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November 16-22, 2005

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Pia Calabretta

I Don't Want The World, I Just Want Your Half: Pia Calabretta is one of hundreds of Half.com users who are registering their frustration at the changes instituted since eBay purchased Half.com.

Half Empty

A small but vocal minority of users are raising a stink about how eBay treats their beloved Half.com


By Najeeb Hasan

When it comes to buyers and sellers, Pia Calabretta feels low on eBay's totem pole. She is a seller, but her method of building up inventory requires that she drag a girlfriend through Cleveland's libraries and thrift stores and try to find as many 25 cent book deals as she can. Her passion is romance collectibles: Silhouette (where Nora Roberts cut her teeth), Bantam Love Swept (where Janet Evanovich of the Stephanie Plum mysteries got her start) and others.

So, when she buys her inventory—which she stores at her house—she needs a simple way to sell it. eBay, with its complicated auction format, wouldn't cut it. But Half.com did.

"The reason why I did Half.com was that it had a fixed price, and it was so simple to list books," says Calabretta. "I could leave them on forever, with no end, and the only thing they took was 15 percent commission. They took care of the book work; they register the buyers; they get the credit card information from the buyers; they take money from the buyer; and they direct-deposit money in my checking account twice a month. I was thrilled—this was the easiest thing in the world."

In the summer of 2000, however, Silicon Valley online auction giant eBay purchased Half.com in a stock-for-stock deal. The terms of the deal weren't announced, but the number of shares involved was estimated to be between 4.6 million and 5.5 million. The move was seen as a way for eBay to move beyond its traditional auctions and delve into the fixed-price model of online sales. At the time of the sale, Half.com had 250,000 registered users and more than 1 million items posted to be purchased.

But in the few years since, the buyout has made small sellers like Calabretta who were attracted to the ease that Half.com provided them increasingly uneasy. Indeed, soon after purchasing the website, eBay threatened to shut down Half.com (twice), only to be thwarted by a Half.com user revolt, and, since then, eBay has steadily introduced changes to the site that Half.com sellers (and buyers) think are, at best, odd—and, at worst, part of a strategy by eBay to slowly bleed the site dry.

"They've taken some of the aspects of Half.com and moved it into eBay," complains Calabretta. "When they bought [Half.com], they said, 'We are going to close Half.com, and we want you to join eBay community. You will find the same ease in putting your books here.' It's not true. They haven't got a clue what a book is. You can see it in their website. They do not know what books are; there's more to selling a book than saying 'Here's the ISBN.'"

Negative Feedback

The company has dealt for years with many of the same complaints from smaller sellers at eBay: some feel left out as eBay focuses more and more on major retailers; others gripe about the lack of human support for their problems, about frequent technical problems, about message boards—which are important channels of communication in the eBay community—being too tightly monitored. Then, there's the fee that eBay charges to post an item for sale, a tactic that small users say pushes them out; eBay, though, responds that, through the fee, its website offers a quality control mechanism that other sales-oriented websites don't have. In the fall of 2001, the discontent boiled over when eBay introduced Checkout, a feature that was supposed to help standardize shipping and sales; eBay users, however, rebelled, calling it confusing and difficult, until eBay promised to make it more user-friendly.

Half.com, meanwhile, was considered by many to be more user-friendly than eBay, not just for the reasons previously mentioned, but also because sellers were able to upload product information from bar codes, as opposed to inputting descriptions manually (since Half.com's purchase, eBay has absorbed this capability into its own website). Other than that, the website, which was founded in 1999, was most famous for convincing the town of Halfway, Ore., to unofficially change its name to Half.com in a failed marketing stunt during the height of the Internet boom.

Two years ago, eBay was planning to shut down Half.com and move the website's sellers onto the main eBay site. According to eBay representatives, 1,000 of Half.com's top 5,000 sellers had made the shift to eBay, but a significant number of sellers stubbornly continued to post their items on the original Half.com site. So, announced eBay, Half.com would stay around "indefinitely."

However, for the last several weeks, the Half.com discussion boards have again been buzzing with fear and loathing. The targets of the debate are changes to Half.com that eBay calls "enhancements" and users call anything but. Calabretta, for instance, was up in arms about the elimination of a feature that had previously allowed her to easily upload an image from her hard drive to the site.

"It came as a big shock," she says. "People who had an inventory of thousands of books—the images were all gone. That was not one of the announced changes, and when I finally figured out how to talk to a live person, the young man on the other end of the line told me, 'We don't allow you to show pictures like that anymore; you have to do it another way.'"

Half Conspiracy?

Two changes that were announced, and that have caused the biggest hubbub on the site, have been eBay's decision to get rid of two popular Half.com features, order confirmations and pre-orders. The pre-order feature—unique to Half.com—allowed for buyers to list items, usually books, that they wanted at the price at which they would buy them. Sellers needing to rapidly unload inventory would just match the price to fill out the pre-order and have a simple, efficient sale. Buyers, such as Sacramento resident Derek Robinson, loved the feature. An avid reader, he would typically always have at least 400 books on pre-order and end up having 30 to 40 of those pre-orders filled per month.

"No other site had it," Robinson says. "There's always a desperate seller out there, and if you're a patient buyer, you can get wonderful books for cheap prices."

eBay says pre-orders generated a proportionally miniscule amount of sales for the company and were, at the same time, the cause of too many complaints from buyers being scammed by unscrupulous sellers. Robinson, though, contends that eBay's justification has holes in it: eBay is not counting the indirect sales that come through the pre-order function (buyers who are attracted to Half.com through the unique pre-order feature), and the scamming loophole could easily be fixed, he says.

An eBay spokeswoman, after saying she would find someone to comment about Half.com's changes, did not return follow-up calls. In an online town hall meeting two weeks ago, however, an eBay executive reiterated that eBay was "committed" to Half.com and that changes are "always difficult."

Meanwhile, the order confirmation feature, which provided an efficient way for sellers to close sales, was eliminated, according to eBay, partially due to the results of a user survey, says Robinson.

"That's total baloney because there's not a single seller that's happy about it," he adds. "It's lending credence to the conspiracy theory about Half.com. And I'm not a conspiracy theorist. eBay was shutting Half.com down, then they kept it open, now they've made 'enhancements.' As you can see, nobody is happy with these 'enhancements.' So the theory is that they are trying to make [Half.com] so terrible and lame that people go over to eBay."

From a glance through the Half.com discussion board on eBay's website, it's apparent that Robinson is correct that many Half.com users are unhappy with the new changes. The postings for the two announcements have generated astronomically more replies than any other recent posting on the board. As of last Thursday, the pre-order announcement generated 657 mostly outraged replies and the order confirmation announcement generated 1,427 (a response so large that eBay ended up compromising on its order confirmation elimination).

The postings have been anything but reserved.

"Half.com has gotten progressively worse since the eBay buyout," wrote one disgruntled user. "From the trashing of the superior Half feedback system in favor of the worthless eBay system to the currently simply inexplicable decisions to discontinue confirmations and pre-orders it has been a steady decline to mediocrity. Have you guys totally taken leave of your senses?"

Another unhappy user—no doubt one of Robinson's "conspiracy theorists"—tersely wrote: "[e]Bay wants to get rid of Half.com. They couldn't do it overtly because too many members complained, so they are trying to do it covertly by making it suck so much that no one will want it any more. Clever, but evil."

Pia Calabretta, meanwhile, just wants to sell her romance novels again.

"The main consensus of the booksellers in my mind is, if it's not broke, why fix it?" she says. "But eBay is its own world and its own entity and they bought Half.com, and if they wanted to wink it out of the world tomorrow, who are we to say anything?"


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