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BusinessSeptember 29, 2018

Is it all downhill from here for NZ’s e-commerce giant? Hell no, says Trade Me


A piece published earlier this month suggested that Trade Me had hit its peak, citing declining website interest, ageing consumers and problems such as duplicate listings. But Trade Me’s Logan Mudge and Rick Davies argue that’s far from the case.

It’s easy to forget that when Trade Me launched back in 1999, e-commerce was a bizarre and somewhat frightening concept to Kiwis. It was pretty newfangled for much of the world. Who on earth sends money to someone they’ve never met for goods they’ve never seen? How was this hip new interweb trading thing better than going to your local shop or combing the Trade & Exchange section of the newspaper every week?

But New Zealanders are early adopters of bright and shiny new technology and this, in combination with our strong banking system, the relatively high level of trust inherent in Kiwi society, and our unabated love of a bargain, quickly outweighed any concerns about newfangledness.

Since those tentative first steps, Trade Me has grown rapidly over the last 19 years as New Zealanders took to buying and selling online like a mallard to a lake. It’s now a way of life with 800,000 people visiting Trade Me every day to browse listings from more than 140,000 Kiwis and businesses and buying over $2.2 million worth of items every day on the Trade Me marketplace alone.

A few weeks ago, we read a piece about e-commerce on The Spinoff titled ‘A beginner’s guide to e-commerce: buying, selling and renting stuff online’. It was about how e-commerce platforms like Shopify, Squarespace, and even Trade Me could enable regular New Zealanders to build online businesses from the comfort of their bedrooms. The author, however, suggested that Trade Me had perhaps hit its peak, pointing to a decline in Trade Me’s website interest according to Google Trends (300% lower than in 2013 and the lowest it’s been since 2005).

While tools like Google Trends and Nielsen are fun and useful, it’s important to note they’re not a foolproof gauge on the exact traffic flowing through websites around the world. They don’t tell the full story because they don’t account for traffic from apps and other mobile platforms particularly well.

One of the biggest changes of the last decade for any online business has been consumers’ fierce move to mobile. Not many crystal ball-gazers predicted how rapid this shift would be and in less than six years since we launched our first genuine mobile effort, 60% of visitors visiting Trade Me have done so via mobile in hand or tablet on lap. Kiwis expect to be able to buy a fishing rod or trampoline or vase on the bus, or price up a new Hilux front bumper in the back paddock. Without a slick mobile experience, e-commerce sites will be punished with irrelevance.

The Trade Me homepage in 1999

The article also noted that the average Trade Me user’s age was 43, suggesting that millennials were looking elsewhere for a more modern purchasing experience. Like many businesses the world over, we work hard to ensure buying and selling on Trade Me stays on the radar of consumers between 18-25 who visit Trade Me each month. It’s also worth noting that the average age of Trade Me users is actually 41, and our median age is 38 which is in line with the median of Kiwis, according to Stats NZ.

Trade Me is no different to any other business. We have to think carefully about the needs and desires of every generation of consumers. And of course, the latest generations have had the internet their whole life. Their e-commerce expectations are through the roof and they consume media and get information in ways that were inconceivable a decade ago.

We can see this emerge in a multitude of ways, including the rise of services like Afterpay (Trade Me was one of the first Kiwi platforms to offer this), Book A Courier and Ping, plus building out our ecosystem via investments in the likes of Harmoney, Sharesies and LifeDirect.

When it comes to dropshopping, Trade Me allows approved sellers to dropship from overseas. Remember, millions of searches are run on Trade Me every week and when we see demand from New Zealanders not being met by our thousands of local sellers, we look to plug that gap. We carefully select overseas sellers who have the goods our users are looking for and we get them onboard.

We know shipping from overseas can take time and many people aren’t keen on the extended wait, so users can filter out overseas sellers. Sometimes it’s a trade-off between speed and price, so if you’re willing to wait a little while longer, you might land a sweet deal. Plus, shipping these days is only going to get faster, so expect that wait to get shorter and shorter. And to ensure our buyers don’t pay more than they want to, we’re very clear that they may be subject to some other taxes and charges when getting things from overseas.

The other benefit is that we make sure our overseas sellers (and our New Zealand sellers too) live up to their obligations under our laws. That includes things like the Consumer Guarantees Act and other pro-consumer legislation. As a further back-up, we have a Buyer Protection programme too. This means that if our members buy an item on Trade Me using their credit or debit card and what they want doesn’t turn up/isn’t what they ordered, they’ll get their money back. Boom!

The Trade Me homepage in 2006

Duplicate listings is also an issue for any large online marketplace. With over six million items, we do get the odd seller who tries to game the system, putting the same things up a few times in order to get a few more sales.

We’ve introduced a couple things to make it easier for our sellers and help prevent duplicate listings from happening. ‘Multiple quantity’ listings, for instance, allow you to list bulk lots of the same thing (ie: 40 white t-shirts) which means buyers can buy more than one at a time. There’s also ‘multi-variant’ listings which allow you to list something in various colours or sizes (ie: 100 t-shirts in white, blue and red ranging from XS-XXL). Making this great is a work in progress for us and we’re working with sellers on this right now.

One of the major ingredients we’ve found essential in running a successful marketplace is the trust in our platform. We’ve worked hard to earn the New Zealand public’s trust through our day-to-day actions around things like our annual Transparency Report. We know people prefer online marketplaces where they can buy and sell with certainty and consistency.

Of course, as with any large community, there are always a handful of muppets who try to exploit the system but we’ve invested heavily in keeping our site trusted and safe. We have a local team working seven days a week to remove (or keep) anything dodgy. We know we don’t get it right every single time, but we have a pretty spectacular success rate.

So, if we nail all of the above, does that mean we’re done? Heck no. The changes of the last 19 years are only the beginning, and part of an ongoing and constant evolution to find that moving e-commerce sweet spot at the intersection of consumers’ high expectations and effective technology.

There’ll be big changes to technology and consumer habits, but Trade Me’s core activity – connecting people and helping them with a transaction or relationship – will remain, just as marketplaces have thrived through thousands of years of humanity. There is always going to be a need for platforms that efficiently match supply with demand. It’s been an exciting first two decades, but we’re only just getting started.

Keep going!