eBay asks consumers what they want

Discussion
Sources: eBay
May 21, 2018
Tom Ryan

eBay has come up with a straightforward way to fine-tune personalization efforts: asking consumers what they’re interested in.

Available initially on eBay’s mobile app, the offering, called Interests, “tailors your shopping experience based on your passions, hobbies, and style.”

After downloading the mobile app, users are asked to register and sign in “so we can personalize your eBay experience.”

Clicking “What Are Your Interests” brings up four question themes along with a number of categories of interests.

  • What do you love? – Tech, Gaming, Pop Culture, My Kids, Pets, Beauty & Grooming, Collecting, etc.
  • What are you a fan of? – Movies, NFL, Music, NBA, NCAA Sports, MLB, NHL, Other Sports, etc.
  • What’s your style? – Women’s Style, Men’s Style, Home Style, Art & Design, etc.
  • What are your favorite activities? – Outdoors, Food & Parties, Sports & Fitness, etc.

Users check off boxes within each category to indicate, for instance, what kind of tech they’re interested in (e.g., smart home, gadgets, remote control toys), what movie genres they’re a fan of (e.g. horror flicks, comedies), what their favorite outdoor activities are (e.g. hiking, downhill skiing) and other more specific interests.

eBay uses algorithms to match the user’s chosen interests with their browsing patterns and purchase insights gleaned from its 171 million active buyers and thereby “transforms their homepage with themes and items chosen just for them.”

While many retail websites offer consumers the ability to support personalization efforts by rating products, eBay’s Interest appears to work most similarly to the Spotify platform that offers a variety of ways for users to explicitly customize their music playlists.

Said Bradford Shellhammer, head of browse & personalization for eBay, in a statement, “By asking people to tell us a little bit about their interests, we’re delivering a personalized store built around the things you care about most.”    

The feature will extend to mobile-web and desktop in coming months.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What’s holding back retailers from outright asking consumers their interests as part of their personalization efforts? Do you think Interests will appeal to eBay’s consumers and improve the precision of its personalization offers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"The best ideas are often the simplest ones."
"What’s holding retailers back? I bet some have tried it, off the radar, and discovered that human interests are far too varied to be “personalized”..."
"Words are subjective to both the person asking and the person responding. Asking shoppers to pronounce their interests is a version of segmentation..."

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33 Comments on "eBay asks consumers what they want"


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Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

A number of things may be holding retailers back. First, you need the technology to tie these interests into a browsing experience and that doesn’t come easily. Second, you run the [minor] risk that mistakes in profiling, either through weak software or bad answers from the shopper, end up hurting the experience. Third, maybe retailers will find out that shoppers don’t want a personalized experience on their website (or in their stores).

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

The topics today were starting to aggravate me. Stephen, your third point has saved the day! Thank you. May that possibility become a welcomed reality.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

Stephen – sounds like a bunch of excuses. If retailers can’t “easily” turn interests into meaningful search results, they shouldn’t be thinking of personalization or AI. Profiling by “weak software” is no worse than search results via weak software. Shoppers that don’t want a personalized experience needn’t participate. None of this is that difficult given all the technology and talent available for a willing retailer, I know, I design consumer-facing interactive applications.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

I agree, Ken – it is a bunch of excuses I’ve heard for not doing it.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Great way to personalize the experience. And “personalization” is hot today. The best companies have figured out how to get their customers the right information that is relevant to them — and often at the right time. Note that many years ago Target had a personalization strategy, which meant promoting to their customers what they liked based on feedback and purchase history. I couldn’t understand why more companies didn’t do this. Well, now they are!

Scott Norris
Guest

Target mails us coupons every so often, based on our purchase history, and they nail it on 95% of them — we look forward to *these* personalized offers because they work for us without going over the line into “creepy.”

Chris Buecker
BrainTrust

The best ideas are often the simplest ones. Yes, I definitely believe it is a smart and easy way to get a better personalized offer. I think some retailers are still stuck in their traditional ways of doing business and how to handle the customer. Make it easy and more engaging for the customer. This approach has proven to be very successful in the past and should also work in this case.

Phil Masiello
BrainTrust

There have been content generation sites that have asked the interest question to deliver relevant content to its users. So the concept has a proven usefulness. To answer the question “what’s holding back retailers … ” is simple. The retailer would need to care about delivering what the customer wants. The retailer would need to put the customer at the forefront.

We all understand that retailers have not put the customer first. We are seeing the effects of this with poor retailers closing stores because they did not deliver what the customer wanted.

eBay’s approach will yield positive results for both eBay and the customer. Providing a personalized experience on an e-commerce site with such a vast selection is certain to make the shopping experience more enjoyable.

Bob Amster
BrainTrust

Either the retailers decided to not bother their customers by asking the questions — and rather inferred what those interests were — or they didn’t think of them (too simple?) or didn’t know what to do with all the data collected. Regardless, the real trick in getting meaningful, actionable answers is in formulating the questions correctly. That may be the hardest thing to do.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust

Today we have access to plenty of data and, although this is promising, I think it will be some time before other retailers jump on the bandwagon. Too many retailers today do not pay enough attention to the customer information they already receive so obtaining more and making it more personalized is an excellent idea but one I don’t see retailers investing in any time soon. The downside of AI data collecting is that it is far from perfect. The misunderstanding of one or two words can become frustrating to a customer when they begin receiving suggestions or product recommendations they have no interest in obtaining. Worse yet, the customer will continue to receive those unwanted product ads from the retailer until they correct the AI data. In time though, AI technology will get better and personalization will not only become more accurate, all customers will expect it.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

One of the biggest challenges of eBay is overwhelming choice. If a customer knows exactly the items or product areas they want, eBay had an efficient engine for finding those items on auction, which was its original platform design. The algorithm is pretty basic, but efficiently finds items for sale or auction IF you manage to put in the right key words for search.

Today’s customers want MORE. They want exploratory search online. They want alerts for new items in categories. If eBay is going to compete with the likes of Amazon and Walmart, it needs to differentiate. The ability to search on interests could be a very important twist that captures customers who will then come back on a regular basis. It will all depend upon how good the AI is behind the interest search and whether eBay will continue to invest in fine tuning it. If executed properly, eBay could have a gold mine of customer data.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

Imagine that! Asking shoppers to add info to get a better shopping experience! Putting the shopper in charge is the best way to improve the experience. Kudos to eBay.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)
BrainTrust

Ask and ye shall receive, knock and the door will be opened. eBay and others have only everything to gain by asking questions and relating to consumers with enquiry. I think they will be surprised about how much consumers engage. The challenge will be in setting the aperture of insights. The critical success factor is in how wide or narrow interests will be defined without continuously going back for more information.

Nir Manor
BrainTrust

The personalization approach via browsing is not new and numerous online merchants have gone this way, with different levels of success. However, eBay can provide a real benefit to shoppers because of their good technological ability and their wide range of products and offers. eBay can really tailor relevant offers and products based on shopper interests combined with purchase history.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

The first key, for me, in this story is that eBay doesn’t tell us that their approach has improved results. They merely say that they do it with the usual PR quote from a manager.

Then I look at what eBay is — which isn’t a retailer. While there are probably some people who “shop at” eBay, I doubt if it’s many. Those who seek specific items or special items (either as a collector or when an unusual need comes up) are likely the bulk of their shoppers.

In my own eBay experience, the personalization that matters are my prior searches. And eBay does a good job of that. (I collect 1950-1980 vintage aerospace memorabilia). So the personalization that they suggest isn’t important to my use of their site.

What’s holding retailers back? I expect some have tried it, off the radar, and discovered that human interests are far too varied to be “personalized” by a very generic set of categories. We just never heard about those small tests because they failed to impact results.

Scott Norris
Guest

Hat tip to a fellow #avgeek! I collect airline schedules & sweep eBay a couple times per week, but I don’t see how they could scale my narrow interest up to justify further marketing investment. (There are maybe 200 of us hardcore collectors in the US?) I buy when the deal is right, but right there we get to seller pricing being the biggest impact on revenue, and that’s outside eBay’s control….

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Having started my career as a software engineer at General Dynamics working with missiles, Shuttle, and rockets, my interests lean toward rockets, space, experimental planes they really built & cold war related things. 🙂 That said, your schedules focus sounds quite interesting.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

This is much the same topic as the item about consumer revolt about being data generators. Why has retail concluded that they are responsible for “personalizing” our shopping experience? The only one who can accurately personalize you is you! If I’m looking for something on eBay I type it in the search bar. Presto, there it is. Brilliant, huh?

Here’s the the thing. No technology is capable of knowing or predicting what I may be looking for tomorrow. That’s why when we buy something we get inundated with ads for the thing we just bought. Technology is always behind it seems to me; it deals only with history. At least in retail. Right now I’m looking for something for the olive tree in my back yard because the bark seems to be cracking and shedding. Personalize that, eBay!

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Absolutely agree. I continue to watch what Amazon, with 20 years of purchase history, “recommends” to me. It rarely has any good connection to my interests.

One of the things we should have learned by now is that human interests are too varied for these kinds of programs to deliver truly “personal” things.

Particularly like your suggestion that the only one who can personalize is the consumer — far better ROI if advertisers and retailers turn to the challenge of helping the consumer find what they want at that moment.

Ralph Jacobson
BrainTrust

There is nothing wrong with retailers and CPG brands asking consumers directly for their preferences, however, I would take that information and integrate it with actual customer data that shows what they buy. So, although shoppers shoppers may say they want huge assortment availability, they also only actually buy a fraction of that assortment.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

What has a lot of appeal in this approach is the actual asking. Many retailers use search engine data to tell them what has been searched for before and that is frustrating and annoying. I searched for something to help my sister yesterday and now now I am bombarded with ads for it. Argh. Yes, we all shop for other people but having a dashboard containing what I specified as my interests, on a site that is a go-to, now that could be a real plus. Kudos to eBay for this simple solution. Maybe the next step is the AI conversation which really gets to the “now” of the shopping journey. And that’s my 2 cents.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

HALLELUJAH! I’ve been saying this for too long. There’s such buzz that AI can figure out consumer wants and needs better than consumers can for themselves and it often falls short (hello Amazon!). The simplest thing to do is ask consumers both what they want and what they don’t want — then carefully apply some AI.

Netflix is a perfect example of highly-touted AI that fails. Aside from a crappy UI (it is!) the AI sucks. We never watch the kinds of things that would cause them to suggest WWII death machine and inmate documentaries yet they can’t stop putting that in our faces.

So retailers can take a cue from Netflix or eBay or better yet, use some basic common sense and stop looking for magic technology until logic is applied to customer interactions.

Jeff Sward
Guest

Retailers have all the data they need on their best and worst sellers. They have data on what they offer. They never have data on what they don’t offer. Buyers and merchants can have giant blind spots, or they imperfectly capture current trends. Seems simple enough to ask, “What did I miss? What did you really want? How can I be smarter next time?” In days long past, that didn’t require any tech. It was all about salespeople and their black books.

Ray Riley
BrainTrust

Have we forgotten Amazon’s recommendation engine that launched in 1998? Twenty years ago now! Sure, there’s all sorts of data available particularly with software today, but that does not mean it’s structured and able to be leveraged. Good data in = good data out. The technology should not be an excuse; it’s archaic systems and weak product management on the back-end that legacy retailers are being strangled by. This is why e-tailers can waltz into brick-and-mortar (with the right site selection and model); they understand data and how to best utilize it for customer acquisition and retention. eBay on the other hand is a marketplace, and although they collect a significant amount of structured data, their ability to QC it for the end-user will always be a challenge due to the firehose of choice and selection.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

It is, and always has been incredibly important to talk with customers to get information. Sometimes I fear a push-back can occur when mining customers desires. I remember a focus group woman who told us: “I just want to date technology, not marry it!” Something to think about.

Frank Poole
Guest
4 months 27 days ago

Call it “Institutionalized Indirection.” Maybe I’m being too cynical (it’s Monday), but if it doesn’t involve a small army of Big Data specialists, attempting to statistically divine the information, then it’s not worth doing … or simply anathema to the way, you know, “we do things.”

(Case in point: it took nearly a decade for a certain department store to finally allow write-in comments on their Customer Service survey. Why?)

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

This has been done. And it’s worth trying again. Many retailers have asked for diet preferences, style info, household details, etc. in the past; however, the technologies and tools weren’t far enough along to turn the extra level of information into a sufficiently enhanced experience. Today, personalization technologies are much more powerful and capable of creating much more meaningful experiences that retailers should take full advantage of.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust

As a consumer, I don’t mind retailers asking me about my interests and preferences, as long as it will help improve the relevancy of special offers and recommendations. Many retailers have relied on browsing data and transaction history to predict user interests, which is very helpful but could be more precise.

eBay’s direct approach of asking consumers what they like is a smart strategy, as it makes personalization more accurate by taking some of the guesswork out of the marketing process. I expect that we will see more retailers begin seeking customer opinions on interests to create a more personalized shopping experience. With increased insights about your customers, you can provide better customer service.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Words are subjective to both the person asking and the person responding. Asking a shopper to pronounce their interests is a version of segmentation, resulting in funneling a shopper’s “interests” into buckets, likely followed by a decision tree processing all or most of the categories self-identified by the shopper into a superficial “profile.” A macro filter — versus a deeper intelligence, able to connect and integrate the shopper’s disparate interests, getting the shopper to products they love and buy and keep.

Given eBay’s vast catalog, matching a shopper to some universalized average, is a start. Will this appeal to eBay consumers? It will depend on execution, mirroring the comments voiced earlier today by my BrainTrust colleagues.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
This discussion reminds me of one of Steve Jobs often quoted opinions about focus groups which I believe applies here — customers don’t know what they want, and it’s up to the vendor/retailer/provider to determine what they want and what will appeal to them. Otherwise, you are always chasing a short-term solution versus a long-term relationship. The result — simply look at the level of loyalty of Apple’s customers and compare that to any retailer. While eBay’s direct approach may be a good one to fill in knowledge gaps about eBay’s customer base (I have to assume they wouldn’t need to ask this of their existing customers if any analysis of their purchase history was conclusive), I believe it, like many recommendation engines, misses on one key element of discovery. It’s the same element that discount retailers like TJ Maxx and Home Goods have mastered — the unexpected, the treasure hunt. Sometimes shoppers don’t want to find more items just like what they most recently purchased, they want to be surprised by something unexpected that… Read more »
Morgan Linton
Guest
I think that what’s really holding retailers back from asking consumers questions to personalize the experience is a fear of doing anything that could hurt conversion rates. There’s a general fear that inserting anything between the consumer and their path to purchase will hurt the customer experience. That being said, I think the reality is that the consumer has changed and many retailers are struggling to keep up with that change. Look at a company like Stitch Fix, they ask customers a ton of questions and it results in a much better customer experience. I have to disagree with Stephen’s point about retailers discovering that shoppers don’t want a personalized experience. Younger shoppers not only want a personalized experience, they expect it. Yes — weak profiling and bad AI could end up personalizing incorrectly but I think it’s fair to assume that eBay probably has a pretty solid data science team behind this effort. The reality is that technology to personalize the customer experience both online and in-store has been around for a long time.… Read more »
Phil Rubin
BrainTrust
4 months 27 days ago

Retailers — with a few exceptions — are holding themselves back from embracing relevance and personalization by not focusing on customers and investing accordingly. This is not rocket science (even the AI aspect!) as it’s been done for years in travel, especially by leading brands like Kimpton. It’s a matter of leadership, strategy and prioritization, much less than a lack of tech tools and capabilities that are more easily procured now than ever before.

Larry Negrich
BrainTrust

These types of mechanisms, though meant to help create a better shopping experience, may point out site deficiencies in understanding the customer and can get a bit annoying, as they need to be refreshed regularly to be of value.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"The best ideas are often the simplest ones."
"What’s holding retailers back? I bet some have tried it, off the radar, and discovered that human interests are far too varied to be “personalized”..."
"Words are subjective to both the person asking and the person responding. Asking shoppers to pronounce their interests is a version of segmentation..."

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