Golf Retailer Charts New Course Using eBay's Data Licensing Program
By Ina Steiner
Leigh Bader, a PGA pro who co-owns a Massachusetts golf course, has always pushed the envelope in his retail business. Bader co-owns one of the largest golf shops in the country. In 1998 he expanded his business to the Internet and attained PowerSeller status on eBay. Now, Bader is using his golfing, merchandising and eBay expertise to change the golfing industry.
Even before the Internet, Bader did things differently from other golf shops. Joe & Leigh's Discount Golf Pro Shop accepted trade-ins and devoted 1,000 square feet of retail space to the "Swap Shop." He started selling items from the Swap Shop on eBay in 1998, thanks to a friend who was an avid collector and eBayer. In 6 weeks, he had cleared out all the store's used equipment. Like many an eBay seller, his next question was, where to get more inventory.
Bader created a price guide, which he called The GreenBook of Golf: Valuations of Select Branded Used Golf Equipment, and convinced other retailers to accept trade-ins. Bader was happy to take the used golf clubs off their hands at the prices listed in his guide.
Now, using his experience and connections, Bader is responsible for a collaborative effort between PGA of America, eBay, and Bader's own Internet business, 3balls.com. The first part of Bader's vision went live last week on the PGA site: the PGA.com Value Guide (http://valueguide.pga.com). The guide is free and offers trade-in and re-sale values for nearly all brands and models of golf clubs.
eBay data powers the pricing guide. Bader said, "Although over the years we spent a great deal of blood, sweat and tears developing and refining the GreenBook of Golf, it pales in sophistication and scope to the PGA.com Value Guide."
eBay and the Value Guide are also major parts of the second half of Bader's vision: the PGA Trade-In Network. PGA retailers will be able to use the network to immediately liquidate trade-ins risk-free, or they can utilize a special PGA-branded area on eBay to sell the equipment themselves. The PGA.com Value Guide will help members of the Trade-In Network set trade-in prices.
Bader compares the PGA Trade-In Network to the back-end infrastructure that exists in the used-car marketplace. A Lexus dealership will accept a Ford. The dealership doesn't want the Ford, but accepting the trade-in helps them make the new-car sale. They can easily liquidate the Ford using the automobile secondary-market network.
When you hear Leigh Bader talk, you start to get the idea you are talking to a visionary. He's gotten eBay and PGA of America to believe in his vision, and they are backing it with their reputations and online advertising commitments.
What's in it for eBay? If Bader's plans come to fruition, there will be more golf equipment on eBay, more buyers, and more awareness of the auction site in the sports community. In the meantime, eBay is already getting exposure on the PGA.com Web site.
eBay is also likely hoping that if the PGA.com Value Guide works, others will be convinced of the value of its data, which it licenses for $10,000 per year for private use and $25,000 per year for commercial use. There are different levels of pricing based on the volume of data required, so a company wanting to license data from all of eBay's categories could pay much more than a vertical-market developer.
But is raw eBay data reliable?
Bader agrees that there are challenges in working with eBay data. He employed a company called CoreSense Technology to help him construct the engine that powers the Value Guide. He can't discuss specifics under the terms of the licensing agreement, but mentions algorithms, scrubbing outlying data, and statistics engines. Jason Jacobs, CEO of CoreSense Technology, said it boils down to data-mining, calling eBay's sales data a "gold mine."
But anyone who searches eBay can understand the challenges of working with eBay's raw data. Most stem from the fact that eBay listings are created by the individual sellers. Descriptions are inconsistent, often incomplete or incorrect (from deliberate intent or from a lack of knowledge on the part of the seller), and a good portion contain typos. Sellers fill in only two fields: Title and Description. The item's brand, model, make, color, condition and other descriptive data are thrown into one of two fields (or both). Keyword spamming can also throw a money wrench into the works: some sellers will put many brand names into their auction descriptions, knowing the listings will show up on more search results than if they simply used the brand of the item they are selling. (Keyword spamming violates eBay's policies.)
When devising a data-mining strategy, a company must be intimately familiar with these challenges and devise methods to prevent bad records from skewing pricing information.
Golf clubs may present less of a challenge than other product offerings. Just enter the search term "laptop" on eBay and you'll get the idea: not only are there many configurations of laptops, but some listings may be for accessories - batteries, cases, modems, and even manuals or eBooks about laptops. Golf clubs are straightforward compared to other items. They also maintain value over time, compared to consumer electronics and computers.
Golf clubs are not as prone to reproductions, issues of rarity, and fads associated with antiques and collectibles. Using eBay to place a value on a rare piece of pottery would be problematic, since there would not be enough transaction data to yield good pricing statistics.
Other questions arise when contemplating eBay statistics. Should eBay items with no bids be included in the data? Are fixed-price items as accurate as auction listings as an indicator of fair market value? And what about phantom items - those put up by scammers to defraud eBay buyers?
eBay has been rolling out a feature called "item specifics," which are fields for sellers to enter specific types of information about the item they are selling (http://pages.ebay.com/help/sell/item_specifics_faqs.html). For example, in the Tickets category, sellers can specify the Event Type, Venue State/Province, Venue City, Number of Tickets, Month, Year, and Minimum Price and Maximum Price. But eBay must still rely on individual sellers to complete the fields accurately and consistently, and sellers have the option of leaving the fields blank.
The PGA.com Value Guide is just one of eBay's forays into licensing its data. Andale retooled its Andale Research offering in June using eBay data (http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/abu/y203/m06/abu0097/s03). Subscribers to the service can enter a search term, like diamond rings, and Andale Research will determine the average selling price (ASP), price range and sell-through rate. It also makes recommendations; for instance, diamond ring auctions that close on Thursday may perform better than those closing on other days of the week. Sellers can use this data to help them determine starting bids, when to start and end an auction, and what optional features to use in the listing.
Signs that eBay was planning to monetize its historic transaction data became apparent in 2002. eBay CEO Meg Whitman mentioned at the 2002 eBay Live conference in June that eBay planned to make sales data accessible to its sellers, and eBay's second quarter 2002 SEC filing reported the company had entered into an agreement to purchase computer equipment, software and related services to expand their data warehousing capabilities (http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/abn/y02/m08/i12/s02).
Over time, eBay has reduced the amount of completed auction data available on its site. (A search on eBay can be restricted to "completed items only.") Users were previously able to search 60 days of completed data, it was reduced to 30 days, and now there are about 2 weeks worth of completed data available by title search.
Within the past week, eBay has begun further restricting access to its completed auction data: registered members must now log into the site to see closed-listings (http://www.auctionbytes.com/cab/abn/y03/m12/i12/s01.
eBay is probably hoping its Data Licensing Program sparks a 21st-century California gold-rush. Prospectors should be forewarned: it's up to them to mine the data carefully, or be stuck with fool's gold.
Leigh Bader seems confident that his strategy is 24 karat.
About the author:
Ina Steiner is co-founder and Editor of EcommerceBytes and has been reporting on ecommerce since 1999. She's a widely cited authority on marketplace selling and is author of "Turn eBay Data Into Dollars" (McGraw-Hill 2006). Her blog was featured in the book, "Blogging Heroes" (Wiley 2008). Follow her on Twitter at @ecommercebytes and send news tips to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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