EcommerceBytes-Update, Number 115 - March 21, 2004 - ISSN 1528-6703     3 of 7

eBay's Item Specifics: Coming to a Category Near You!

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eBay has been slowly rolling out a feature called "Item Specifics" in various categories across the site (http://pages.ebay.com/help/sell/item_specifics.html). Item Specifics is a way for buyers to search by product attribute.

eBay believes Item Specifics will make shopping on eBay easier by bringing back more relevant search results. Because each seller on eBay has a unique way of describing products, eBay is hoping that creating standardized fields, such as size and color, will make it easier for buyers to find what they are looking for. For example, buyers can search in some Music categories by Album Type, Genre, Sub-genre, Condition, Minimum price and Maximum Price.

Here's an example of how Item Specifics works. Suppose I'm listing a pair of women's shoes - red pumps in size 9. In my auction description, I mention that it will take 7 days to ship the item. A shopper might search eBay for women's red shoes in size 7, and my auction listing will come up, because it has found the number 7 in the description.

With Item Specifics, I could put 9 in the Size field when I'm listing. Now, if a buyer enters the number 7 in the size field, my size 9 shoes won't come up.

Pre-fill Item Information, or "Catalog"
In some categories, eBay is adding "Pre-Fill Item Information" to help automate the process of filling out Item Specific fields for sellers (http://ebay.com/Pre-filledItemInformation).

With Pre-Fill Item Information, sellers are able to select the item they are selling from eBay's database and have eBay populate the Item Specific fields with the appropriate information. This works for "practicals," like DVDs and video games, as opposed to one-of-kind artwork and collectibles.

Let's say I am listing a DVD called "Pirates of the Caribbean." If I use Pre-fill Item Information when listing the movie, eBay will automatically fill in the Title, Leading Role, Director, Format, UPC, Release Date and Rating fields. I still must fill in five codes: Region Code, Genre, Sub-Genre, Condition (new or used) and Display format (Full Screen or Widescreen). NOTE: On the evening of March 17, Pre-fill Item Information began filling in the Genre fields when listing new auctions.

Where does eBay get this information? For the music and DVD categories, it licenses a database from Muze Inc. (http://www.muze.com). Every modern consumer product has a UPC code associated with it. Most products have barcodes displaying that number in machine-readable format. Larger merchants have systems in place so they can scan the barcode of an item when preparing it for launch on their Web site or on a marketplace like Amazon or eBay. (Just as Brick & Mortar stores use barcodes at checkout.) But the barcode doesn't do any good unless the software has a database of product codes to match up with the barcode. People often refer to eBay's Pre-fill Item Information as "Catalog," since it draws the information from a catalog, or database of product information.

Shoppers can't search by all of these fields yet. In the DVD category, they are limited to searching by Genre, Sub-genre, Condition and Minimum and Maximum price. Even though there is a field for it, they cannot search by Director, but eBay said they plan to expand the searchability of these variables over time.

Even within categories that are rolled up, not all sub-categories support Pre-fill. In the Music category, CDs do support Pre-fill, but Records do not. "In commodity type products, it is available, but in more collectible items, it isn't," said an eBay spokesperson.

Third-Party Services & Pre-fill
Many sellers use third-party auction-management services to help automate the eBay selling process. All of the vendors I spoke with support Item Specifics, but most don't yet support Pre-fill Item Information.

Andale and Zoovy are the only two vendors that support Pre-fill Item Information right now. David Steele of Zoovy said once a seller has completed a listing for a product, Zoovy retains that information to make it easier the next time that item is listed. Zoovy has created a demonstration of its tool, including a demo of how Item Specifics works with Pre-fill Item Information support: http://www.zoovy.com/auction/item_specifics.

Michael Jones of ChannelAdvisor said they absolutely do support Item Specifics, but they do not support Pre-fill because eBay's API support "is not built to support bulk listing tools provided by large PSPs such as ourselves."

The eBay API consists of a set of functions for querying the eBay platform. It is, in essence, a direct pipeline to eBay. Vendors who want their tools to interface with eBay must become certified and join the eBay Developers Program, and their software must go through a certification process.

ChannelAdvisor is an eBay Certified Developer and an eBay Preferred Service Provider (PSP). But Jones sees problems with the way Pre-fill is set up under the API. "The API support setup currently requires multiple step back-and-forth calls through the API, that are okay for sellers creating ads one-at-a-time, but cannot be used efficiently for those trying to sell large volumes." He said ChannelAdvisor has been in discussions with eBay for several months, and would "eagerly support this feature" (Pre-fill) if eBay modified the API processes.

Greg Isaacs, eBay's Senior Manager of the Platform Solutions Group, said eBay's API supports Pre-fill Item Information. eBay's own tools - Sell Your Item form, Seller's Assistant, Seller's Assistant Pro, Turbo Lister and Selling Manager Pro - support Pre-Fill Item information. A demo of Prefill for Sell Your Item form is here: http://ebay.com/Pre-filledItemInformation and a demo for eBay's Seller's Assistant Pro product is here: http://www.blackthornesw.com/docs/SAP/Adding_Catalog_Information.htm

Category Rollups: Not Ready for Prime-Time
eBay rolled up categories last week under Entertainment, meaning they eliminated subcategories. Previously, sellers might have listed an item under "Entertainment: DVDs & Movies: VHS: Action & Adventure: Adventure." Now, all videos are found under "DVDs & Movies: VHS."

Before the category rollups, if a seller listed a VHS movie for sale on eBay, a buyer "searching" for the title would likely find the listing; that's still true. But now, "browsing" using categories will only get them to DVDs & Movies: VHS. The listing will show up with all types of VHS movies, making it hard to find by browsing. If the buyer is aware of Item Specifics and sees the "Genre" box on the left side of the page, they can click on the Genre pull-down box and limit results to genres like "Action, Adventure" or "Comedy."

But what happened to the "Mystery" Genre? And earlier this week, there was something called "Sub-genre." Where did it go? As I said in my editorial, writing about Item Specifics is a moving target. Perhaps by the time you read this, Mystery will be back as a Genre option. Maybe.

Hani Durzy, an eBay spokeperson, said there are three stages to the Item Specific initiative: adding Item Specifics to a category, adding Pre-fill (also called Catalog), and finally, Category Rollup. Durzy said eBay can't maintain both systems, so they roll up the categories.

Glacier Bay DVD is one of the largest sellers of DVDs on eBay. On Thursday, President Randy Smythe reported a 10% drop in sales since eBay rolled up the categories on March 16. The auction management service he uses, an eBay Preferred Service Provider, does not support Pre-fill Item Information (Catalog).

"Small sellers who don't have an auction management service can manually go in and do 10 - 20 titles," Smythe said. "We have to do it over and over again manually. We list over 15,000 titles, and it can't be done through Catalog."

While Smythe thinks Item Specifics may be a better tool for buyers, and may be better for sellers in the long run, he believes it is going to affect his business in the short term. He said his business is big enough that existing customers know where to find him, and will go to his eBay Store or Web site, but he fears new customers won't find his listings. NOTE: I checked with Smythe Friday evening. He said he had a slight rebound on Friday, and won't know for sure how the category rollup is affecting sales until he has a week worth of data. One thing is certain, he is eager to begin using Pre-fill to automate the process of including data like Genre to his listings.

Summary
eBay continues to introduce Item Specifics to new categories on the site. eBay's Durzy said they have found that in certain categories, Item Specifics is more intuitive for buyers, but eBay will not roll out Item Specifics into every category. Last week, eBay announced it would introduce Pre-fill Item Information in the Cell Phones, PDAs, and Digital Cameras categories in the coming weeks.

eBay says that with Item Specifics, shoppers can enter search terms in certain fields and have a much better chance of finding what they are looking for. This sounds good in theory, and in the long run, it's likely to be a successful approach for eBay. In the meantime, some sellers remain skeptical, and they - along with auction management services - are finding the transition painful.

Sidebar: eBay Category Rollups
eBay has changed many of its categories effective this month. For example, DVDs used to fall under the Entertainment category and have many subcategories. Now "DVDs & Movies" is a top-level category (which eBay is calling a "metacategory") with only a few subcategories.

Here is eBay's list of new metacategories created last week:
Cameras & Photo (was under Consumer Electronics)
Crafts (was under Home)
DVDS & Movies (was under Entertainment)
Entertainment Memorabilia (was under Entertainment)
Health & Beauty (was under Everything Else)
Music (was under Entertainment)
Sporting Goods and Fan Shop (was two categories under Sports)
Sports Cards and Memorabilia (was two categories under Sports)
Video Games (was under Entertainment)


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 ina@ecommercebytes.com.


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