Why eBay tried to screw Aussie users

Now that the bizarre ruckus over eBay's proposed PayPal monopoly appears totalled, it seems a good time to ponder why eBay chose Australia to risk its reputation on such a massively unpopular scheme.

Now that the bizarre ruckus over eBay's proposed PayPal monopoly appears totalled, it seems a good time to ponder why eBay chose Australia to risk its reputation on such a massively unpopular scheme.

The answer, if you take a quick trip around to the websites of Australia's major retailers, is startlingly clear: eBay assumed Australians would accept its PayPal-exclusive trading terms because Australian consumers have a total lack of alternatives in online shopping.

While there's no shortage of Australian start-ups with products ready to ship, the total lack of online presence from most major product distributors has seen eBay slip comfortably into a position of being the only substantial catalogue of goods Australians can buy online.

According to Jenny Wilson, lead technology partner for Deloitte Australia, consumer confidence with online transactions has been scaring even the major, trusted brands away moving beyond bricks & mortar.

"Online retail in Australia is two, three years behind," Wilson says.

While all major retailers claim they intend to expand their online shopping ranges, they feel no pressure to hurry.

"When eventually Australians do come to accept online transactions, the incumbent [retailers] will own the space, because the trust is there. There will be a few successful start-ups, purely online start-ups, but they'll be more confined to niche markets."

This in Australia while almost every major chain in the US or UK offers a staggering amount of products at their online stores.

Predominantly, Australian retail chains use their websites to spellcheck their catalogues and offer cryptic advice as to how to locate your nearest store. Any online shopping is restricted to baffling lines of merchandise that barely represents their total product range.

For example, the extent of Myers "For Him" online shop offers:

  • one suit
  • three shirts
  • three pairs of underwear
  • one tie
  • six wallets
  • two sets of cuff links
  • two varieties of Armani cologne

(Obviously, a range selected by an executive who'd just lost his luggage...)

Myer's major competitor, David Jones, lifts the bar a notch by offering an online experience that only sells a broad variety of mixed dozens at its wine club. (I'm sure I wasn't the only one who had no idea that David Jones sold wine.)

Alternatively, the Kmart shop from home site markets towards the more lucrative forgot-your-child's-birthday crowd, with a total of nine items available. These include three Star Wars toys, an iPod, Barbie's Glamour Jet, and for the real parenting disaster, a 51cm television.

Big W seems to be leading the march with an arguably impressive entertainment section. Rolf Harris' Platinum Collection, sporting his 54 greatest hits on three CDs, currently headlines the deranged assortment of pop music & accessories. In case you couldn't find them anywhere else on the Web, Big W is also sporting an impressive range of ringtones to download.

There are certainly exceptions to this complete lack of imagination — most notably in the electronics world. Tandy is trying some good stuff, and despite being restricted to gaming, the Harvey Norman game store does show initiative.

Yet without a recognised brand taking the plunge and offering a rich online shopping experience, we can expect eBay to keep testing the friendship with its Australian users, safe and smug in its independence.