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Buy it now, for real: eBay to refer sales to nearby stores

With its new version of RedLaser, the e-commerce giant is letting shoppers find--and buy--products from retailers near them. Then they just need to go to the store and pick up their item. The new tech is part of eBay's growing mobile strategy.

A new feature in the RedLaser mobile app allows customers to buy items from local retailers before even going to the store.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN JOSE, Calif.--eBay knows that half of all Christmas shoppers miss its December 16 shipping deadline for getting presents under the tree in time, and it wants to help the stragglers.

The e-commerce giant's idea is to make it easy for shoppers to find the item they're looking for--say, a Nintendo Wii--that's for sale and in stock at a store near them and to select and pay for it in advance through a mobile app.

The technology has been rolled into the latest version of eBay's RedLaser mobile app, which allows users to search for prices on all kinds of items by either scanning a bar code or QR code or typing in the product's name. In the past, the app has shown the price for the item at a selection of online and local brick-and-mortar retailers, allowing consumers to comparison shop and find the best price.

But now, explained eBay vice president of mobile Steve Yankovich, RedLaser users can also see a selection of local retailers that have the item in stock and that allow for purchasing it through the mobile app. If the shopper wants to do so, they can complete the transaction via PayPal--which means eBay makes some money on the deal--and then the item will be waiting for them at a special window when they arrive at the store.

In the early going, only a small number of retailers, such as Toys 'R Us, are participating, but eBay expects many more to join up over time.

This new feature is part of eBay's growing focus on mobile, which a series of executives, including Yankovich and CEO John Donahoe, explained to a group of reporters today. The event was meant to highlight the company's overall pre-holiday strategies.

But while the series of executives talked about the company's plans, including new social technologies and increased ways for shoppers to buy things in the run-up to Christmas, the most interesting was probably the ability to purchase items right now from local retailers. And that's because it showcases the opportunity that eBay is giving both shoppers and retailers through technology it acquired when it bought Milo, which aggregates product info for local stores, last December.

As Yankovich put it, the integration of the new technology is a way to get retailers to overcome fears of mobile apps that have allowed consumers to easily comparison shop when they're already in the store. But eBay sees the technology as a way to help these retailers develop a whole new kind of relationship with consumers, particularly one that lets the stores know something about potential customers before they go through the cash register.

Much of the promise of mobile apps like this, Yankovich said, comes from their potential to give customers a way to check in to a store when they walk in the door. And while plans are still in the works, it seems clear that eBay wants to make it possible for retailers to create all kinds of loyalty programs that entice shoppers to buy things in-store rather than online. So, for example, it could be possible for a store to see that a customer is inside shopping and offer them discounts on items while they're there.

E-commerce still crucial
Being eBay, however, there's no doubt the company is still very interested in giving consumers lots of ways to shop online. And as the Christmas buying season--which for eBay began November 1--heats up, it has come up with some new ways to lure in new customers.

One experiment is what the company is calling its Happy Holiday Hotspots. According to eBay Chief Marketing Officer Richelle Parham, the company is going to be testing out a system in New York City and in San Francisco on Black Friday that will offer free Wi-Fi--and food--at specific shopping heavy retail districts.

The idea with this is that even as huge numbers of people crowd into department and other nearby brick-and-mortar stores and suffer through long lines in order to make their Black Friday purchases, those who find the hotspots--located in New York's Herald Square and San Francisco's Union Square--will be able to shop leisurely on their mobile devices.

It's a small experiment, Parham said, but it's clear that eBay sees such efforts as the beginning of something that could eventually be rolled out in cities everywhere, both during the heavy holiday shopping season, and perhaps at other times of year as well.

EBay is also planning to boosting the number of deal blasts it will offer during the holidays. In the past, Parham said, it has offered one big deal a day--perhaps a discounted iPad--but will be doubling that throughout this year's holiday season. And on both Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it will be featuring five daily deal blasts, each of which will be for a brand-new item from an eBay seller.

Pattern recognition
Down the line, eBay is also looking to its mobile applications as a way to improve buyer's shopping experiences, and one way is through new forms of image and pattern recognition, said CEO Donahoe.

EBay CEO John Donahoe demonstrates one of the e-commerce giant's mobile apps at an event today. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The company is working on technology in its labs, Donahoe said, that should make it possible for, say, a woman who sees a co-worker wearing a dress she likes to search for something similar. The idea is that she could use an eBay mobile app to take a photograph of the item and then get back a set of dresses that match the pattern in the photo.

Donahoe explained that the technology--which should be live by the end of the year--requires a bit of help. That means that the user needs to tell the app at least what kind of clothing they're searching for. But eBay's proprietary technology--which it got by purchasing a company called Positronic--was designed to do the rest of the work. And, the CEO said, within 12 to 18 months, it may even be possible for a shopper to make all the necessary inputs using nothing but their voice or a photograph.