AKRON, Ohio — Evan Delahanty, a young entrepreneur trying to turn his organic fruit snack startup into an industry juggernaut, made only a tiny fraction of his roughly $150,000 in sales this year on eBay.
That didn’t stop the San Jose-based e-retailer from recently sending a film crew to northeast Ohio to shoot an online video touting Delahanty’s company Peaceful Fruit –which employees dozens of Akron-area residents with developmental disabilities – as an “everyday hero.” EBay even flew Delahanty to the Bay Area earlier in May to speak with employees and to Las Vegas in July to speak to merchants at eBay’s Open Conference.
Delahanty marveled that eBay—despite making little money from his company—seems to be taking the long-view by paying inordinate attention to his company.
“They’re trying to rebrand and think and be innovative and figure out if they can be the place to compete against Amazon as a place to buy fruit snacks and cool lighting and clothing and all the other stuff where they’re not right now,” said Delahanty, whose sales on Amazon and his own website outpace what he’s making through eBay. “I am happy to be the fruit snack they’re featuring as they go about figuring it out.”
Officials at eBay say the company has dedicated more than 10,000 personnel hours on sales and marketing training over the last nine months to sellers in a trio of smaller cities, including Akron, as part of what it’s dubbed its “Retail Revival” program.
The attention to merchants, such as Delahanty, in this once vibrant manufacturing city comes in the midst of a broader push by eBay CEO Devin Wenig to make the 23-year-old online marketplace – a distant second in the e-commerce market to behemoth Amazon – more attractive to shoppers.
Amazon, with an estimated 49.1 percent of the U.S. e-commerce, has a firm hold on its place as the world’s leading online retailer. Meanwhile, eBay is trying to grow its estimated 6.6 percent share of U.S. online sales, while carving its space as the humane face of e-commerce.
EBay is also competing against retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target, which are bolstering their online footprint.
Officials at San Jose-based eBay tell USA TODAY that in 2019 they will expand the Retail Revival program, bringing training to three to four more cities. The company plans to announce the launch of the program in yet-to-be-revealed cities in the southeast U.S. and Canada early next year.
EBay launched Retail Revival in March 2018 in Akron and then expanded to Lansing, Michigan, and Wolverhampton, United Kingdom. The company describes the project as a modest effort to help communities adjust to changing consumption habits and rising online sales.
“It’s a projection of our purpose,” said Chris Librie, eBay’s senior director of global impact and giving. “We see ourselves as a company that empowers economic opportunity and helps people start businesses. That’s really core to our ethos. We get something out of the fact that this really demonstrates that.”
The decision by eBay to throw attention on cities such as Akron – nicknamed the Rubber City for its once-thriving tire manufacturing industry but in recent years has seen its population shrink as manufacturing declines – comes as Seattle-based Amazon last month selected tech-rich Northern Virginia and New York City over dozens of other cities to serve as the homes of a split second-headquarter.
Dan Tarman, a former senior vice president at eBay who helped launch the Retail Revival program, said the company wanted to focus particularly on cities that haven’t benefited from the tech boom of the last decade.
Tarman described company officials as being “not blind to the fact of what’s going on around us,” and the “very real and legitimate questions about the role tech companies play in society deciding (who are) the haves and have nots.”
“Our philosophy was…Isn’t there a way for us to bridge these gaps in a more thoughtful, constructive, meaningful way?” said Tarman, who left the company this week.
For Akron, a city of nearly 200,000 residents, eBay came calling as the city is deep in a years-long push to bring new residents to the community. The northeast Ohio city has seen its population decline by about 100,000 people since the 1960s.
The city has offered 15-year property tax abatement on new home construction, dangled tax incentives to companies to grow their workforce in the city and built 47 miles of bike paths as it tries to attract residents.
“I think eBay saw in Akron a city with open arms that’s willing to try new things as we grow,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said.
EBay, with the help of local leaders, recruited more than 100 small businesses and sellers from Akron and nearby Warren for its pilot. The Akron sellers – many whom only dabbled in online sales before joining the Retail Revival program – made an additional $1 million in sales through eBay in the first nine months of the program.
The businesses sold goods in all 50 states and at least 64 countries, according to eBay. The company in September also announced it was hiring 40 customer representatives based in Akron as part of its first formal work-from-home program.
To be certain, it’s a tumultuous period for traditional retailers. More than 7,000 major brick-and-mortar store closures were tallied in the U.S. last year, and more than 5,400 have closed in 2018. Retailers such as Toys ‘R’ Us, Bon-Ton Stores and Sears closed or announced plans to shutter hundreds of stores this year.
Even as some notable large retailers are struggling, other sellers that were once strictly online retailers – Warby Parker, Bonobos and Amazon – are opening physical stores, Librie noted.
Two of the small online sellers that eBay is working with in Akron – home décor and stationery seller Five Blessings and streetwear maker Seventh Floor Clothing – decided to open kiosks at the city’s Northside Marketplace after getting a bounce in sales through eBay.
Frank Miller III and Preston Clark, the founders of Seventh Floor Clothing, got their business off the ground by taking a chance when they printed 100 T-shirts celebrating the Cleveland Cavaliers as NBA champs before the team clinched the 2016 NBA title. The two lugged their T-shirts in a duffel bag to a Game 7 watch party and sold out the shirts withing 15 minutes of the Cavs clinching the series.
Weeks later, their business got an even bigger boost when Akron-native and then Cavs star LeBron James posted a photo on Instagram wearing a hat designed by Clark.
But sales, they say, spiked after eBay invited them to join the program and start selling on the platform earlier this year. EBay now accounts for nearly 50 percent of their sales.
“We poured the gasoline,” Miller said. “EBay lit the match.”
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/tech/2018/12/20/ebay-amazon-retail-revival-akron/2378652002/