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Why doesn't eBay have better prices or selection?

eBay may claim to be all things to all people, but really it isn't

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Why doesn't eBay have better prices or selection?

Feeling a little let down by eBay? Not everyone finds what they're looking for at the price they'd like to pay.

Photo: Photomak / Dreamstime

eBay gets a lot of hype as the place to find "amazing deals" and "almost anything you could possibly want." And to some extent that's true. So why is it that when you search for what you want on eBay, you either don't find much or you find that it's more expensive than it is at the competition?

Here are some of the facts about prices and selection on eBay—some of the reasons you may not be finding what you're looking for, or finding it at the price you'd like to pay.

  • eBay isn't a retailer. Online retailers like Amazon.com or Walmart.com act a little bit like the retail stores in your neighborhood. They figure out who their clientele is, then figure out what things their clientele is likely to want, then go to great pains to ensure that they sell everything on the list at the best price possible. eBay doesn't plan its inventory that way; it's a forum for buying and selling by others, which means that what you find for sale on eBay depends on what people out there are listing on eBay and the business models under which they operate.

  • Mass-market brand-name goods aren't eBay's strong suit. If you're shopping eBay for the same retail-new brand-name goods stocked by your local department store, you're likely to be disappointed. The reason is that most of these goods are low-margin, high-volume goods. Most eBay sellers are independent small businesses or individuals, which means that it's tough for them to sell Swiffers or Gerber baby products or CFL light bulbs on eBay at a competitive price; the sourcing realities just don't work out for most eBay sellers for most of these kinds of goods.

  • Pricing on eBay has its own internal logic. Because of these characteristics, prices on eBay are much more closely tied to what the specific community of eBay shoppers is willing to pay for them on a bidding basis and to what it cost sellers to source the item in question in the first place. Sure, you'll find sellers that adjust inventory pricing based on market trends, but you'll also find just as many that don't. You'll find wildly underpriced goods on eBay, but you'll also find wildly overpriced goods.

  • Items on eBay may be priced for specific targeted audiences. There are many hobbyist and enthusiast traders on eBay that are looking for particular items that are no longer available in stores. Often, this means that they want last year's jeans by a certain designer (maybe the fit better) or a particular version of a gadget from a major manufacturer (because of some unusual feature that was dropped in later models). Buyers often go to eBay because it's the only place to find out-of-date mass-market goods, and they're often willing to pay a premium to get just the item they want. This can be bewildering to shoppers who don't care whether they're buying version 1.0, 2.0, or 3.0 of a product and find that version 1.0 is three times the price on eBay as version 3.0 on other retail sites.

  • Quanities are rarely infinite on eBay. Because so many of eBay's sellers are independent small businesses, fewer of them have stable supply chains and predictable inventory in place. They're just as likely to have made a good buy on a lot of 5, 20, or 100 of a particular item. Once their stock is sold out, it's often gone for good—so if you see a deal that is particularly good in your eyes on eBay, it's often a good idea to take the greatest possible advantage while you can, so long as the seller in question is reputable.

  • eBay is hard to search. In many cases, buyers that are bewildered by poor prices or selection on eBay may actually be suffering from the "search problem." Not only does eBay not have a highly detailed and flexible product browsing system like the one seen at (for example) Amazon.com, but even its search box can muddy the waters; eBay's default best match search results tend to promote larger top-rated sellers and sellers with good customer service records, meaning that the best deals and much inventory can be buried many pages deep in lists of unrelated items.

In general, when it comes to eBay as a place to buy and sell, what you see is what you get. If you're finding that your shopping needs are hard to meet on eBay, don't continue to waste time trying to find what may be purely mythical good deals on the items that you want. Instead, take a look at alternatives that may be better suited to your shopping needs.

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