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August 20, 2014updated 22 Sep 2016 11:39am

eBay turns 15 in the UK – the highs and the lows

Some of the highlights from the auction site’s UK life so far.

By Vinod

This week marks the 15th anniversary of auction site eBay’s UK launch. The time period seems extraordinary when you consider how the company has embedded itself into our everyday lives, as well as helping spearhead the growth of online shopping in the UK. Originally set up in 1995 by French-born entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar, the site has gone from strength to strength over the past 15 years, going through many changes and challenges during that time. As way of celebrating, here is our look back at some of the highs and lows of eBay’s history on these shores.

The highs


Major growth

Over three billion sales worth £65bn have been completed in Britain alone, with 19m UK shoppers visiting the site every month – around a third of the population. Its popularity has continued to rise too, with 14 gifts bought on eBay each second last Christmas, a figure likely to be beaten this year.

In 2012, the site also named the UK as its fastest growing market, having contributed several years of double-digit growth year-on-year, far ahead of many other countries throughout the world, and this pace has only continued as the UK shops online more.

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The company was also quick to embrace mobile shopping, with an item is bought every second in the UK via the eBay app, which has so far seen over 50m Android downloads, mirroring the growth in its "Buy Now" option, which contributes over 75% of sales on the site, instead of its traditional auction format.

eBay UK users have also raised nearly £70m over the past decade using the eBay for charity scheme, which lets buyers and sellers support good causes in the country when they shop.


Some rather ‘unique’ sales

As an open marketplace offering the sale and purchase of nearly everything, it’s no surprise that some odd or special items have turned up on eBay UK over the years, proving that there really could be a buyer for everything.

The first ever UK eBay purchase was a CD from German rock group Scorpions for £2.89, an inauspicious start for a site that had already been established in the US for four years at the time of its UK launch in 1999.

Since then, notable items listed on the site include a handbag belonging to Baroness Thatcher, which sold for £103,000, Princess Beatrice’s notorious "Pretzel" royal wedding hat (£80,000) and a woolly mammonth skeleton (£61,000).

The site says that the most expensive item sold on eBay UK was a Gulfstream II private jet, which sold for £2.94m in 2001, whilst the most popular goods include shoes (a pair sells every seven seconds) and handbags (every 19 seconds).


UK acquisitions

eBay’s acquisition of PayPal in October 2002 is undoubtedly one of the key factors behind it becoming the success it has been worldwide, but the company has also invested heavily in UK business too, as it launched here the year after it floated on the US stock exchange.

In July 2005, it paid an undisclosed sum to acquire London-based online listing site Gumtree, which had been set up by Michael Pennington and Simon Crookall five years earlier. The site, which also offers services such as accommodation and job listings, was integrated with eBay’s site, with users able to pay for goods or services using PayPal.

Since then, it has also invested in "rapid fulfilment service" Shutl, which connects online retailers with next-day couriers, and was acquired by eBay in October 2013 as it looked to offer a "one hour" delivery service in the UK.

All of this has helped the company, which employ 33,000 people worldwide, to a market value of $65bn.


The lows


Tax Controversy

In October 2012, an investigation by the Sunday Times reported that eBay was paying a significantly lower tax rate than expected, with just £1.2m paid on over £800m of sales in the country in 2010. This revelation led to widespread outrage and protest against the company, especially as it came shortly after similar stories concerning Starbucks, Amazon and Facebook shirking their UK tax responsibilities.

Despite the site saying it complied fully with all applicable tax laws, public perception was hit hard, with all the businesses involved seeing both a drop-off of UK custom and a much higher amount of attention from the authorities.


Controversial sales

As mentioned above, eBay has had to cope with some unusual, and in some cases, controversial, goods in its history. But alongside supposedly obvious items forbidden on the site such as radioactive material, human body parts and any goods from Cuba, Iran or North Korea, several other items stand out in its UK history.

The unusual items keep on coming, as in June, the site had to reject the listing of a Mercedes Benz, once owned by Nazi chief Hermann Goering, as part of its policy to prohibit the sale of "offensive materials and content", which includes listings that promote or glorify hatred, violence or racial, sexual or religious intolerance.

The site has also had to deal with its fair share of fraud, as sellers take advantage of the shortcomings (or naivety) of eBay’s customers – take for example the Nottinghamshire teenager who paid £450 for a picture of an Xbox One console last December, or the Worcester woman convicted of selling over 65,000 fake goods to shoppers in February.


2014 Database Hack

Both eBay and PayPal have been popular targets for hackers over the years, as criminals look to get their hands on the payment details of the millions of shoppers using the site every day. Despite the firm investing heavily in security, eBay suffered a damaging blow in May 2014 when the details of over 220m customer accounts were stolen in one of the biggest cybercriminal attacks of all time.

The company’s database, containing encrypted passwords as well as names, email addresses, physical addresses and phone numbers, was compromised in the attack, which took place sometime between late February and early March and was claimed by hacktivist group the Syrian Electronic Army.

The hack has long-ranging effects, as a YouGov poll carried out shortly after the attack found that half of adults said they would be less inclined to use eBay in the future, although only a third of users changed their passwords.


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