EBay Executive Speaks on Remote Work, Retail Trends During COVID

17 November 2020

By Dave Hendrick

EBay braced for the worst at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Senior Vice President and General Manager of the company’s North America market Jordan Sweetnam. It was uncertain what sort of economic fallout the company might experience as much of the global economy began to shutdown.

Instead, fears of slowing sales and revenue turned into a “grand explosion of e-commerce,” with a boom touching virtually every category at the company — with notable exceptions such as a high-end fashion and auto parts. Work-from-home must-haves such as webcam sales zoomed ahead 12,000 percent.

“There has not been a moment that has not been stressful in 2020, but it has been fun to see these retail trends,” said Sweetnam, speaking virtually to University of Virginia Darden School of Business students in a conversation with Darden Professor Mike Lenox as part of a Leadership Speaker Series address during the Darden Technology Club’s Tech Week.

While there will likely be continued acceleration of existing e-commerce trends once the pandemic abates, Sweetnam said 2020 has demonstrated that weaknesses in internet retail supply chains, particularly the last mile of home delivery, are not yet ready to handle what an “evolved” e-commerce ecosystem might look like.

Similarly, while many remote work trends spurred by the pandemic will remain, remote work does not yet appear ready to completely replace collocated work, said Sweetnam, who previously served as senior vice president of consumer experience and product at Walmart

“This has shown us that companies can move just as fast in a fully distributed model,” Sweetnam said. “We’ve proven to be much more effective fully remote than I would have ever imaged.”

However, the executive said the company has been able to move nimbly and operate in a cohesive manner because of the personal relationships built with previous “human-to-human” contact.

Sweetnam predicted greater flexibility in work location going forward, particularly depending on role. Someone managing a product’s social media channel can probably work remotely with no drop off in productivity, Sweetnam said. For those managing a major program, he said it likely makes sense to have at least some collocation. Whether face-to-face or apart, the challenge for a manager generally remains the same: How do you empower teams to work on things they believe in?

Sweetnam also discussed the evolution of eBay, which, at 25-years-old, is one of the original internet giants.

The company built its reputation as an online auction service. While auctions remain a key part of the business, Sweetnam said it was fair to say the company may have focused too squarely on the auction at the expense of general e-commerce.

“When you have a business model that is transformative, it can be hard to see a difference between the model and the business,” said Sweetnam, adding that the company had at-times suffered from a “first-mover advantage” in the space.

The future of eBay is more consumer-centric and more social, he said, with a spirit more akin to the company’s early days, he said.

Sweetnam encouraged graduating Darden students, who he acknowledged were stepping into an unsettled world, to find a job at a company they were passionate about.

Said Sweetnam, “If work feels like a job, it will be difficult to be successful.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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