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Winning Bid: Sarah Sternau

After years of global economic turbulence, eBay Australia has emerged as a convenient space for those seeking hidden gems or looking to bolster their income. For new Managing Director Sarah Sternau, opportunity is the name of the game.

At the dawn of ecommerce, there was a sense that it would create equality of economic opportunity. Nascent players such as Amazon and eBay helped make the prospect of ‘buying online’ sexy to a wary customer base.

In those early days, eBay was an easy and fun way to put just about anything under a virtual hammer for others to bid on. The excitement of watching last-minute bids feverishly drive up an item’s price was key to ingraining the eBay experience into the collective consciousness.

Today, amid an ever-changing ecommerce landscape, eBay has had to evolve. Bidders and sellers have been joined by partners keen to tap into eBay’s impressive user base. The move has given eBay an expanded range of both second-hand and brand-new items, as well as big retail names to add to its stable of sellers.

eBay Australia with the finalists of its Circular Fashion Fund

“We’re always looking for ways to innovate.”

That’s good news for eBay Australia, which has grown just as much in a shorter space of time. Not content merely to follow in the footsteps of its elder (by four years) American sibling, eBay Australia has worked hard to establish its own identity. It was in this spirit that Sarah Sternau, a 20-year ecommerce veteran, was named Managing Director of eBay Australia & New Zealand in 2023.

“My career has really been concentrated on the business side, where I’ve managed everything from strategic category and business launches to larger and more mature businesses,” Sternau tells The CEO Magazine.

“And that’s come with a diversity of experiences.”

Throughout her time in the industry, and particularly during her decade at eBay in the United States, Sternau has launched customer relationship management campaigns, strategized and implemented same-day and scheduled delivery programs and debuted eBay’s global refurbished business.

Moving Down Under

“I saw this new role as an opportunity to take all of what I’ve previously learned and apply it to a new scope,” Sternau says. “Managing a large business that’s a component of a country portfolio is very different from managing the full country portfolio.”

Globally, eBay helps millions of people connect with the things they love while also providing economic opportunities. And yet, although the aims and methods may be similar around the world, the individual markets have some significant differences.

What Sternau found once she arrived at the eBay Australia office was a hardworking, talented team fully equipped to deliver a new slate of experiences to the Antipodean market.

The eBay Australia team featured at the 2023 Meguiar’s MotorEx car show

“There’s always an upside, I believe, to the challenges we face.”

“We all know one another, we’ve worked closely to innovate and we have fun together. I feel really good about what I can bring to the business as well as to the team, and then of course to our buyers, sellers and partners in the market,” she says.

“What’s interesting here is that the challenges in the market provide exciting opportunities for us to innovate. We’re very open to partnerships with other companies that help enhance the eBay experience, whether that’s offering buyers new ways to shop or sellers new opportunities to generate sales.”

As such, Sternau spent her first few months in the role gaining an understanding of the Australian business and then its market. Her key finding was the need for agility.

“Just based on where the Australian market is and where its consumers and businesses are in the evolution of ecommerce generally, I think being agile and focused on market dynamics is critical,” she says.

Partner-led Future

With her eyes on an ever-shifting future, Sternau has identified a number of focus areas in which she and her team can drive growth both in the business that’s already taking place on eBay as well as transactions that can be made possible on the platform.

“These are primarily in enthusiast areas we call ‘want-based’ categories as opposed to ‘need-based’,” she says. “So things like car parts or pre-loved fashion. These are areas where eBay is uniquely placed to provide a meaningful experience for our customers.”

Market research conducted by eBay has indicated that one-in-four Australians consider themselves collectors, while an additional 1.5 million Australians are considering adopting the hobby.

“We also know many enthusiast buyers are also sellers, so with all of that in mind, eBay has a great role in providing a full ecosystem to those customers at every stage of their journey, whether it’s someone buying their first sports trading card or establishing a collectible sneakers business. When we think ahead, it’s with those ideas in mind,” she explains.

Sarah Sternau sits on a 2023 Retail Fest panel with eBay sellers

“We’re very open to partnerships with other companies that help enhance the eBay experience.”

These ideas are also front of mind when eBay Australia approaches potential partners.

“We’re always looking for ways to innovate,” Sternau says. “We recently invested in a fashion rental company called The Vault and acquired the Certilogo authentication platform, which adds to existing partnerships with buy-now-pay-later platforms and delivery services. We’re looking to further add to our partnership portfolio as the business continues to evolve to meet market opportunities.”

The last few years of global uncertainty resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, wars and the rising cost of living have created unprecedented challenges. Sternau says she saw this dynamism as a series of opportunities.

“The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the move online for many brands and retailers,” she says. “On one hand, that creates competition for eBay, but looking at it another way, it creates potential partners even more capable of serving online shoppers.”

Meanwhile, she adds, eBay Australia offers a spectrum of value that provides resilience during tough economic times.

“If customers are looking to treat themselves with a scarce premium item, we have it. If they’d like to sell something from the closet or garage for additional income, we can do that. There’s always an upside, I believe, to the challenges we face.”

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