Céline Saada-Benaben (E93), Managing Director of eBay France, is celebrating 10 years with the famous platform. During that time she has progressed as quickly as the site itself, occupying no less than six positions. She provides an overview for ESSEC Alumni.
ESSEC Alumni: eBay marked its 20-year anniversary in 2015. What’s the secret to longevity in a sector as fast changing as the Internet? How has eBay adapted to the considerable changes in the market?
Céline Saada Benaben: The secret to eBay's longevity lies in its mission statement, which hasn’t changed since 1995 and is still relevant today: bringing together buyers and sellers from all over the world on a secure platform available in 190 countries. Private sellers, SMEs, brands and distributors can sell their products – whether unique or not – to 164 million active buyers worldwide.
Another reason is its capacity to invest quickly in new user and consumption trends. For example, we started investing in mobile in early 2000, and today we conduct more than a third of our transactions through mobile. Total mobile transactions have reached 28 billion dollars – nearly 900 dollars per second (source: eBay internal figures, 2014).
EA: What is eBay's business model today?
C. Saada Benaben: Most of eBay's revenue comes from sales commissions from transactions made on the platform: if our sellers don't sell, we don't see any revenue. We share interests, particularly as we never compete with them. We aren't distributors, so we don't have our own inventory to move. Our added value is connecting a buyer with the object they want, wherever it is in the world and from the close to 1 billion products available at any moment on our platform.
EA: Does this model differ from one country to another?
C. Saada Benaben: The business model and the platform are basically the same for the 190 countries in which we operate. We often introduce changes to the user experience, which we test in certain countries or regions before applying them to the rest of our sites.
We also develop services and partnerships that allow us to best meet local needs: in France, for example, we work with Mondial Relay to offer easy and cheaper shipping to pick-up locations.
EA: What can you tell us about eBay in France?
C. Saada Benaben: In France, eBay is the second e-commerce site in terms of daily visits, and the fourth e-commerce site with around 8 million single visitors per month. We’re very proud to have been chosen as the preferred marketplace for web users in December 2015.
If we compare eBay's activity in France to that of other countries, we can see that France has a larger share of cross-border transactions for both buying and selling: 97% of professional French sellers export on our platform to 17 countries on average per year. In total, one in five transactions on eBay are cross-border. The French also have the most Click & Collect service users (delivery to pick-up locations) in Europe. More than 60% of buyers use the service at least once a year – which is a lot more than in other countries.
And I’d say the product search patterns are a bit different – in fashion, for example, a French or an Italian user would search for a brand first, whereas a German or English person would search for a black dress.
EA: In the end, is eBay still an auction website?
C. Saada Benaben: 80% of our activity today comes from immediate purchases. Auctions are part of our DNA, an important part of our identity – but eBay no longer limits itself to that.
EA: Did Bon Coin's success cast a shadow on you?
C. Saada Benaben: I think the success of Bon Coin led to a rapid increase in the market for sales between individuals. The largest growth opportunity in this sector is still the content of our closets. The number of sellers and sales opportunities can still grow very significantly. We offer them a secure platform and access to 164 million active buyers worldwide. It's pretty unique.
EA: You openly state that your ambition is to become the "largest store in the world". Is your real competitor Amazon?
C. Saada Benaben: The real question is, "Who isn't competing against Amazon?" We set ourselves apart through our strategy and our unique business model: we have no distribution activity, which means we never compete with our sellers. That's a very important distinction.
EA: You recently partnered with Sotheby's. Is this a way to refocus on the luxury sector, at a time when classified ads are the preferred channel for giving products a new lease of life?
C. Saada Benaben: Today users purchase objects worth several thousands of euros on the Internet. Every day more than 3,500 auctions exceed 5,000 dollars on eBay.
The auctioning of art and luxury products will inevitably go digital, and it was to get ahead of this trend that led Sotheby's and eBay to come together in 2015. It’s a partnership between one of the most respected names in the art world, and one of the most-used technological platforms in the world.
We’ve just announced a similar partnership in France with the Paris Saint-Ouen flea market. We set up a special page on eBay so that the hundreds of unique objects and collectors’ items found in the second-hand shops, and at the antiques and art dealers in the flea market, can be available for sale beyond normal business hours and days (Saturday, Sunday and Monday) – and, especially, worldwide.
EA: You're in charge of individual sellers in the United Kingdom, and today you manage 80% of professional sellers... Are they two different jobs, or do they converge?
C. Saada Benaben: I would say they converge, even if the skills used and the strategies deployed to develop these segments are different. The products we find on eBay are sold by both kinds of sellers, professional and individual, and that's what makes our offering so rich. Their needs are not exactly the same but they have the same drive to take advantage of the opportunities created by eBay. Having been in charge of different kinds of users in different geographical regions – professional sellers, individuals, buyers in France and overseas – is a major advantage in my current role!
EA: How can you maintain your brand's identity and integrity when it relies on so many partners?
C. Saada Benaben: We forge many partnerships to get brands to consider and reconsider e-commerce, but that doesn’t call into question our own reputation or brand value. The eBay universe is one of the most recognized in the world and our community is particularly loyal. The eBay brand is in 7th place in the Top 50 e-commerce leaders in France (source: the Inside One ranking for digital penetration of e-commerce brands, 2016).
EA: What's your vision for eBay's future?
C. Saada Benaben: Our mission remains the same: to create opportunities for everyone across borders. We’re building an even more engaging experience through increasingly customized offerings, and by introducing new technologies. For example, we’ve just launched our first virtual reality store in Australia, in partnership with Myer. We’ve created an immersive universe, a large virtual department store in which users can navigate, select and buy products by controlling the device with their sight – all thanks to a dedicated application and special glasses.
EA: Let's have a bit of fun: what are the craziest things sold on eBay France? What can we find on it right now?
C. Saada Benaben: I remember one of the Pope's skullcaps sold for more than €200,000 in aid of the fight against infant mortality in the Congo. A recent unusual example was the sale of a life-sized replica of the flying saucer from the French film Cabbage Soup, by two friends from Haute-Savoie.
For crazy objects that are on eBay right now, I'll leave it to anyone who’s curious to go find them themselves from among the 31.2 million products available in France. It's all part of the fun!
EA: Let's go back to your career path. You started in consulting. Why and how did you become an e-commerce specialist?
C. Saada Benaben: What links all my different jobs is the drive to work on things that have a direct impact on people's daily lives. E-commerce and m-commerce became popular very quickly. I even think I transitioned a bit too quickly by starting out in m-commerce in the early 2000s, a few years before the first iPhone came out.
EA: Since 2006 you’ve been moving up in eBay, which is known for its horizontal structure. How do you progress in a company with little hierarchy? How do you get noticed – and how do you get more responsibility?
C. Saada Benaben: I’ve always thought eBay’s horizontal and very fluid structure both between countries and positions have been real strengths. Few companies would allow you to change position and country every 2 to 3 years and let you learn so many different skills. The main qualities needed to progress in this kind of organization are the ability to take projects in hand and quickly deliver results, curiosity, adaptability and the capacity to work with cross-functional teams of all nationalities.
EA: Do you have management secrets or methods? Do you manage things the eBay way or the Saada-Benaben way?
C. Saada Benaben: Unfortunately, I don't have any secrets I could lecture about! I really like eBay's values: "Debate, decide, deliver" and "Do the right thing," which are pretty closely in line with the way I work.
EA: You work part-time, which is surprising at your level of responsibility. How do you reconcile time constraints with the demands of your position?
C. Saada Benaben: I need to be very organized in my daily tasks; it requires flexibility both from me and the organization, and certain compromises – I make choices when it comes to activities and projects.
EA: Let's continue our trip back in time. What memories do you have of ESSEC?
C. Saada Benaben: I have very good memories: the variety of teaching, the diversity of the associations and, in my case, the opportunity to spend a semester in the United States, which played a decisive role for me. Not to mention the excellent student parties.
EA: Did studying at ESSEC help you in your career? And if so, how?
C. Saada Benaben: Yes, without a doubt. It's an incredibly comprehensive education that helped me identify which sector I wanted to work in – and find my first job in that sector.
EA: Was the ESSEC Alumni network useful for you?
C. Saada Benaben: It's increasingly useful, because I appreciate the diversity of the paths taken by alumni, as well as the workshops and exchanges offered by the association.
EA: What advice would you give to young graduates? And those from your generation?
C. Saada Benaben: If I could go back 20 years in time, I would tell myself to take as many different courses as possible, including in subjects that were not in the least bit interesting to me at the time – and choose companies and roles in which I enjoy working and growing.