Akron retailers seeing boost from eBay program

May 21, 2018

This article originally appeared on Crain's Cleveland Business and was written by Dan Shingler.

When eBay and the city of Akron in January announced that the big online auction site would conduct its first Retail Revival program in Akron, it would have been easy to be skeptical.

Of course, the internet giant wants more vendors — including small, startup retailers — to use its site. The more people who sell on eBay, the more money eBay makes, after all.

But two months after the one-year program began in March, participating retailers say they've gotten far more than just a recruitment effort. Those in the program say it's boosting their sales and preparing them to be successful online sellers in the future, even if they were already selling on eBay or other platforms, such as Amazon.

"For us, Amazon was huge last fall, and we did about $10,000 worth of business on Amazon last year," said Michael Considine, owner of Akron's Norka Food & Beverage Co. "But we had a huge April on eBay, where we did about $2,000, so it's right on line with other platforms already … and catching up quickly."

Considine sells soda in glass bottles — in other words, a heavy and fragile item for which shipping can be expensive. He has to find buyers who really want it. But he still finds customers all over the country and beyond, thanks in part to the global reach of eBay.

A lot of his online customers are former Akronites looking for a nostalgic taste of home. Norka was a beverage company in much of the 20th century and Considine picked up the name and reformulated its recipes using old ingredient labels and other research.

"In fact, on a good percentage of orders we get in the comment note box 'I was born in Akron,' or 'I lived in Akron — can't wait to try Norka again.' There's just a nostalgic connection," Considine said.

Those connections likely can only be made online, he said, assuming, of course, that a nostalgic transplant can find his product. And that, he and others say, is where eBay provides the most and most effective help.

The Retail Revival program doesn't discount fees for participants; other eBay retailers would likely cry foul if it did. All that participants get in terms of material support is a few packing supplies. Participants can get reduced eBay fees if they become a top seller, and the program might help them achieve that status more quickly. But that opportunity exists for everyone selling on eBay.

What Retail Revival members get that is far more valuable, they say, is one-on-one training, and coaching and webinars about how to put together the best listings, how to price items and how to get their products to show up in searches, preferably ahead of competing products.

"We didn't really understand that there are different practices to get higher on the listing rankings, or what it takes to become a top-rated seller, so you can get lower fees and higher rankings," said Glenn Miller, co-owner of Whiskertin Lighting, which makes production and custom lighting from old industrial parts and other items, with pieces costing from about $65 into the thousands.

Like Considine, Miller had been trying to sell online before the Retail Revival program. The help he's received has kicked his sales into a higher gear, he said.

"We were doing it, but we only had a few things on there and didn't have a lot of success with the lights … but after Retail Revival, we started selling quite a few of our products," Miller said.

Others were new to eBay but have found new opportunities there. Ryan "Otis" Adams runs Dirty River Bicycle Works in Akron's Northside Marketplace with his wife, Kelley, and two employees. He said he hasn't begun to sell whole bikes on the platform but has found it to be a great place to sell tools and parts, especially if they're uncommon items.

"I have a huge inventory of random pieces and parts that is really nice, that I've acquired over time. We're trying to empty the basement, and that's our first eBay goal," he said.

It's still a tiny portion of his sales, Adams said, but it could be an important part. It allows him to sell bike-related products in the winter to buyers in warmer climates, it gives him more opportunities to show products than his small shop in downtown Akron, and it helps him with niche items, he said.

EBay is a great place to sell rare, discontinued or handmade items, like Miller's lights, sellers say. That's because those items don't have to compete purely on price the way common items often do, and the platform is perfect for connecting esoteric items with specific buyers who want them.

Those involved with the program at a higher level, including eBay itself, also have been pleased with the program. Far more companies signed up than eBay had hoped, said Grace Myers, who was hired by eBay as Retail Revival's project coordinator and who also co-owns New Territory, a virtual reality company with operations in the Bounce Innovation Hub and the Northside Marketplace.

"They came to Akron hoping to see 30 or 40 businesses join, and they were thrilled to have more than 100 companies come on board," Myers said.

The program is centered in Akron, but about 15 of the participants are from Warren, where business were also edible to join.

Chris Librie, senior director of global impact and giving at eBay, said his company was drawn to Akron because of the city's recent efforts to reinvent itself and support new startups.

"We were drawn to the city's forward-thinking mindset and commitment to its growth and success — especially Mayor of Akron Dan Horrigan and the city's strong support of innovation and investment in Akron's startup and business communities," Librie said in an email.

Myers said eBay is investing in the long-term success of the participants to both build its own business and to help retailers in a challenging environment.

"We're hoping it will ultimately inspire other people to start their own eBay stores and the sellers in this program can share their knowledge, because they're going to have some pretty special knowledge as a result of this," Myers said.

Developer Joel Testa, whose projects include the Northside Marketplace, is also someone who's trying to support local retailers.

Testa's Northside Marketplace serves as a kind of incubator for new Akron retailers. Located in the city's Northside Arts District, nearly 50 small retailers work from the space, many of them selling Akron-specifc products, such as honey from local bees or items emblazoned with the city's slogans and icons.

"If we help a retail tenant grow for them, it helps us as a developer, too," said Testa, who said he's been working closely with eBay.

Testa says the Northside Marketplace and eBay are such a successful fit, he's hoping to build similar developments in other cities in partnership with the Retail Revival program.

"We've been talking to them about that. And the nice thing is that Akron could serve as the flagship and sort of a marketplace university," he said.

He might get his wish, too. Librie said eBay plans to announce plans for another Retail Revival city this year, and it likes Testa's idea to replicate the Northside Marketplace.

"We love Joel Testa's vision for the Northside Marketplace. His work there is an amazing source of entrepreneurial spirit for Akron. We would love to find similar concepts in our next Retail Revival city," Librie said.