As Used-Car Startups Take Off, eBay Motors Faces Uncertain Future

A CarMax Dealership Ahead Of Earnings Figures
Customers shop for used vehicles displayed for sale outside of a CarMax Inc. dealership in Burbank, California, U.S., on Tuesday, June 17, 2014. CarMax Inc. is scheduled to release earnings figures on June 20. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Photograph by Patrick T. Fallon — Bloomberg via Getty Images

A decade ago the biggest force in online automotive sales was eBay Motors, a web-based used and new car emporium the marketplace giant operated internationally. Today, a bevy of startups with funny names and billion-dollar valuations offer a version of what eBay’s unit once dominated. Total sales for eBay’s car and parts business has dropped by nearly 30% in the past five years, according to analyst estimates. This trend begs the question: How did eBay Motors fall so far?

eBay Motors (EBAY) launched in 2000 when the idea of buying a car via the web was foreign to most people. The site was a central place for dealers or car owners to connect with buyers. But sales started to stall as more competitors, such as local marketplace Craigslist and other sites like Carmax, expanded.

Unlike Craigslist, eBay charges a listing fee, which it only collects if a car sells, and is capped at $125. In 2005, eBay processed $13 billion worth of vehicle and parts sales. By 2009, total gross merchandise volume for eBay Motors had only risen slightly, to just over $14 billion. eBay stopped releasing eBay Motors sales volume in 2012, but Scot Wingo, president of e-commerce software company ChannelAdvisor, which helps companies sell on eBay, estimated that total automotive merchandise sold on eBay in 2015 was around $10 billion.

Contributing to the decline of eBay’s business, new car-sales startups, including Shift, Vroom, and Beepi, have sprung up. Instead of simply charging a fee to list a car online, these companies visit a seller’s home to inspect the car, set a price, and list it for them. Many of this new crop of companies have attracted well-known public market investors, including Goldman Sachs (GS) and T. Rowe Price.

Rather than sell exclusively on their own platforms, these startups peddle cars on multiple online sites, including eBay and Craigslist. But not all cars sell well on eBay, said Owen Savir, Beepi’s president. The old-line site works well for high end makes like Tesla and Porsche, but not mid-value cars, he said.

Another area where eBay struggles is the ability to connect buyers and sellers in specific neighborhoods or cities. For Shift, which offers buyers test drives of the cars it sells, being able to connect to local buyers is important. Customers can search by ZIP code on eBay, but Craigslist has more local inventory, said George Arison, Shift’s CEO. Shift, like some of the other new sites, operates its own marketplace in addition to selling elsewhere.

Despite its decline, eBay believes the new sites represent an opportunity. Sree Menon, who joined eBay in 2014 from Dell to be the general manager of eBay Motors, said eBay’s large user base is attractive to the startups. She cited 2015 data from web-measurement firm comScore that eBay Motors, with 12 million unique visitors, has the highest audience among auto sites on the web.


Parts and accessories is a particular focus for eBay, explained Menon. “The strength of eBay Motors is that we have vehicles and parts and no one in the market has both. We are a one stop shop,” she said.

She explained further that because of the strength of parts and accessories, the company is focused on adding more services to eBay Motors. For example, if someone is looking for a particular part, he or she could also potentially contact a mechanic through eBay to help install it. “We want to create an ecosystem where you can get anything you need for your car,” she said.

Wingo agrees that the bright spot for eBay is its parts and accessories business. EBay’s parts business grew 17% year over year in the third quarter of 2015, and 16% year over year in the fourth quarter of 2015. EBay makes it relatively easy to find the right car part, Wingo said, because it lets users enter the precise make, model, year, trim, and engine-type information.

A rejuvenation of eBay Motors driven by its parts business would be consistent with the larger company’s history. After all, eBay started as a destination for buyers and sellers of random items, kind of like the nuts and bolts of an old car.

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