Monthly Archives: June 2013

eBay Declares War on Collectibles

World’s largest garage sale no longer interested in garages and/or sales

If you got up this morning and tried to run a few searches on eBay for your favorite collectibles, chances are you got this error message:

Yes, eBay, one of the largest e-commerce sites on the planet, home to millions of items up for sale, can’t deal with more than “around 100” characters in search strings.  Why, with more than 100 characters, you might actually be able to figure out which of those millions of items you might be interested in!  Imagine that, using words to narrow down a list of choices to the most relevant ones.  How quaint.  Nobody ever got rich through text boxes and search strings.

If you haven’t checked in on eBay in the last ten years, you may be a bit surprised to see what the beast has evolved into.  Back then, eBay had just acquired PayPal, an electronic payment service that was quickly becoming the norm for eBay purchases.  Unlike postal money orders, fees on PayPal payments were paid by the seller, making things easier and cheaper for buyers.  Six years later, eBay unveiled a plan to make PayPal the exclusive payment option for all eBay transactions.  Consumer groups cried foul and eBay softened its position, only mandating that sellers accept PayPal (which had largely the same effect).

Earlier in 2008, eBay had updated its fee structure to encourage more sellers to list items.  In exchange for lowering the insertion fee on most items by 5 cents and eliminating fees for adding pictures, eBay would take a slightly larger cut of the sale price, 8.75% of the first $25 (up from 5.25%), 3.5% of the next $975 (up from 3.25%), and 1.5% (no change) on the amount over $1,000.  This was spun as a reduction in fees even though the total fees would go up for any item that sold for more than $1.50.  At the same time, eBay took away the option for sellers to leave negative feedback.  While this feature had been abused by many sellers, it gave unscrupulous buyers leverage to squeeze top sellers for bonuses and discounts under threat of retaliation-free negative feedback.

In 2010, eBay made the most radical change to its fees, eliminating the tiered pricing structure and instituting a flat 9% fee on the total sale price (including shipping) with a $50 maximum.  Also included in this change were the reduction or elimination of listing fees in many cases (a 15 cent value!) and new incentives to use stores and/or fixed-price listings.  eBay was trying to turn itself into Amazon, pushing individual sellers and rare/unusual items aside to focus on high-volume sellers and commodity items.

And now in 2013, the fee structure has changed a little bit more.  Fees are now a fixed 10% of the total sale price, capped at $250.  Everyone gets 50 free listings per month, but if you pay for a store, you can get up to 2500 “free” listings per month.  More fees for smaller sellers, more discounts and incentives for high-volume sellers.

So, assuming that you list an item at 99 cents with a $2.50 shipping cost (a typical price for sports cards) without a store and within your 50 free listings per month, here’s how the rates (listing fee + final value fee) compare over the last five years:

eBay fees for an item with a starting bid of 99 cents, 2008-2013

While fees on a $1 item haven’t gone up by too much over the last five years, everything above $2.50 has had a fee increase of at least 50%.  If that $1 item is your 51st listing of the month, the fee increase balloons to 150%.  50 items might seem like a lot, but you can reach that with just the short printed (2 or fewer per box) cards from a case of cards.  With already slim margins on dollar cards (I make less than 75 cents on a card that sells for 99 cents with no listing fee), there is no incentive to list anything even remotely common.

But hey, the economy, blah, blah, times are tough for everyone, etc.  Fees go up all the time and eBay has no real competition, so they’re going to squeeze their captive audience until we burst.  You don’t offer deals to the customers you already have, you offer deals to the competition’s customers and hope you don’t lose too many of your own in the process.  This is how business works.  I can understand the fee changes, but some of eBay’s other recent changes are truly baffling.

eBay’s search system is a critical part of its business.  While you can stumble on things by browsing categories, there’s just no way to build a hierarchy to organize millions of items in a way that will be easy for buyers and properly followed by sellers.  As Google has shown, a good search system can make all the difference.  So you would think that eBay’s search would be the best of the bunch.  It would need to be.

And in truth, eBay’s search system was pretty good up until a couple of years ago.  It had some advanced features that I didn’t even know about until they were removed.  And that’s where the problem lies – the advanced features that made eBay’s search useful (and profitable) are being removed.  eBay’s search feature peaked a few years ago when pictures became the default in search results.  Prior to this, having an item photo show up in search listings was an optional feature with an added fee.  Third-party browser add-ons were developed to enable pictures in search listings for all items and not just the ones that paid for it, possibly influencing eBay’s decision to make it a standard feature.  With pictures for almost every listing, it had never been easier to scan through hundreds of items to find the ones you were interested in.  Until eBay broke it.

One of eBay’s many “upgrades” to the search experience was an option to change the size of the photos shown in search listings.  While this sounds like a useful feature, it was implemented with the largest setting enabled by default.  Logic would dictate that, if the previous standard size was at the Small setting, selecting Medium as the new default would be sufficient to alert users to the new feature.  Instead, they went with Friggin’ Huge, which, while useful for some items and with a short list of search results, becomes a bit cumbersome with a list of 200 items.  But at least it was user-configurable, meaning that I can tell when I’ve been logged out by when the search result pictures get huge.

Until eBay made a few more changes to their search feature in 2012 and decided that everyone should see photos in the largest possible size, regardless of their user preferences (and the photo size preferences were still there, they were just ignored).  After the usual round of complaints that follows any change to eBay’s search system, this bizarre change was corrected.  But the rest of the changes remained in place.

Most of the 2012 changes to eBay’s search function were cosmetic and confusing.  The Completed Listings function was moved around between several different locations, some buried under links, before eventually settling in plain view, except when it changes place for no apparent reason.  The option to search by title and description, rendered largely unusable by keyword spammers, was changed from a simple checkbox under the search string into an option that could be disabled but apparently not enabled.

One of the biggest changes to eBay search in 2012 was the removal of support for wildcards in search strings, supposedly because they trust their fancy new software’s ability to tell what you want more than they trust your ability to specify it.  A wildcard is a placeholder that allows you to specify only part of a search term and will return all matches with that part.  Since eBay’s search only works (reliably) on full words, searching for “auto” will not give you a match for “autograph” without the use of a wild card.  The search term “auto*” would return all listings with the words auto, autograph, autographs, autographed, automatic, automobile, autonomic, etc.  With that feature gone, searches would require longer search strings with more words.  Which could make things a bit hard to read with the new shorter text entry field for searches, which also featured a larger font for decreased visibility.  This new text entry field could only display about 50 characters, making it a bit trickier to navigate search strings that could be up to 250 characters long.

Because who needs to see more than 50 characters?

And that’s where today’s change comes in.  No need to scroll very far in the search box if it can only contain twice as many characters as it can display.  Brilliant!  Unless you have search strings that start with (auto,autograph,autographs,autographed,signature,signatures,signed) because of the lack of wildcard support (while eBay would assure us that some variants should still show up in search results without the use of wildcards, it has been my experience that this is not always the case), which leaves you with about 30 characters.  That’s not even enough to fit the Mets starting rotation, unless you shorten “Matt Harvey” to just “Harvey” and skip all over the unwanted results for every player named Harvey.  There are about 500 Mets players and prospects with certified autograph cards.  Good luck finding more than a handful of them.

eBay’s current search “feature” simply doesn’t work for collectibles, or for anyone who knows what they are looking for really.  It is meant for the clueless and the confused who only know that they want a toaster and will just buy the first thing that comes up, only to wonder what Battlestar Galactica has to do with heating bread.  The geeks, dorks, nerds, fanatics, and otaku can just pound sand as far as eBay is concerned.  Your overly specific and detailed search strings and the money that comes with them are not wanted.

Or maybe this isn’t all part of a grand conspiracy to scare off an entire market segment.  Could I be overreacting to a string of changes over the last five years that have the collective effect of disenfranchising an industry?  Well, as an engineer with over a decade of experience in government acquisitions dealing with the development, analysis, and testing of requirements (résumé available upon request), I think I have a good idea of how this could happen without any malicious intent, not that the alternative is any prettier.  It looks to me like there were no requirements and there was no plan.  Someone just bought new software without a proper acquisition program and without analyzing the impact of the changes it would bring.  The reality may be that all of these changes are being made on a whim and not based on goals, data, and evaluation metrics.  That may be the scariest possibility of all.

A misguided option on a search feature isn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.  You can just fix it and move on.  But the process behind how such features come to be can be an indication of systematic failures throughout a company.  Ideally, a company should have a set of goals outlining its plans for the future – operating strategies, markets to work in, products and services to develop, etc.  These goals work their way down the organizational structure into the programs and projects where people take actions to achieve the goals.  These actions are driven by specifications, usually with specific performance requirements developed from research and evaluated with quantifiable metrics.  Evaluations then work their way back up the chain to show how the company is meeting its goals.

I’m not sure whoever is in charge of eBay’s search feature, a critical program element, is following this process.  Surely, any research would have revealed that searches of more than 100 characters are common, especially in collectibles categories.  A reduction in the size of search strings would make no sense as a requirement for any new search software.  Then again, neither would the removal of wildcards.  These would be key elements that should be retained through any updates to the underlying search software unless there is a technical limitation with no practical workaround (an almost absurd possibility given the features of just about any search engine).  This tells me that there is no requirements document for the search function, possibly no requirements document for any feature on eBay’s site.  No requirements means no measures of performance and no link to corporate goals.  It all falls apart from there.  Either the framework upon which corporate success is based isn’t present or it isn’t being followed.  This is a disaster in the making.

But i don’t have the insight into eBay’s inner workings to know any of this for sure.  Maybe everything is working just fine and they really do want to scare off people like me who buy and sell collectibles.  Maybe they don’t care about the negative consequences of the changes they’ve been making.  Maybe they don’t even consider them to be negative consequences.  We’re stuck between two bad options and I’m not sure which one is worse.  But neither is good for the future of eBay.

2 June 2013 – Binghamton Mets at New Hampshire Fisher Cats

Pesky Puello steals the show (and second base)

It was Law Enforcement Appreciation Day at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium on a hot and sunny June afternoon.  The day started off with a Pesky Pole bobblehead giveaway, police dog demonstrations, a pipeband, and police motorcycles circling the field.  When the police left the field, the theft began.  Cesar Puello stole second base in the first inning and the B-Mets stole the game on a five-run 5th inning to take the series with a 7-2 win.  Their reward was a 7-hour bus ride back to Binghamton with a 2-game lead in their division.

Box score

The first three innings followed a pretty standard script for both teams.  Somebody strikes out, somebody gets on base, and the runner usually advances to second somehow.  Back and forth we went until the bottom of the 4th, when the Fisher Cats started things off with their first extra base hit of the game, a double by Clint Robinson.  A bunt moved Robinson to third and a fly ball that Darrell Ceciliani couldn’t get to drove him in to give the Fisher Cats the lead.  Jacob deGrom shut down the Fisher Cats offense from there with an infield fly and a strikeout.  His 92mph fastball didn’t miss many bats, but deGrom still managed 6 strikeouts, mostly with what appeared to be a trick pitch that set the ball on an invisible 4-inch tee on the plate.  Or maybe that’s just a camera trick.

Darrell Ceciliani turning an intentional walk into a run

The B-Mets answered back in the 5th with the type of offensive explosion typically reserved for Deck McGuire starts.  Alonzo Harris, in his second game back from a finger injury, finally got his bunting dialed in and set down his second hard bunt of the day, dropping it right down the first base line, drawing the first baseman in to field it, and getting to the bag before anyone could cover first.  Harris advanced to second on a single and was forced out at third when Wilfredo Tovar’s bunt attempt didn’t quite go as planned.  Daniel Muno singled and Cesar Puello doubled to give the B-Mets the lead and put runners on second and third with two outs for Cory Vaughn, who had struck out twice already and would finish the day with 4 Ks.  Vaughn was intentionally walked to load the bases for Darrell Ceciliani.  Ceciliani took advantage of the extra baserunner with a fly ball that got past a diving Brian Van Kirk for a triple, putting the B-Mets up 5-1.

Neither team did much of anything over the next inning.  Cesar Puello caught another fly ball, deGrom got two more strikeouts, and Harris abandoned the nothing-but-bunts plan and struck out.  DeGrom’s luck finally ran out in the bottom of the 6th when Clint Robinson sent one over the 400ft wall in center for a solo home run.  When the next batter resulted in deGrom’s third walk of the game, Adam Kolarek was called in to take over.  Kolarek retired all five batters he faced, Jack Leathersich pitched another perfect 8th inning (only one strikeout this time though), and Jeff Walters came in to finish the game.  More on that later.

Ceciliani drove Puello in with a triple, then Puello did it himself with a home run

Cesar Puello added a solo home run in the 7th to leave him a triple shy of the cycle.  He wouldn’t get it, though teammates Ceciliani and Richard Lucas would both triple in the game, Ceciliani earlier in the 5th inning and Lucas in the 8th.  Lucas would go on to score on a wild pitch that bounced out in front of the catcher, putting the B-Mets up 7-2.  Puello would pop out with the bases loaded and no outs in the top of the 9th and the B-Mets would strand all three runners, leaving it up to Walters to wrap things up.

Cesar Puello, with the glove, in right field

Actually, the game was in Cesar Puello’s hands in the bottom of the 9th, quite literally.  Puello was all over this game like any number of offensive stereotypes of people who are all over things.  Already 3 for 5 with a double, home run, stolen base, 2 RBI, and 2 runs scored, you would think that he would be satisfied.  You obviously don’t know Puello.  He made the first out by beating out Muno and Lucas to a fly ball next to the Fisher Cats bullpen and then just missed getting to a line drive in time to make the third out.  That put runners on first and second for Walters, but Puello bailed him out by grabbing a routine fly ball to end the game.  Puello caught five outs to go with his exploits at the plate and on the basepaths, ranging from the foul line to center and making everyone else get out of his way.  It was a solid game all around following an 0-4, 3K night on Friday and a night off on Saturday.  It looks like there just might be some decent outfield prospects in the Mets system after all, though Puello still has a ways to go before he’s ready for the majors.

1 June 2013 – Binghamton Mets at New Hampshire Fisher Cats

While the big league Mets fall to the fish, the B-Mets blank the Fisher Cats

Rafael Montero made his second start following a spot start at AAA and did not disappoint, pitching 7 scoreless innings in a 6-0 B-Mets win.  One day after an 8-7 loss where minor mistakes made all the difference, the B-Mets defense was in fine form.  Aggressive baserunning kept the runs coming, Cesar Puello got the night off after striking out three times the night before, and Alonzo Harris was back in the lineup after a nasty finger injury.

Box score

Rafael Montero was the star of the night, and for good reason.  His time at AA is clearly coming to an end, with Zack Wheeler’s major league callup likely a major factor.  His fastball was holding steady at 92-93 over all 7 innings, with the occasional 94 in the early innings.  On top of that, he executed a quick pickoff move for any runners who managed to reach base and was remarkably fast to get in place to back up at third if any runners headed for second.  Even with only four strikeouts on the night, his instincts and focus were top notch and kept the Fisher Cats from scoring.  They came closest in the 5th, when a pair of singles and a balk put two runners in scoring position with two outs.  Montero struck out Kevin Pillar to end the threat.  Those would be the last New Hampshire runners in scoring position for the night and that would also end the night for Pillar and Fisher Cats manager Gary Allenson, who were ejected for arguing the strikeout.

You need some offense to win a game though, so it was good that the Mets got all the runs they would need in the first inning on a Cory Vaughn double.  They would go on to add at least one run in half of the remaining innings while holding the Fisher Cats scoreless.

Alonzo Harris was back in action after getting the stitches out of his finger, which he shared in full detail on Twitter.  Harris was clearly eager to get back out on the field, jumping into a bunt in his first at bat but failing to beat the throw.  He would go 0-5 on the night, reaching base only once when a bad throw to first broke up what should have been a double play.  Harris was later stranded at second, ending his baserunning for the night.  Despite the poor results, his enthusiasm was nice to see.

Richard Lucas and Alonzo Harris pose for photos before the game

Gathering at the dugout railing to watch, um, water bottle stacking?

31 May 2013 – Binghamton Mets at New Hampshire Fisher Cats

Deck McGuire and Logan Verrett in: The Battle of Who Could Suck Less

The B-Mets made their second trip of the season to New Hampshire, this time in sole posession of first place in their division.  Their dominance would be short-lived as they would find themselves in a three-way tie for first after falling 8-7 to the Fisher Cats.

Box Score

Darrell Ceciliani puts runners in scoring position in Binghamton’s 5-run 2nd inning

When last we saw Deck McGuire, he gave up five runs in 1/3 of an inning and got an early hook at the start of an 11-4 B-Mets rout.  This time around, McGuire waited until the second inning to give up five runs.  In an inning when anything hit in play would go down as a hit, McGuire’s only way out was an inning-ending strikeout.

Vaughn and Ceciliani preparing to begin today’s scoring

I put down my camera to get out a tweet about the first run and several more came through before I could get through 140 characters.  McGuire looked lost, the Fisher Cats looked inept, and the Mets looked unstoppable.

One of my few pictures of Logan Verrett without a runner on first in the background

Things started turning around in the next inning.  The entire Mets infield got caught napping on a leadoff base hit up the middle, but no damage was done.  The scene repeated itself in the 4th with not one but two infielders trying, and failing, to corral a hard-hit ground ball, with shortstop Wilfredo Tovar in the middle of both plays.  He made no effort to go after a ball that rolled to his left in the 3rd and in the 4th he got in front of a ball to his right that got past a diving Josh Rodriguez, but was unable to hold on to it.  To his credit, Tovar started a slick double play in the 3rd, but the bobble in the 4th was costly.  That runner would score and one more run would come through with two outs.

The Mets’ lead would be cut to 5-4 in the 5th after a double and a home run with two outs.  Trying to get some breathing room, the Mets went for a bunt to lead off the 6th.  That was the only Mets batter to leave the batter’s box in the inning.  With Verrett getting hit hard, you would have to think that the bullpen would be coming into play soon.  You would be wrong.

Verrett came out to start the 6th and put the first two batters on base.  Verrett then fielded a soft bunt and didn’t even attempt to make a throw, seeming to realize that, with his luck tonight, any throw he made would probably end up in the outfield and three runs would score.  Instead, he took his chances with former Mets farmhand Adam Loewen, who decided to give the ball the rest of the night off in the Sam Adams Bar and Grill on the other side of the left field wall.  With that, the Fisher Cats took an 8-5 lead and Logan Verrett made his exit.  One pitch from Ryan Fraser turned into one out and the Fisher Cats went down easy from that point on.

The Mets struck back in the top of the 7th with back-to-back line drives to shallow center to lead off the inning.  Right into the glove of a charging Kevin Pillar.  Both times.  Fraser gave up one hit in the bottom half but got through the inning without incident and turned things over to Jack Leathersich.

This is what a Jack Leathersich strikeout looks like

Leathersich struck out the side in the 8th, much to the amazement of anyone who had never heard of Jack Leathersich.  To anyone else, it was business as usual.

Productive outs, but not productive enough

Down to their last three outs, it was time for the B-Mets to work their late-inning magic and salvage this game.  Darrell Ceciliani started the inning off with a base hit and scored on Blake Forsythe’s double.  Forsythe advanced to third on a groundout by Richard Lucas and scored on a Wilfredo Tovar groundout.  That left the Mets down by one run with two outs and Daniel Muno at the plate.  One groundout later and it was time to see some fireworks before our feature presentation, Escape From Manchester (runtime 40 minutes, rated !*@$#& for people in minivans almost crashing into you as you try to get a few inches closer to the exit).  Mets lose 8-7.

This is what a Cesar Puello strikeout looks like

Notes: Cesar Puello went 0-4 with three strikeouts.  The first four batters in the B-Mets lineup went 1 for 14 with six strikeouts and two walks.  The bottom four in the order went 6 for 16 with two strikeouts and six RBIs.