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Andale to provide eBay sales data

The auction management company plans to begin a service this summer that will help people determine what's selling on eBay, and what's not.

    Auction management company Andale plans to begin a service this summer that will help auction users determine what's selling and what's not on eBay.

    The auction tracking service is one of several new products Andale plans to unveil at the eBay Live convention Friday in Anaheim, Calif. The tracking service, which the company plans to start by the end of August, will provide Andale customers with the average selling price of an item and the number of units sold over a particular period of time.

    "We're finally starting to give merchants and buyers some price history and price transparency," said Munjal Shah, chief executive of Andale. "The goal is to democratize access to this information because we think it will drive trading."

    Andale is not the first company to try to provide market data on eBay. Companies such as Strong Numbers and WorthGuide provided similar information in the past but found little appetite for the service among eBay sellers. WorthGuide has since closed its site, and Strong Numbers was sold to Income Dynamics last fall.

    Meanwhile, Andale rival ChannelAdvisor provides eBay sales data as a service to its enterprise clients, which include IBM and Kodak.

    eBay has opposed previous efforts by outside companies to comb its listings for pricing information. The company sued Bidder's Edge in 1999 for searching and displaying eBay's listings on its site. And similar efforts by AuctionWatch led to considerable friction between it and eBay.

    But Andale will be gathering pricing information off eBay with the auction giant's blessing, Shah said. eBay is "actively involved" in the design of the tracking service, which is being built using eBay's API (application programming interface), he said.

    "They are very concerned about ensuring that the information that is presented is accurate and correct," Shah said. "I could easily be showing you stuff that is a couple of hours old on accident."

    eBay representatives did not return calls seeking comment about Andale's new auction tracking service.

    Avoiding the Freedom faux pas
    The tracking service and other new products are part of Andale's first major update to its auction service since last summer, when it released its Freedom software. Freedom combined sellers' inventory into one database and allowed them to list that inventory not just on auction sites such as eBay, but on their own Web stores and in Web-based e-mail sent to customers.

    Freedom proved to be a trying experience for Andale and its customers. Even though Andale delayed the product's release by three days, the program was buggy at launch. Because of the problems, many Andale customers were unable to access the company's Web site and unable to launch auctions. The company eventually fixed the bugs and stabilized its service, but not before a number of its customers bolted to rivals such as ChannelAdvisor and AuctionWatch.

    Unlike with Freedom, where Andale changed its system architecture, merged its service with that of its Honesty.com unit and upgraded its features all at the same time, the company plans to stagger the latest upgrades to its service. That should prevent any major problems, such as what happened with Freedom, Shah said.

    "This is being launched in way that's a lot less dramatic. You have my promise on that," he said. Still, he added, "There could be problems. I'm not ever going say there can't be."

    The tracking service will eventually cover 52 weeks of data, Shah said. In some cases, the data will be comprehensive, including all of the auctions for a particular product. In other cases, Andale might take a sampling of auctions to determine prices and numbers of listings, he said.

    ChannelAdvisor Chief Executive Scot Wingo questioned how useful the tracking service will be and whether Andale will be able to persuade anyone to pay for it.

    "There's been like eight companies that have tried this and they've all gone out of business," he said.

    One of the problems with trying to track prices on eBay is that the data is not particularly "clean," Wingo said. So, combing the site for Xbox sales, for instance, might turn up not just the Xbox console, but controllers and games as well. To find out what the average price of the console is would require filtering out all the extraneous auctions.

    "Any garbage like that is going to skew the data," Wingo said. "None of those (price tracking) companies was able to overcome that."

    Andale plans to use workers in India, where it already operates customer service, to clean up the data, Shah said.

    Research, sales reports and feedback
    Andale plans to offer the new auction-tracking feature as part of a broader service called Andale Research, for which the company will charge $2.95 per month. In addition to receiving price quotes on particular items, customers will be able to configure the service to alert them when the average price for an item exceeds or drops below a certain threshold.

    Eventually, the company also plans to provide research reports on particular categories of items, Shah said. The reports might detail what items sold well in a given week and advise sellers on what and how to sell particular goods.

    For the time being, Andale Research will focus on eBay, although the company will eventually expand the service to other marketplaces, Shah said.

    In addition to Andale Research, the company plans to offer an updated version of a feature that provides sales reports to sellers, he said. Currently the reports feature tells sellers only what they've sold in a given month. The upgraded feature will total merchants' costs and provide an analysis on how they can improve sales or cut costs.

    For instance, sellers will be able to use the reports feature to determine whether listing items in bold or paying to feature their auctions on eBay are cost-effective strategies for their merchandise. Andale will continue to charge sellers $19.95 per month for the new feature, Shah said.

    "Sellers are saying all the time, 'yet another fee,'" Shah said. "This is the first tool that's going show them what they are spending and show them ways to reduce that."

    Later this summer, Andale also plans to offer a feedback alert system that will monitor for negative feedback ratings. For $2.95 per month, the system will alert sellers when they receive negative feedback and remind buyers to leave feedback after the close of an auction. As with Andale Research, the service will start with eBay before branching out to other marketplaces.

    More immediate product enhancements include a new version of Andale's desktop auction-management software and support for eBay's storefronts, both of which will be launched Friday, Shah said. The updated software will have a new, spreadsheet-like interface that should make it easier and quicker to use, he said.

    Meanwhile, the new storefront feature will allow Andale users to be able to list directly to eBay's storefronts and will synchronize the inventory on those storefronts with storefronts on Andale.

    Playing catch-up
    Although Shah categorized the new features as a major update, Wingo said they don't sound terribly exciting.

    "I would classify these as catch-up features," he said.

    Auction management companies such as Andale have struggled over the last year or so. With funding for dot-com and technology companies drying up, they were forced to push for profits. But auction sellers in general have been slow to adopt auction management services, making that endeavor more difficult.

    And competition has been fierce. eBay has named eight companies, including Microsoft's bCentral, as its preferred auction-management service providers.

    In an effort to push up profits, Andale furloughed 10 of its 60 employees in December. Rivals AuctionWatch and FairMarket also shed staff.

    In recent months, the industry seems to have begun to turn around. AuctionWatch announced earlier this month that it was profitable in the first quarter. Meanwhile, Andale has said that it has reached cash-flow breakeven, an early step on the road to profitability.