It's ebay Now, the wildly popular auction site's attempt to compete with Amazon.com, Google and other entities looking to satisfy the customer's growing appetite for speed.
“We have retired the eBay Now same-day and scheduled delivery service in the U.S., including the eBay Brooklyn pilot program,” the company said on what remains of the service’s Web page.
EBay reportedly was planning to incorporate the service into its regular website and mobile app, but it seems clear that the company is walking away from same-day home delivery, and moving instead toward options such as the pickup of online orders at local retail outlets.
EBay made a splash in same-day with the 2013 acquisition of Shutl, a provider of one-hour delivery in the U.K. The deal brought Shutl to the U.S., where it took over from eBay’s own fledgling fleet of cars and drivers. They joined numerous vans and other instant-delivery vehicles operated by new entrants such as AmazonFresh and Google Express. They were also up against ventures such as Deliv, which provides “last-mile” transportation of goods ordered from malls and traditional retailers.
EBay Now had some initial success in signing up big-name retailing partners such as Home Depot, Target, Macy’s and Best Buy. All were looking to beef up their online fulfillment capabilities in order to stave off the Amazon beast.
EBay Now faltered, however, because it offered a service that wasn’t a perfect match with the nature of eBay itself. Its presence in delivering traditional retail purchases didn’t generate enough of a profit, and the company reportedly had trouble coordinating its service with the army of home-based sellers who account for most of the commerce on eBay.
“EBay is not in the business of selling T-shirts and toilet paper,” says Maria Haggerty, chief executive officer of Dotcom Distribution, a provider of e-commerce fulfillment services. “It focuses on one-of-a-kind items. For them to go into the business of selling everyday commodities while not making any margin like Amazon and Walmart doesn’t seem like much of a commonsense business model.”
Haggerty says eBay might have been emboldened to offer same-day delivery by its 2011 acquisition of online service provider GSI Commerce. That deal was calculated to link eBay with major retailing partners. While GSI’s offering included the management of online marketing programs, the company also maintained seven warehouses full of retail merchandise.
GSI didn’t actually own the inventory, so it could only make money on fulfillment, Haggerty says. Yet same-day delivery is, at least right now, by definition an unprofitable venture on a stand-alone basis.
Don’t think that the departure of eBay Now means the same-day race is over, or even that the dust has cleared. Service providers are far from figuring out the optimal business model for providing expedited delivery – assuming there is one. Another possibility is that dominant players such as Amazon will continue to absorb the losses from same-day delivery in order to make their money on the goods being sold.
Amazon, for one, is no stranger to red ink, having lost money for most of the quarters in which it has been in business. While free delivery is still the order of the day among e-tailers, Amazon’s Prime service, which bills subscribers $99 a year, is serving to defray at least some of those costs. (Among the perks is free two-day shipping, not same-day delivery.) Other online sellers are imposing a fee on their fastest services, while continuing to eat the cost of delivering within two days or longer. For its part, eBay lacked the retail merchandise and business model that would allow any of those options to make sense, even over the long term.
Amazon will remain a strong player while merchandisers figure out the right equation for providing same-day delivery yet remaining profitable overall, says Haggerty. But the company will need to watch out for Walmart, which has huge volumes of product sitting in its retail stores, located within minutes of a large percentage of the nation’s consumers. The same goes for malls operated by the Simon Property Group, said to be the nation’s largest real estate investment trust, or Deliv, which treats malls as hubs for local delivery.
“Figure that every single mall has got every single brand, and they’re all sitting within very densely populated areas,” says Haggerty. “Would it really take that much for Walmart to pick, pack and ship, in the middle of the day, orders going out to zip codes within their areas?”
Amazon has its own broad network of fulfillment centers, many of them just outside urban centers. But Haggerty believes Walmart has “a physical leg-up” because its inventory is located even closer to the end consumer. What’s more, there’s a growing trend among brick-and-mortar retailers of picking internet orders directly from store shelves.
So what about Google and its growing express delivery network? Like eBay, it’s rich in technology but doesn’t take ownership of inventory. Its sole means of squeezing out a profit on the service is, again, on the transportation end. “They don’t have the opportunity to make money on the margin,” says Haggerty.
Also threatening to swell the field of contenders are crowd-sourced transportation providers such as Uber and Lyft. They have their own set of challenges, including the need for contracted drivers to take on additional duties such as entering stores and dropping off packages. This is one race that will be tearing around the track for some time to come.