Just in time for the holidays: a shopping fight between retailers and eBay.
Only this one's not between shoppers trying to grab a Wii or Tickle Me Elmo, but the sellers themselves.
The National Retail Federation issued a consumer warning this week about various household items being sold through "some online auction sites, warning that these items could be stolen or tainted."
Of course, the NRF didn't mention any names in the warning (instead it just pointed fingers at … eBay). In questioning, the federation did say eBay was the primary focus of concern, as there are some who try to pass hot merchandise to consumers on the popular site.
But Kathy Grannis, a spokeswoman for the retail federation, didn't leave it just at eBay. She noted that some other small auction houses might also try to sell consumers stolen goods. She suggested consumers stick to the reliable retailers to ensure they didn't get ripped off.
Thieves have pilfered a variety of health, beauty, food and household products, including: Abreva, Advil, Aleve, Benadryl, Cover Girl cosmetics, Oil of Olay, Similac, Red Bull energy drinks, high-end liquor, Blu-ray players and Dyson vacuums.
And they've posted them for sale. Sometimes the medicine and food products are expired.
Beyond the stolen merchandise, there's good reason for the retailers' interest (and concern). Jupiter Research says $38 billion will be spent on auction items through eBay in 2009, the Better Business Bureau reports.
But this has more to do with sellers. Why are the buyers being dragged in?
Enter a bad economy and a serious need for some big holiday sales. Then the gloves come off.
EBay says it's aware of the problem with some merchandise, but when it finds someone is pushing stolen goods, it deals with it.
"Efforts to discourage consumers from shopping online with small business retailers are aimed more at protecting retail giants rather than serving consumers," the company said in a statement in response to the retail federation's warning.
The real issue, eBay says, is "bad blood" between the online giant and the NRF.
"I see it really as anticompetitive," said Paul Jones, director of retail partnerships at eBay.
So we have a few issues:
Issue No. 1: Yes, sometimes there are stolen and expired goods on online auction sites. But Bill Newton, executive director of the Florida Consumer Action Network, says he finds expired medicines at his local pharmacy or convenience retailer.
"I don't see what the difference is," Newton says, lamenting just how unfriendly the attitude has become toward consumers.
Issue No. 2: Are consumers liable for those stolen goods purchased online? If it's inadvertent and a bottle of Advil, probably not, Newton says. But if the seller is advertising 50 Rolex watches with bids starting at $25, you might find yourself in handcuffs.
Issue No. 3: Congress held hearings this week on the issue of organized retail crime and is reviewing the sale of stolen goods.
So after all the seller infighting, where does this leave the consumer?
Well here's the Edge, courtesy of the Better Business Bureau:
• Beware of low-ball minimums. Compare the cost of the item with other sites or retailers. "Often, items will be priced lower than the competition in order to lure buyers," the Better Business Bureau says.
• Research the seller. "Online auction sites often provide the opportunity for buyers to rate sellers and provide feedback on the transaction," the bureau says.
• Use a secure form of payment. Consumer protection experts recommend using a credit card or pay services, like PayPal.
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and become a fan of Consumer's Edge on Facebook.