Global Impact And Lessons Learned From eBay's Retail Revival In Akron
The last three years have been a trifecta of success for Akron natives Preston Clark and Frank Miller III and their 7th Floor Clothing line, a company they conceived when they were classmates at Firestone High School
First came the day Akron native LeBron James donned their original design baseball cap featuring a crowned frog kissing a trophy. It was a celebration of the Cavs’ 2016 NBA championship, and Clark says it caught the nation’s attention.
“We only made 50 hats. Overnight we might have had 1,200 orders,” he recalled. By the end of the week, orders had zoomed to 3,500.
Then came the piece in the New York Times in 2017 on 7th Floor’s campaign to keep LeBron in Cleveland.
“My mom, she’s at Starbucks buying like every copy that they had,” Clark laughed. Though the campaign failed to keep LeBron with the Cavs, Miller says it was a boon for business.
Then 7th Floor became one of the more than 100 Akron-area businesses that teamed up with eBay in February as part of its Retail Revival program.
EBay provided 10-weeks of training to the sellers on how to maximize online sales to a global marketplace — everything from photography to product descriptions to the importance of free shipping. EBay also provided the sellers with ongoing customer support and other services.
“They took us under their wing,” said Miller. “Everything we asked for they tried to give to us so we could better our company because they know in the long run it helps sales.”
While Retail Revival is a small piece of eBay’s nearly $10 billion business, it plays a role in eBay’s ongoing fight against e-commerce giant Amazon as well as its own effort to change its image as a kind of online mega-thrift store.
The Retail Revival program has now expanded to Lansing, Michigan, and Wolverhampton, England. The early numbers look promising. EBay says sellers in the three cities have racked up more than 37,000 sales, 10 percent overseas. In Akron, sellers with eBay experience who got the extra training and support saw a 78 percent year-over-year increase of what’s called gross merchandise volume or total sales dollar values.
Chris Librie, head of global impact and giving for eBay, says a local feel with global appeal is key.
“One of the things we love about Akron is the local point of view that so many of these businesses have,” said Chris Librie, head of global impact and giving for eBay. “They have a tremendous spirit about Akron and that really resonates with people. They’re bringing something new and different also to eBay.”
eBay's Chris Librie stands in front of a display of several local businesses participating in its Retail Revival program. [M.L. Schultze]
Facing Down an e-Giant
EBay isn’t the only online outlet for many of the sellers in the Retail Revival program.
NORKA (Akron spelled backwards) soda credits eBay with doing “an excellent job providing guidance on promotional ideas and best practices for selling during the holidays on eBay,” said NORKA President Michael Considine, and he added that advice boosted December sales. But NORKA also sells on Amazon, Target.com and Google. As with much of e-commerce, Amazon sales are highest.
Considine thinks the sales will continue to grow through eBay as the company remakes itself.
“I still have friends that have only known eBay as an auction house for used items,” said Considine. “So adding everyday new products such as NORKA Beverages certainly expands their offerings and overall identity.”
Kassandra Morrison says the eBay training has helped her company, Modek, increase sales on other platforms as well as eBay. In fact, she still sells most of her products at the other end of the e-commerce spectrum — Etsy. Its niche is selling quirky, handmade items like the specialty bags Morrison makes to carry juggling hoops and levitation wands, but she says eBay opened up an unexpected market.
“On eBay, we sell a lot of fire blankets,” Morrison explained. “So they’re blankets that put people out when they’re fire spinning, and the fire blankets can be used for more than just spinning.”
Kassandra Morrison sells niche items including water-resistant hoola hoop bags. [M.L. Schultze]
About two-thirds of the Akron sellers who signed up for Retail Revival remain active, though to varying degrees. Kaley Foster praised all the program offered, but she also has a full-time job she loves. So she wholesales her Urban Buzz beeswax candles to about two dozen local retailers. Her eBay sales which run largely on autopilot amounts to about five to 10 a month.
“It is a great opportunity if that is all that you’re doing, if you do what you’re doing full time,” she said. “For me personally, I just don’t have the capacity in my life to put forth more effort.”
EBay’s Librie says a lesson learned through the Akron launch is that smaller may be better.
“When we came to Akron, our impulse, our motivation was big tent,” he said. “We really wanted to involve as many businesses as possible. And perhaps we could have been a little bit more discriminating about that in terms of, ‘Are these businesses really going to put in the effort?’”
Setting Up Shop, Literally
Though Retail Revival’s focus is e-commerce, Akron’s entrepreneurship advocate Heather Roszczyk said one of the most promising outcomes is businesses setting up shop, literally. And national trends may be helping.
Surveys like one by retailing analyst Euclid say millennials like to shop in person regardless of where they actually buy. So for business owners, brick-and-mortar stores are a playground to experiment with products, even if most of their sales come from online.
Ebay opened a brick and mortar shop in Akron's Northside Marketplace. [M.L. Schultze]
Roszczyk says that fits with another development in retail in Akron: Northside Marketplace, where small businesses including many in Retail Revival, share space and staffing.
The retail-incubator “allows people to kind of dip their toe into brick-and-mortar and hopefully… be opening their own storefront down the road,” Roszczyk said.
She adds, it’s a vastly different approach than Amazon’s HQ2.
“EBay, the partnership, is not one entity that’s going to bring tons of jobs,” she said. “They are growing many, many, many jobs in many, many, many small businesses.”
She says one approach is not necessarily better than the other, but one has proven a better fit for Akron.