EBay has accused Amazon of a shady, global campaign to poach its sellers

The alleged schemer.
The alleged schemer.
Image: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
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Less than two weeks ago, eBay got an alert from one of its sellers. Someone else on eBay had messaged this person, trying to persuade them to start selling on Amazon. EBay, whose business relies on its sellers and the commissions it draws from their sales, decided to investigate.

What it found, according to an Oct. 1 cease-and-desist letter it sent to Amazon reviewed by the Wall Street Journal (paywall), was that for several years Amazon sales representatives around the world have been signing up for eBay accounts and using its internal messaging system to lure sellers over to Amazon’s own online marketplace. The practice, it says, violates a section of a California law covering computer crime, as well as eBay’s user agreement.

“We have uncovered an unlawful and troubling scheme on the part of Amazon to solicit eBay sellers to move to Amazon’s platform,” an eBay spokesperson said in a statement. “We have demanded that Amazon end its unlawful activity and we will take the appropriate steps, as needed, to protect eBay.”

The stakes aren’t just high for eBay. Amazon’s marketplace, where third-party sellers can list their goods alongside Amazon’s own listings, is invaluable to the e-commerce giant. In 2017, it accounted for more than half of goods sold on Amazon.

EBay alleges that, thus far, it has found about 50 Amazon employees, in countries including the US, UK, Singapore, Australia, and France, who sent more than 1,000 messages trying to pull sellers over to its marketplace. The Amazon reps often acknowledged that they were breaking eBay’s rules and trying to avoid getting caught. EBay prohibits members from swapping details like email addresses or phone numbers to transact sales outside of eBay, so the reps would conceal their contact information by doing things like writing out “at amazon dot com” and not using conventional formats for phone numbers.

In almost all instances, the reps tried to move discussions off of eBay, and kept from using Amazon’s full name in messages with workarounds like “a-m-a-z-o-n.” Ebay also says these Amazon reps did thorough analyses of particular sellers and tried to appeal to needs they may have for particular goods. 

In a statement, an Amazon spokesperson said, “We are conducting a thorough investigation of these allegations.”

Amazon’s marketplace has been growing quickly, as CEO Jeff Bezos noted in an April letter to shareholders, and some of that growth may be coming at eBay’s expense. In a recent survey (pdf) of 1,200 Amazon sellers, Feedadvisor, an intelligence platform for brands that sell on Amazon, noted that the number of Amazon merchants who also sell on eBay is falling. In 2017, 65% of merchants it surveyed sold on eBay as well, but in 2018, just 52% did.

The marketplace has gotten Amazon into trouble at times, too. A large fashion industry trade group is currently calling for some Amazon marketplaces to join a list of “notorious markets” full of pirated and counterfeit products published each year by the Office of the United States Trade Representative.