Online shopping is supposed to be convenient and quick. However, often the sheer volume of products available means that shoppers spend hours browsing multiple sites and reading reviews before buying, which can take longer than going to a physical store.
Operator, the new app from Uber co-founder Garrett Camp, aims to solve this problem by providing online shoppers with the personalised purchasing advice that they would get in a bricks-and-mortar store.
As the name suggests, the apps wants to be the first port of call for online shoppers, in the same way people used to dial "0" for an operator when trying to make a phone call. Operator uses a network of human advisers to help with customer requests. The app is currently in private beta and is first focusing on "high consideration" purchases requiring expert advice.
Operator is released by Camp's startup studio, Expa and has former Zynga executive Robin Chan as CEO. The app works on the basis that online shoppers prefer to use messaging rather than actually talk with someone on the phone. It uses a combination of algorithms and human assistants to help connect shoppers with retailers.
Users can send a message to an "operator" with a picture of, say, their old pair of sneakers. The message is then routed to a store using the app that stocks the sneaker brand. The salesperson can then communicate with the shopper through the app, sending images, pricing details or recommendations for similar sneakers. Basically, it attempts to replicate the face-to-face sales experience via messaging.
"Our goal is to help people find the right product within the right store and to do it interactively," Camp told Bloomberg Business. "It's like Siri, but with a person on the other end."
To help the store salesperson recommend products the app will display a shopper's past purchases and preferences. Shoppers make purchases from within the app, through a "Buy it now" button, and like on Uber, they are required to rate their experience.
The service will go live in New York and San Francisco later this spring, but Expa has not released details of how many personal assistants or retailers will be involved at launch time. Operator will be free at first, although Chan and Camp say they have a few ideas on how to monetize down the line.
It's an ambitious project to try and take a piece of the e-commerce market from companies like Amazon and eBay. The problem for Operator is that it will only work on a large scale, and it only becomes useful when every store you like is signed up. So the key could be Expa's ability to get large retailers on-board at an early stage. One advantage Operator might have is the connection with Uber. It would make sense for Uber drivers to double as product delivery men.
The private beta is currently closed, but you can sign up for a waiting list here.