Besides having an awesome title, Mark Flaa, eBay’s Director of Sneakers, is tasked with growing the sneaker category for the e-commerce giant. Recently, a main focus of that has been working on the company’s Authenticity Guarantee, which was first rolled out for the U.S. market last October, and is now coming soon to Canada. And with it, the launch of eBay’s first authentication centre in the Great White North.
Set to open in Toronto in May, the centre’s been realized through a partnership with popular sneaker convention Sneaker Con, who will fully vet and verify select sneakers sold on the platform for over $100. An eBay tag embedded with NFC chip technology will be attached to each sneaker in order to guarantee its authenticity and finalize the process. It’ll start with popular brands like Yeezy, Jordan, Nike, adidas, and ramp up to include other brands by the end of the year.
The move is clearly part of eBay’s bid to reclaim its market dominance in the sneaker resale world, with sites like StockX and GOAT thriving the last few years thanks largely to their authentication services. The company took a big step in 2019 by eliminating selling fees for any sneakers sold at $100 or more. Now, with StockX launching an authentication centre in Toronto last November, it makes sense for eBay to do the same if it is to remain a major player in the Canadian space.
We spoke with Flaa on how the move will empower sneakerheads both buying and selling in Canada and how eBay’s getting the edge over not just counterfeits, but competition in the reseller game.
There are so many options for buying and selling sneakers today. What does eBay have that others don’t?
Whether it’s sneakers or any other place where there’s passionate collectors, there’s a focus on community. A lot of feedback we get is that we’re a platform where people can build their own brand. They can label themselves with the name of their sneaker store and service customers all over the world. I hear about customers who are regular buyers from these shops and when they travel they make a point to drop into the shop and say hello. I love that aspect of community that eBay brings to the table. It’s a great differentiator.
How has the pandemic changed sneaker sales, particularly in Canada?
Explosively. Our domestic Canadian sneaker sales grew by 325 percent in 2020. It’s incredible. Across North America, we’re selling a sneaker every 1.5 seconds. We’ve got half a million live listings and a huge growing cohort of female sneakerheads. It’s been great to see brands leaning into female athletes, female sneakerheads, and it’s exciting to see what’s going on in this space. A lot of younger people are also more focused on eBay’s mobile app, so there’s explosive growth in mobile channels as well.
How will this centre change the game for Canadian sneakerheads in a way that’s different to the U.S.?
We’ve seen in the U.S. that trust has been such a big thing across this community. We all know that counterfeits have gotten better over the years. For all the things we’ve done in the past, from AI to different mechanisms, nothing beats the physical authentication. Partnering with a third party to provide this independent authentication service is key. For Canadian customers, being able to offer this as a domestic offering is amazing. No one wants to ship shoes between countries to make sure they have authenticity guarantee. And there’s the seller protection too. Once that independent third-party authenticates those sneakers from a Canadian seller it really protects them if they choose not to take returns. We’ve really, as a company, decided to make sure we protect sellers.
“We’re aware of the competitive landscape but we think we’re in a position to win. We’re putting our best foot forward.”
There are some big competitors when it comes to authentication. How are you planning to have the edge over that competition?
We’re aware of the competitive landscape but we think we’re in a position to win. We’re putting our best foot forward. We’ve removed seller fees completely in the category. Some people don’t realize it’s not just eBay’s fee that’s free but also the credit card processing fees. The other differentiation is the independent third-party providing our authentication. It’s not eBay doing the authentication. We’re also the only marketplace in North America that puts a tag with an NFC-enabled tag on the sneaker, so it’s great to have that and see you’re getting that authentic sneaker.
I can imagine you’ve seen your fair share of counterfeits.
Some of the things our friends at Sneaker Con have sent us are amazing. Some people are incredibly knowledgeable about sneakers and say, “Wow, I didn’t realize how good that fake has got.” We’re looking at Reddit discussions where people are saying, “Here’s the newest counterfeit version of the shoe, what do you think we should change?” We’ve got our eye on all those things. Everybody knows about the smell test but also the box, the print, the colour of the paper. Making sure we’ve got all those different points is key to making sure people are getting the right sneakers.
Especially on eBay, where counterfeiting has been a problem in the past, do you feel this is a new era of sorts?
I think it’s an evolving of eBay. Our founder, Pierre Omidyar, founded the company on the principal that people are good and when you get two people together, they’re allowed to trade and will do the right thing. You see that time and again on eBay but we’re also realizing there are some people who are just never going to see the world of commerce in that way. So it’s taking this bold step of getting in the middle of the transaction and really providing that comfort to buyers and sellers in the form of no returns or, if the seller chooses to have returns, going back through the authentication centre to check the sneaker’s still in the condition it was when the seller sold it, that’s it’s still authentic and wasn’t switched out for something else.
How did the partnership with Sneaker Con come about?
As we started talking about this we did a pretty large survey on what everyone is doing, who the players out there are, their reputations, and whether this is something we want to do alone or with a partner. We quickly zeroed in on Sneaker Con. They had a great reputation, their Sneaker Con events and physical authentication they’d done at those had been very transparent with customer help, and they really focused on educating the community.
Which is important too.
Absolutely. It’s such a community-driven set of folks that a company ignoring it does so at their own peril.
And the actual process of authentication. How long does it take?
They do a multi-point inspection. There’s a lot of different things they’re checking and it’s fascinating to see the expertise. We have a commitment that a sneaker won’t be in our operation centre longer than 48 hours, but it should be much shorter than that. It does add time to the transaction but for that peace of mind, it’s important.
Do you buy sneakers through eBay yourself?
I do! I’m constantly testing our program and other things, trying to acquire challenging sneakers. I actually had one I was upset about. I did a test sell on a pair of sneakers that I got at the Nike employee store and they were rejected by the authentication centre. I was aghast and called our head authenticator who said, “No, I stand by our decision—take a look at the shoes when you get them back.” So I did. It was a pair of Air Jordan 1s and they had been tried on multiple times in the employee store and had small scuffs—something I didn’t even notice when I purchased them, but that means they’re technically not new condition. So I appreciate the level of detail the team goes into. If you’re thinking of buying some top-end shoes that are really expensive, whether it’s the Red Octobers or Travis Scotts, when it says “new in box,” you expect “new in box.”
Are you looking to expand to other products beyond sneakers in future?
We’re really focused on shoes but we look at other verticals and how we can bring that to life. We don’t have any specific announcement right now but this program and our watch authentication program in the States has been incredibly successful. We’re continuing to look at opportunities across eBay to see what the right things are to bring to market.