular seller. If the 30-day bid history shows a very high percentage of bids with one particular seller, this may indicate a shill bidder. (Note, however, that clever shill bidders can hide this pattern by placing a large number of very low bids on other sellers items. These bids are of course so low that he never actually ends up buying anything.)
  3. Shill bidders tend to retract bids. By doing so, the shill bidder can gain information about the maximum bids of others. The bid history will list the total number of bid retractions, and the number of retractions during the last 6 months. A high number of retractions is another sign of a shill bidder.

It is difficult to identify a shill bidder with certainity. However, it is easy to avoid being tricked. First of all, keep your cool. Make sure you know the right price for an item, instead of thinking that a lot of bids means that the item must be worth paying a premium for. But the most important defence against shill bidders is not to bid early. Bidding early allows shill bidders to jack up the price. Just don't do it.

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