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eBay: Yes, speedy shipping really is a thing with us

The e-retailer introduces a three-day guaranteed-delivery program, heating up the battle over quicker shipping.

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At an eBay event by the Flatiron Building in Manhattan in 2015.

Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

Fast shipping is -- finally -- no longer all about Amazon.

On Monday, eBay announced it will offer a new guaranteed-delivery program in the US starting this summer, pledging deliveries in three or fewer days for more than 20 million products. For the first time, eBay's shoppers will be able to filter searches to see only items guaranteed to arrive in one, two or three days.

"We know we need to continue to up our game on shipping," Hal Lawton, eBay's senior vice president of North America, said in an interview.

For the past decade, Amazon, the biggest e-retailer in the US, has conditioned shoppers to expect fast shipping at no additional cost through its Prime membership program. Many retailers have responded by offering free shipping at minimum prices online. But this year, Walmart and eBay -- the second and third largest online sellers in the US, respectively -- are making more aggressive offers to try to catch up to Amazon.

Walmart.com in January started providing unlimited two-day shipping on over 2 million items for orders of at least $35. Now, eBay is making its move. These new changes may mean customers can benefit from stronger competition online and faster shipping without higher costs.

It's worth noting, though, that this eBay announcement doesn't actually speed up deliveries on the site. Many professional sellers on eBay have already been providing these faster deliveries, in some cases for years. eBay, which says 63 percent of packages sold through its site arrive in three days or less, has been offering customers more conservative delivery estimates because it doesn't ship directly.

New seller tools coming this year will give eBay more information on sellers' working hours and the location of products, so the company can provide more accurate shipping times throughout its US site.

Those same tools will power the guaranteed-delivery program, which professional sellers can use to highlight their speedy shipping. The new program, which is voluntary to join, may encourage other sellers to ship faster so they can opt in, too. Most smaller, amateur sellers likely won't qualify for the program since they don't have the warehouses and staff to guarantee these shipping times.

Amazon already offers a similar program known as "seller-fulfilled Prime," which lets independent sellers ship directly to Prime customers.

Brett Thome, vice president of business development for Nebraska-based seller VMInnovations, said his company has been pushing eBay to make this kind of change for the past four years as a way of giving professional sellers proper credit for their quick shipping.

"We're huge fans of this, it does matter," he said. "It's going to be great for the consumer, it's going to be great for the sellers that can take advantage of this."

Under the new eBay program, if a product doesn't arrive in the guaranteed time, both eBay and the seller will chip in to refund shipping costs. If an item was shipped for free, eBay and the seller will provide an eBay coupon, expected to be $5, Lawton said. Two-thirds of the products on eBay include free shipping, according to the company.

Although the new program is in many ways only a change in perception for customers, it may still make a big difference in the long run. eBay has been advertising heavily to shake off the outdated view that it's still just an auction site for Beanie Babies and Tiffany lamps. Promoting faster shipping could help it regain customers and revive its slow growth.

The change could be especially useful during the holidays, when Amazon benefits from its reputation as a faster shipper even though millions of orders are coming from the same independent sellers on either site.

However, it will likely take time for customers to start thinking about eBay as a place that offers speedy deliveries. Also, eBay will likely have to do much more to compete. Amazon already moved into same-day and two-hour deliveries for Prime members in some cities, and it's developing delivery drones.

eBay tested same-day deliveries with a program called eBay Now. The service created a new business model for eBay, with the company delivering items from local stores like GNC and AutoZone, but it was shut down after three years. Comparatively, the guaranteed-delivery program bolsters the main eBay site, not a new offshoot business, Lawton said.

He added that the change doesn't alter a core principle at eBay that it won't try to compete against sellers on its site, as Amazon does today.

"We have no plans to have warehouses," Lawton said, "or take control of inventory or assortment."

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