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Corner Office

eBay’s surprising bet on brick-and-mortar stores

Kai Ryssdal and Tommy Andres Sep 24, 2014
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At any given time, eBay has some 700 million items for sale, but these days only about 30 percent of them are bought in auctions.

Shifting its focus to fixed pricing is just one way eBay has changed in the past decade, and many of its recent pivots have come from an understanding that only a portion of purchases are made entirely on the web. Instead, CEO John Donahoe says customers are integrating the Internet into their traditional shopping habits.

“The way we think about it is: In over half of all traditional retail transactions in the United States last year, the consumer accessed the web at some point in their shopping experience,” Donahoe says. “The lines between what used to be called e-commerce and retail are blurring.”

The rise of mobile devices means that shoppers today are increasingly using their phones or tablets in stores to research products, compare prices and even order items they get to touch and feel in person first.

People enjoy shopping in stores because it’s still a personal experience, Donahoe says, though not as much as it used to be.

“When we used to shop on Main Street, many of the shop owners knew your name,” he says. “That’s changed over the last 30 or 40 years … most of the stores you go into, the sales associates don’t really know who you are. Technology can change that. It can change it online and it can change that in the physical world, where you can get personalized experience.” 

So that’s where eBay is now: personalizing the shopping experience. The company does that online by helping buyers and sellers communicate securely, but they’re also looking to port that experience to the real world in interesting ways. eBay is working with retailers to outfit their windows with touchscreen displays that allow shopping even when the store is closed. They’re even experimenting with special mirrors for the dressing room.

“You can use virtual reality to try different combinations and different colors, even if that color is not in stock, then you can buy it right there in the dressing room,” Donahoe says. “So you’re going to have connected screens and connected devices not just in your hand with your smartphone or your tablet or your laptop, but they’re going to be all over.”

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