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September 2004

Author: Jonathan Garriss, Gotham City Online
Roundtable Location: New York City PeSA Spring Summit 2004

PeSA Official Statement on eBay's Item Specifics:
Roundtable Discussion

Summary

Our roundtable discussion was attended by approximately 25 eBay power sellers across a number of categories including footwear, apparel, CDs, DVDs, pottery, collectibles, and an assortment of other items. The roundtable discussion was less about item specifics but more about the lack of information about the subject. We realized that the main issues around item specifics involved planning, communication, and implementation. In this paper, we will discuss the issues faced by experienced merchants as well as some specific situations that could have eased the transition to the new feature. We approach the topic on two levels; Concept level and individual business level.

What are Item Specifics?

Item Specifics is an eBay feature that allows a merchant to provide additional item details within a category that help buyers find an item. Buyers view Item Specifics as search or browse options called Product Finders. The advantages of Item Specifics include:

Gives buyers an easy, fast way to search for an item. Makes the basic facts about an item clear and accessible on the listing. Gives buyers more details about an item and helps them make an informed purchase. Provides an additional way for buyers to find an item (for example, by size or by style). Provides consistent terminology and spelling (For example, to find a particular shoe size of 6.5, buyers do not have to search for variations including "sz 6 ½" or "6 and a half"). Adds structure to auction data that allows statistically significant analysis of data and eliminates parsing errors from processing text terms.

Does the Concept Work?

We kicked off our roundtable discussion by querying the group for their knowledge on the subject. Since the members chose this roundtable from five roundtable choices, the group was voluntary and all the participants had an interest in the topic. From a concept level, most of the members bought into the idea that standardized attributes will make it easier for buyers to consistently shop on eBay. The group also recognized that parsing text from item listings creates a poor dataset and it limits eBay's ability to sell/license transaction data.

It appeared that item specifics were more applicable to certain commodity categories like Music, Movies, Apparel, and Electronics. Categories that had almost limitless attributes seemed less relevant to item specifics. Categories mentioned included Art, Collectibles, Antiques, and Pottery. The main concern for the group was educating shoppers to minimize any potential disruptions to buyers in their shopping pattern. It was understood that item specifics would mean more work for sellers, however, if there was an improvement in sales as a result, then it is an investment they are prepared to make. As business owners, the participants in the roundtable were keenly aware that no matter how good an idea, if the execution is poor, it can negate any potential benefits and could possibly degrade the marketplace.

Item Specifics Development

The creation of a mechanism to standardize attributes for the exhaustive variety of merchandise sold on eBay is a daunting task. The number of eBay categories has expanded from nearly 8,000 in early 2001 to over 54,000 today in direct response to the wide assortment of merchandise for sale. As eBay became more successful as a marketplace, the browsing of the site became clumsy. Shoppers would find that their text searches would result in thousands of results of which many were not relevant to what they wanted. Continuing to add categories may have been helpful to existing shoppers that were already familiar with a category centric browse, however, new buyers would face the challenge of learning a system that was substantially different than most other ecommerce sites. At Gotham City Online, we lost track of how many times a shopper emailed us asking, "What does NIB mean?" or "How do I just find your size 6 shoes?"

eBay was faced with a legacy issue in that it already had 41 million active users, most of whom were shoppers on the site, that were used to browsing and shopping on the site in a certain way. Sellers were also resistant since it required a change in several business processes and raised uncertainty for their sales. It would certainly hurt eBay sellers if shoppers were confused or did not find the items they wanted when trying the new feature. On the sellers' side, eBay established a number of channels to develop the details on items specifics. Category managers were in direct contact with the largest sellers in their category, online workshops were held, and suggested changes were posted online for all merchants to see. While change always meets with some resistance, there was feeling that the concerns raised by sellers in non-commodity categories (i.e. collectibles, pottery, etc) were not fully considered before a blanket rollout.

Item Specifics Implementation

The rollout of item specifics meant that sellers would need to find the time to review their internal business process to participate in the new feature. In most situations, the seller would need to capture additional information or map the information that was already captured to the finite choices provided by eBay. It certainly was a project, however, the start-stop development and piecemeal rollout resulted in sellers having to undertake this project several times.

At Gotham City Online, we knew that attributes/item specifics was going to be a substantial project. The eBay people in Clothing, Shoes, and Accessories worked closely with us and several other sellers to develop the best criteria for search. In the middle of our development, we found that eBay changed the entire structure of attributes for our development team. We needed to start from scratch on the API development.

It appeared that the planning for item specifics was done at a high level, with less resources devoted to some of the important details. It resulted in some change of direction for the sellers and third party service providers that were trying to implement the feature.

The perceived plan of implementing item specifics seemed pragmatic. The additional search criterion was complementary to the category structure. Although items may not appear in all search results, sellers were still able to run their business day-to-day while planning their implementation. Unfortunately, much of that changed when categories began to disappear.

It appeared that the choice to adopt item specifics was one that rested with the individual merchant. Some sellers don't capture the information necessary, so they would need to modify their work flow to participate. The carrot (or stick, depending on the perspective) was that items will not appear in search results if a buyer searched using the product finder. Theoretically, that would result in lower conversion and lower selling prices. The seller could still list items and make the assessment of whether the greater investment in work flow was worth any incremental price gains.

When categories were rolled up, merchants found that their listings would fail. The rollups seemed to have been done without any consideration for the resulting failed listings. When a subcategory was closed, the item would have to be listed in the parent category. The suggestion from the group was that it would have been productive to have the rolled up category default to the parent when an item was listed. In addition, many categories possessed item specifics that were not broad enough to capture the attributes of many of the items listed in that category; mostly non-commodity items. The result was that items that were listed were relegated to a generic category with no mechanism to adequately display the information on the item. It significantly downgraded the category for the shopper.

To the Group, the rollup of categories did not seem like an immediate necessity except as a larger stick to push adoption. From the Group's perspective, the inherent economic benefit seemed to be an incentive for adoption without the need for a harder push as item specifics matured. As we discuss later, the economic benefit seems difficult to quantify which may also explain some non-adoption. The additional change stretched resources thin for seller resources as well as the PSPs that were trying to integrate the changes. The scramble surrounding item specifics seemed to have consumed a fair amount of resources at PSPs that were trying to manage the migration across many different categories. A large number of members in PESA are dependant on PSPs for their businesses and found that there were some disruptions, the most recent involving pre-fill item specifics.

Returns of Implementing Item Specifics

According to eBay, listings using item specifics have about a 32% improvement in conversion rate/average selling price. This was based on a study that was conducting during December of 2003. From the anecdotal references from members in the Group, it was difficult to confirm that statistic. It would have been interesting to have access to the data supporting the study so the Group could analyze its statistical significance relative to each category. Several members shared stories of 'analytical' eBay studies that were only a hand assembled set of a couple of hundred listings; hardly a significant data set. If the Group could coordinate its efforts with eBay on conducting a study, with the data set being available for review, it appears that members would be more apt to act on the statistics.

Status of Item Specifics with PESA Members

Items Specifics is scheduled to roll out in several more categories in the coming weeks/months. A link to the schedule is included below. Some members in the roundtable were not excited about the changes because of the negative stories they've heard. However, a mission of PESA is to provide a support network for members when they face issues. Since the rollout of item specifics was staggered across categories, there were members that already completed the implementation and were able to provide suggestions on handling the transition. Sharing the experience of successfully implementing a change that created some negative sentiment among sellers was helpful to those merchants that had the project ahead of them.
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"PeSA has helped thousands of merchants optimize their eBay sales and I am pleased to say that my business is one of them."

- Jonathan Garriss, Executive Director and online merchant of shoes and posters.
 
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