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Ebay enjoys lockdown renaissance as buyers and sellers flock to site

Up to 50,000 new sellers have signed up in April, with fast trade in everything from home office supplies to baking kit and dumbbells to hot tubs

More than 50,000 new businesses have signed up to the UK arm of online trading site eBay in April as independent retailers seek a way to survive through lockdown.

Hardware and toy stores to fashion boutiques and brands have turned to the site as a means to keep trading since the government forced all retailers deemed non-essential to close their doors on 23 March to help slow the spread of coronavirus.

Even big fashion brands are signing up to the site as a way to clear spring stock that will never make it into stores. Up to 80 have already signed up and Rob Hattrell, the boss of eBay’s UK arm, says the company is poised to sign up more in the coming weeks.

“Businesses are trying to find a way to survive,” says Hattrell.

The leap towards eBay reflects an acceleration of the shift to online shopping across the market prompted by the pandemic. Sales slumped 93% at high street stores in April, according to the advisory firm BDO’s monthly snapshot of trading at dozens of medium-sized non-food chains. Online and catalogue sales more than doubled (109%).

Shopper numbers on eBay have doubled as families switch to buying online rather than giving up on spending altogether.

But Hattrell says it’s a mistake to think that all online sellers are doing well: “It’s not consistent or broad brush; it is category specific,” he says.

Before lockdown started, sales of medical products such as face masks and hand sanitiser soared. Since then, there have been different waves of demand moving from home office supplies, such as laptops and desks, to games and puzzles for children, through to fitness equipment, home-baking kit and, finally, in recent weeks, signs of a return to buying clothing.

Unusually, one of the biggest spikes in demand has been for hot tubs – with sales up 480%, perhaps prompted by a desire to create that seaside feeling at home during a sunny April.

Other fast sellers read like a map of lockdown life. Sales of dumbbells and resistance bands are up more than 220% while bread makers, and brewing kits are both up 200%. Activewear – which often doubles up as lounge wear – is up by 50%, one of the few fashion winners.

But not everything is selling well – firms selling party accessories or car parts have had to mothball their eBay stores because business is so slow.

Meanwhile, eBay has removed more than 15m listings around the world and suspended thousands of traders amid concerns about unscrupulous sellers trying to cash in on demand for some items, such as face masks and sanitiser.

Hattrell says listings for masks, baby milk, nappies and hand sanitiser are now limited to major firms, which have got special approval from eBay.

“We are talking about a minority [of rogue traders] and it’s our job to remove them so they don’t spoil it for anyone else.”

While some scammers are still slipping through the net – such as those posting fake listings for camper vans to trick buyers into handing over cash for vehicles they have not seen and don’t exist – Hattrell says the company has doubled its team who oversee rogue traders and is constantly tweaking computer algorithms to try and spot rip-offs.

“I don’t want it on the platform. We have a community of 27m buyers and 300,000 small businesses and they don’t want it either.”

While many are concerned that the surge in online shopping will only add fuel to the high street meltdown, Hattrell argues that getting to grips with trading online will help independent retailers in the long term.

“If we look at data see in [South] Korea and China and markets here started to come out of lockdown there’s a sustainable and sustained shift to shopping more online. It doesn’t mean physical retail ends.

“Having physical and online running together is the most compelling thing for customers. These things don’t have to work in competition,” he says.

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