Jason Del Rey

Recent Posts by Jason Del Rey

eBay Made Two Giant Bets Yesterday, but Only One Feels Right So Far

ebay Today homepage curators

EBay has been nothing if not aggressive recently, with its agreement to buy Braintree for $800 million and its efforts to grab payment market share in brick-and-mortar stores. It continued that aggressive streak on Tuesday with two big announcements.

Let’s start with what seems like a smart move. The Silicon Valley e-commerce giant is acquiring Shutl, a U.K.-based company that links retailers with a network of courier services in real time to make same-day delivery of goods possible.

EBay is not revealing the acquisition price. That typically means it was less than $100 million, the company’s threshold for having to disclose acquisition prices publicly.

The deal makes sense for Shutl because, while it has a strong presence in the U.K., it is not a known brand here in the U.S. The eBay name immediately helps solve the brand-awareness issue.

For eBay, it would have been extremely challenging to quickly expand its eBay Now same-day-delivery shopping service to more than a few markets without some expertise in wrangling local courier services. The eBay Now service consists of a website and mobile app that let users shop from partnering retailers such as Home Depot, Walgreens and Macy’s and get deliveries in around an hour, usually for $5.

Up to now, eBay had hired its own couriers, but it will now be able to use Shutl to more easily work with third-party delivery services, resulting in a more scalable model that will allow it to expand the service to 25 cities by the end of 2014, the company said.

At the same time, the eBay announcement that got top billing today by the company is the one that has the feel of a potential flop in the making.

It starts with a homepage product called eBay Today that packages items for sale into image-centric, thematically organized “collections.” Those collections are said to be assembled by a list of 200 “curators,” only a few of whom will be widely known to most people.

EBay Today is the default homepage greeting for visitors who don’t have eBay accounts or aren’t logged in. That’s a big deal: It will be the first impression the site gives to potential new customers.

The problem with this approach is twofold. First, the Web is littered with failed attempts at building social commerce experiences around celebrities. There’s no reason to believe that eBay’s take on the model will have a different result.

Secondly, “curation” might be the single most abused phrase in e-commerce right now. And when a site doesn’t have curation in its DNA, a big move like this one creates the impression of curation for curation’s sake. Witness Amazon Collections as another example.

If those collections don’t give you the impression of Pinterest envy, the marketplace’s new “follow” buttons surely will. One argument for their inclusion on an e-commerce site is that it’s what a younger generation of shopper is now used to.

The problem is that it feels forced on eBay — like a conservative-dressing dad trying to fit into his son’s slim-fit suit.

In a blog post, eBay touts these additions as “a series of enhancements that we believe will make eBay more personalized and easy to use.”

The personalization piece — which eBay has been working on since acquiring Hunch two years ago — has become a must for any e-commerce site of significant size.

Yet the curated-collection additions, which are eBay’s attempts at creating what it calls “discovery and inspiration,” seem at odds with what eBay does best: Surface old and new items that you search for. And the new features certainly don’t make eBay “easy to use.”

Maybe it’ll work, and a new breed of online shoppers who use services such as Pinterest and Polyvore to discover new products will think of eBay in a more positive light, and bump it up the list of websites they browse.

But I imagine that there’s just as good a chance that the new design scares off some current sellers and eBay regulars alike.

Not because change is bad. But because this level of change feels so foreign on this specific marketplace, and raises more questions than answers about what the eBay Marketplace wants to be.

As in most experiments like this, though, we’ll have to wait and see.


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