As Holiday Sales Look Grim, Amazon and eBay Are On A Collision Course

With economic recession in the air and layoffs everywhere, the outlook for online retail sales looks grim this holiday season. So far in November, online sales are 4 percent less than last year. Online retailers Amazon and eBay will be fighting for every last Christmas dollar.

The two look more and more alike these days, as eBay seeks growth beyond the mom-and-pop auction sellers that everyone associates with the site. The company has been emphasizing fixed-price listings for a while now. But earlier this week it took another step towards wooing the types of merchants that you are still more likely to find on Amazon. On Monday, eBay quietly announced a new program in beta that will allow large merchants to list thousands of fixed-price items at once on the site.

This will no doubt give eBay’s core mom-and-pop auction sellers one more thing to complain about (like they need more competition from larger outfits). But what else can eBay do? Its main source of growth comes from its non-retail businesses like Skype. Its $945 million Bill Me Later acquisition is now looking suspect. And its overall ability to attract consumers has stagnated. According to comScore, eBay had 70.7 million unique U.S. visitors in October, down 11 percent from the year before. In contrast, Amazon had 60.1 million unique U.S. visitors in October, up 6 percent (see chart above).

The reality is that any merchant selling online will list their items for sale in multiple locations—on Amazon, eBay, their own Websites, etc. (Multi-channel e-commerce management service Mercent, for example, is already supporting eBay’s API for its online retail customers).

Now, with this new API we might see some interesting mixing and matching. An online retailer, for instance, can now list her items on eBay and use Amazon’s fulfillment API to ship the orders from an Amazon warehouse.

Don’t underestimate the importance of these APIs in the battle to dominate e-commerce. Whoever controls the flow of transaction information, will control the flow of goods online.