EBay’s latest retail push is powered by artificial intelligence, bringing personalized product suggestions to the company’s mobile storefronts.
The new Interests feature customizes the shopping experience based on the user’s passions, activities and style preferences. The AI-based system curates the marketplace’s massive catalogue, pinpointing products that line up with what the company knows about the person.
EBay may be best known as an auction site for secondhand goods, but 88 percent of its merchandise is actually listed as “Buy It Now,” with no bidding necessary, and 80 percent of its goods are new, not used. With a teeming marketplace, selection is never a problem. But discovery is — when there’s so much product across so many categories, it can obscure items that would be of interest to a given shopper.
“It’s really hard to make sense of a store that sells Jimmy Choo heels, collectible Porsches, KitchenAid mixers, comic books and yoga mats,” said Bradford Shellhammer, eBay’s head of browse and personalization, in an interview with WWD. “We’re a great place if you know what you’re looking for. But we haven’t had the ability to kind of leverage the serendipitous part of shopping because of this catalogue. Now we can finally bring it to life with user-centric experiences.”
The experience begins with a multiple-choice questionnaire covering hobbies, fashion tastes, favorite entertainment genres and other topics. The set-up is fairly basic and the products chosen serve as a starting point. Over time, as eBay learns more about the shopper and continues developing its system, the selection should evolve and improve.
The project itself is relatively new, having begun only a few months ago in earnest, and the premise so far is rather simple. But that makes sense for a company with 171 million active buyers around the world. Rushing into complexity can be a major risk at that scale. With 62 percent of its platform involving mobile access, the company chose to launch Interests in iOS and Android mobile apps in the U.S., with other markets and platforms, including mobile web and desktop, coming later.
Shellhammer thinks of Interests’ goal as “surfacing treasure” on a per-person basis, and takes inspiration from outside the retail sector, looking to the Netflix and Spotify models of algorithmic recommendations. The approach blends that inspiration with his own curatorial sensibilities, having cofounded Fab.com before coming to eBay.
AI is an area of deep interest for the company, according to RJ Pittman, senior vice president and chief product officer. He explained the company’s AI push earlier this spring, describing it in terms of reinvention: “The core of our shopping and selling experiences on eBay is being reimagined and driven by a commitment that we’ve doubled down over the last couple of years on artificial intelligence. And so AI is a foundational element of our product strategy, because it really helps us make simpler and more personalized commerce experiences.”
With more than 390 million mobile app downloads, the company wanted to explore new experiences over smartphones, so it launched an augmented reality sellers’ feature for sizing shipping boxes. “What’s great about this, from concept to market, it’s a matter of weeks. Which is what we love at eBay, being very agile, very technology forward in our thinking,” Pittman said.
Now, eBay, which logged first-quarter revenues of $2.6 billion and $23.6 billion in gross merchandise volume, is focusing on improving the consumer experience. EBay’s strategic thinking and rich data set could propel it into new projects, markets and platforms — both in the real world and the virtual one.
“It’s not only billions of images that we have in the eBay catalogue, and not just today, but over the last 20 years — we have loads of meta data,” Pittman said. “Descriptions of all the items, including the color, the texture and the type of material that the item is, as well as precise dimensions of these things in the physical space that, when you put all of those together, you kind of have a nice understanding of objects. And again, all their properties — including shape, size, color and texture — that you could bring to life in these virtual spaces.
“We’re looking, not just for entertainment value in these new capabilities, but for real utility value,” he added.
Part of that utility value will eventually extend to customers in other regions. Earlier this month, eBay agreed to sell its stake in India’s Flipkart to Walmart as part of the retail giant’s acquisition. EBay will spin the $1.1 billion into taking back control of eBay India, which it passed to Flipkart last year, and carving out a slice of the Indian e-commerce market.