NPSE – Part II/III – NPSE, I want to love you, but….

October 1, 2010

ChannelAdvisor ChannelAdvisor By ChannelAdvisor

This week eBay quietly launched what they call the new product shopping experience.  That’s quite a mouthful so I’m going to abbreviate it NPSE.  This is the future of buying and selling on eBay so requires a pretty deep dive.  This is part II of a three part series with this outline:

  • Part I – (read this first) – We’ll give a tour of the NPSE’s new features and walk you through how it works.
  • Part II – (you are here) We’ll review the NPSE.  What are the good and bad aspects of this new buyer experience?
  • Part III – (coming next week) Finally, as the NPSE rolls out across the site and globe, there are very serious seller implications.  We’ll walk through some strategies for you and things to consider to get in front of this.

Background: Yin/Yang and GIGO

YinYang

One topic that I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to Wall St. and the press about as it relates to e-commerce in general and of course Amazon and eBay is what I call the Yin/Yang in third-party marketplaces of the buying experience (Yin) and the selling experience (Yang).  This Chinese philosophy illustrates that for any marketplace the two experiences are completely interconnected and inseparable.   One eBay exec (old regime) once told me that every bad buyer experience on eBay was because of a bad seller.  I countered that every great experience on eBay was because of a great seller.  

This is important to understand as we dig into the NPSE.  You can’t have a great fancy new buyer experience, without…. a great seller experience.

Many of the examples I’ll cover today go beyond the overall NPSE buyer experience and look at the underlying data, which is provided and controlled by…. the seller.  If you want to give buyers snazzy ways to buy things, the sellers have to provide the data to support that.  If the seller’s aren’t doing it, then you are building a house on a very shaky foundation.

Another way to think about this is what we call in Computer Science – Garbage In, Garbage Out (GIGO).  Surely you’ve seen examples of this in everday life – the most awesome application is rendered useless if the underlying data isn’t at the same quality level.

NPSE: The Good

There’s a lot of good in NPSE and when I point out some of the shortcomings it’s important not to lose sight of the good, so let’s go over that first. First and foremost, it’s great to see eBay finally making some investments in the buying experience.  I think of this as a ‘product page’ enhancement.  Personally, I’d prefer to see them fix search first (kind of a top down approach), but I see where they are going with this more bottom up approach (great product pages, then rippling up to a better search experience, then rolling up to home page and category pages).

Another thing I like about the approach with NPSE is the separation of auctions and BIN.   I’m not sure the UI is quite there yet, but as a buyer I’ve never like the intermingled results that you get with Bestmatch – it’s very jarring and jumbled to see it all squashed together.  It’s great to see auctions in TES (Time Ending Soonest) and BIN in low-> high – that’s the natural order of things.  One thing I’d like as a user is the ability to turn off auctions all together or maybe a little x on there that I could just get rid of them.  As a buyer I tend to be in one of two modes: 1) fixed-price – immediacy, don’t let auctions get in my way 2) exploratory, research – show me auctions and bin and I’ll pick.

While the ‘value box’ is clearly a copy of the Amazon buy box, it does seek to boil it down to the user and basically say: ‘hey buy this one’.

The overall look of the pages is slick and I like the filtered navigation and how you can also sort by condition.  The options area is nice and the product reviews and other features look good.  I do think the condition codes are a little weird.  They are very unique to eBay and there’s no “what does this mean” help feature that I’ve seen.  For example, what’s the difference between New and “New other”?  What about Refurbished and Used?

NPSE: The Bad and the Ugly

NPSE has a lot of rough edges.  In homage to a classic Eastwood spaghetti western, I’ve put them into the bad and ugly buckets:

  • Bad – it is very very buggy for a 2.0
  • Ugly 1 – GIGO – the data quality really ruins the whole experience
  • Ugly 2 – eTRS – this new buyer experience makes me really question the program and I think it sends very bad signals to buyers
  • Ugly 3 – Duplicate listings – degrade the experience
  • Ugly 4 – Thin selection – now you can see that eBay doesn’t have any red nanos.  Or does it?!

The Bad – bugs

One thing that surprised me about NPSE being a 2.0 effort on the catalogueueue buying experience (or maybe it’s 3.0) and supposedly a huge effort at eBay is how downright buggy it is.  In an hour I identified a good 5-10 obvious bugs that should have been caught by any kind of basic QA effort.  As a software guy that always gets my warning radar going.  Are they taking this seriously, or is it effectively a beta test, are they not applying QA resources to this stuff or wth?

I want to keep to the big picture here so I’ll only highlight one bug to illustrate how glaring they are and should have been caught before this thing hit the public.

In this shot, I was fliping around some between iPod touch models and the 16gb had one for sale and the 8gb did not.

Npse_2_one

So you can see that it says “No new items from top sellers”  but then still has the savings amount from a previous item that was in the value box.  All of these are fixable and not severe problems, but when you find a bunch of them it substantially erodes the experience.

Ok, here’s one more that is a good segway into NPSE+GIGO.  This one is fun in a Where’s Waldo sense, before you read below the picture see if you can find the bug/mistake: (click to enlarge)

Npse_2_two

Here’s the bug.  The Value Box is supposed to surface the item that meets these four criteria:

  • cheapest
  • New
  • Buy It Now
  • eTRS

If you look at the BIN listings in the new tab – check out the third one down.  It’s $124.99 with free shipping from lava8481 who is clearly eTRS and not ASS (Above Standard Seller).  yet eBay has value-boxed an item that is $10 more and actually the third most expensive.  No idea what’s going on here.  My guesses would be:

  • There’s more to the algorithm than meets the eye (maybe looks at DSRs? or NPS or who knows)
  • The algorithm is broken (not doing math right, not indexing fast enough, etc.)
  • There is no algorithm and this is being done by humans which is the worst case scenario and obviously not scalable.

Ugly problem one: GIGO

The worst part about NPSE isn’t really its fault, it’s the old Yin/Yang thing rearing its ugly head.

No matter how hard NPSE tries to put a pretty face on it, the underlying data is about as bad as you can imagine.  Here in North Carolina, we call this putting lipstick on a pig.

I’ll give you two examples here because this is an important topic and illustrates how much more work eBay has in front of them to catch up to the rest of the e-commerce World.  It’s mountainous because to fix it you have to change the behaviour of millions of sellers.

First, remember those pretty graphs that show the price trends?  Here’s one for a bestselling Tomtom GPS unit:

Npse_2_three
So as a consumer this is telling me that I can get this item for $152 BIN or $68 for Auction.  That’s a $84 swing, so definitely worth waiting for!  But when I look all of the auctions are going for $155, so what gives?  What gives is GIGO.

Under the price trend chart you can go see the data they are using to build this. Normally this would be too involved to do in a blog, but luckily there are only 8 new items:

Npse_2_four
There are only two sold here:

  • Fourth down for $75 (auction)
  • Sixth down for $180 (BIN)
  • The second down had a reserve that didn’t get met and bidding reached $70

So obviously we have no data to see how on earth eBay came up with $68 for this thing, but let’s assume for a minute they looked at the fourth down item in their calculations.

That is a very very old Tomtom (an XL330) and not a ONE XL.  There are about 20 ways the eBay data gets polluted and this is a classic – the seller has mis-categorised the item, eBay didn’t catch it, they rolled it right up into the data and now we have a terrible consumer experience.

As a consumer, I can not trust these price graphs and I’d be willing to bet every single one of them is materially wrong.

Here’s another good example of GIGO.  I was looking at some iPod touches and was excited to see that they have an 8gb iPod touch for $.99!!  yes ninety nine cents!

Npse_2_five
When I click through, there’s nothing for sale for $.99!  In fact pretty much all of these prices are wrong.  This may be a simple bug, but my guess is it’s a GIGO problem.  If you want to see a classic example of this, look at the current iPad (64+3G) buying experience (sort by price low to high). You’ll find all kinds of data-spam.  In fact, I estimated of the 400 iPad listings only about 10% were actually iPad’s as described.  My point is that this problem is running rampant on eBay and unfortunately it all leads to a bad buyer experience at best and at worst border-line fraud:

  • Boxes instead of iPads
  • “How to win a free ipad scams”
  • “New”, yet “unlocked/jailbroken” (which you can’t do without opening the unit)

So I’m sure that somewhere on eBay there’s a $.99 iPod touch that this picked up, I didn’t have time to go find it.  I can 1000% guarantee you that it’s not real.  The end result is a bad buyer experience.

This GIGO problem is going to be very very hard to solve. Millions of sellers have 5-10 years of ingrained bad data habits and it is going to take a very long time to turn around.

Ugly problem two: eTRS

I’ve been excited to see many of the Trust initiatives eBay has had over the last two years.  I like the guarantee program especially (buyer-facing, seller-facing needs work).

In July of 09 when eBay launched eTRS, I saw what they were trying to achieve but was concerned with the messaging.

With NPSE, I think it really calls into question the whole eTRS program – especially surfacing it to the consumer.

Npse_2_six
I believe this messaging is really concerning to consumers.  It is essentially saying: Hey, we can’t find a good seller with this thing, but if you want to take your chances, try one of these “not top rated” sellers below (best of luck!).

When I buy on Amazon, they only let good sellers in there.  eTRS has a bunch of other problems on the seller side, but in this context, I think the signal that it sends to buyers is very very bad – our marketplace has good and bad sellers and we recommend the good, but not the bad.

Also, pretend for a second that you haven’t purchased something on eBay in a year.  Now try and parse this sentence:

No new, Buy it Now items from Top-rated sellers.  

That’s such a weird way of saying things outside of eBay.

Ugly problem three: duplicate listings

eBay is working on this one (more on the ‘seller impact’ post) and has announced an off-cycle emergency de-dupe effort that we’re really worried about.  The problem is obvious in the NPSE – you see the same thing from a seller over and over and over again:

Npse_2_seven
Here in the auction side we have 3 ‘fake auctions’ – essentially high starting price auctions to flood the search results that nobody would ever bid on from one seller so only 2 sellers are represented and the first one could flood out the second by having 5 listings timed appropriately.  On the fixed price side you have a seller that has two of the same item, but different prices.  I actually don’t think it’s a duplicate because when you look at the listings they are different refurbed (and have unique conditions) iPods, but eBay does and will be rolling those up on 10/26.

I’ve seen many examples where the right side or left are 100% one specific seller.  It seems like this is solvable with the NPSE – why doesn’t it just show one per seller in this UI and then let the user see all listings?

Ugly problem four: shining a bright light on eBay’s thin selection

I always get the question – which site has more selection: eBay or Amazon.  the answer is I don’t know and actually eBay doesn’t know either.  Amazon knows their selection because of the catalogueueue, but without a catalogueueue at eBay all you know is listings and even with millions of listings, if they were concentrated, you could still have very thin selection.  Just poking around, I was surprised at how common it is that eBay has absolutely none of popular items or very very thin selection for example, the red nano: (yes Amazon has them)

Npse_2_eight
But here’s the thing.  GIGO rears it’s ugly head again.  If I kick out of the catalogueueue experience and go back to eBay – I find 10+ of these guys.   Can’t they write  a system that says: If we don’t have this, at least show the user some that aren’t in the catalogueueue?  The above user experience is as bad as a bug because once a user thinks you don’t have something, you have lost them.

In this example, eBay did have the red nano, but my sense is over the years as the old regime cranked up the listing fees, selection left the site in droves.  The new regime has fixed the economics around that with the $.03 FP model, but I bet what we’ll see as the NPSE rolls out is that there is some very thin inventory on the site thanks to the old regime’s evil ways.  The silver lining is that like most problems, once you know about it, you can fix it.  Once eBay’s catalogueueue is more pervasive they’ll be able to (GIGO aside) look at the database and see where they are light and then make an effort to recruit sellers with that inventory.  Today, it’s a roll of the dice.

Conclusion: Lots, lots, LOTS of work ahead of eBay

The NPSE has good intentions, but the bugginess added to the serious infrastructure problems that come from the underlying data quality issues, the bad signal from the eTRS program, the duplicate listings and the perceived lack of selection highlight that the good ship eBay has a lot more work ahead of it to turn the boat around on the buyer experience.  And this is just the item page.

Readers what do you think? Am I being too harsh, do you love it? hate it? can’t decide?  Let’s discuss in comments.

Up next: The seller impact – part III

In the last part of this series we’ll look at the seller implications from the overall NPSE and most importantly the recently announced (will roll out 10/26) duplicate listing policy.

The duplicate listing policy has us really concerned and has the potential to be very disruptive, so stay tuned.

SeekingAlpha Disclosure – I am long Google and Amazon, eBay is an investor in ChannelAdvisor