A recent advertising campaign has eBay exhorting consumers to “Shop Victoriously,” and, it’s true, winning an online auction can be fun. My recent score — vintage hand carders to process wool for spinning, won for a mere US$15 — was a hoot. I got solid tools for an obscure craft at less than one-third the price they cost new.
On the other hand, a week I spent a few Novembers ago — waiting for the bidding to end on a new-with-tags toddler snowsuit — was not such a hoot. For a mom staring down both barrels of a Midwestern winter, waiting days for an auction to end — only to learn that one has to schlep to the mall anyway — can be a bit irritating.
Hal Wendel, CEO of online startup Fididel, felt the same way when he tried to buy a tennis racket online two years ago. “It was a disaster,” he told the E-Commerce Times. “It was an older racket, it took two months to find it, and then I got sniped at the last minute.” (In online auction lingo, “sniping” is sneaking in on an in-progress auction at the end, sometimes literally at the last minute, and offering a price barely over the leading bidder to win the item.)
An aha moment shone through Wendel’s disappointment at losing the tennis racket, though. “Why,” he asked himself, “are there only two ways to buy online: auction or fixed price?” He set out to find a way to allow sellers and buyers to negotiate together in real-time in an effort to come to a mutually agreeable price. Each party, he reasoned, should leave the transaction knowing whether or not a deal has been reached.
Real-Time, All the Time
Launched in May, Fididel currently has about 100,000 products listed, many of them sporting goods and personal electronics offered by larger sellers from other online auction sites, according to Wendel. When buyers visit the site, they see items tagged with an “Asking Price.” Buyers begin negotiations by making offers. The sellers can accept the offers or come back with counteroffers. If the two sides can come to an agreement, it’s a deal.
Of course, vendors selling their wares online may not always be on the other end of the “line,” as it were, when a buyer ventures onto the site. For those transactions, Fididel offers the services of outsourced “Fididelers” — agents who negotiate on the seller’s behalf. This service is one of the keys to the business model, says Wendel.
Go With the Flow
“Most sellers like the idea of having ways to always optimize the selling price with a buyer,” Wendell said. “They don’t want to be at a computer at 1 a.m., though.” Thus, the system first checks to see if the seller of an item is online when a buyer initiates a negotiation. If not, the interaction gets routed to a Fidideler in a contact center in Africa, China, Europe, India or the U.S., he explained.
In fact, the desire to interact virtually, and immediately, with other people online is a consumer trend that’s gaining steam, IDC research analyst Caroline Dangson told the E-Commerce Times. “Web 2.0 technologies definitely are creating an expectation of faster, more efficient transactions,” she explained. That expectation naturally will extend to the online auction space and create a need for more ways to replicate offline transactions in the online environment.
Stay With the Script
A Fididel negotiation is not a free-for-all, however. First, the system sets up a one-to-one relationship between buyer and seller. In auctions, conversely, many buyers compete to win an item from a single seller. Second, the negotiators may or may not come to agreement. Either side can walk away from a Fididel deal without agreeing to a particular price. In many online auctions, the seller can set a minimum threshold but still takes the risk of garnering a much lower-than-hoped-for price.
In addition, both parties in a Fididel transaction have access to a series of scripted responses — some straightforward and some a bit humorous — to help the negotiation process along. In the future, said Wendel, the service may allow unscripted communication for higher-end items so that prospective buyers can ask very specific questions and sellers can provide detailed information on items for sale.
At this point in the service’s evolution, he noted, the products for sale are those on which most buyers already will have done their homework and found all the information they need.
Keep the Lid On
Like many technology start-ups, Fididel is walking the line between how to best buzz its service and how to keep its secrets secret. “As a first mover in the marketplace,” Wendel stressed, “it’s very important that we protect our position both from a brand recognition point of view and with copyrights and trademarks, etc., as well as investing money in the patent side of the business.”
In Fididel’s case, that patent work centers on the process underpinning the negotiation process and the business solution supporting the provision of Fididelers’ services.
Call center processes are nothing new to Wendel, a former director of call center sales development for Nortel. He also has done stints with Network General and HP. He self-funded Fididel until January of 2008, when he received seed capital from Quest Venture Partners. He’s looking to keep the company free-standing for the foreseeable future, he said, focusing on partnerships instead of seeking out a potential purchaser.