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eBay wants to create an e-store just for you

The e-commerce company works out a new way for you to personalize eBay, using something called "Interests."

ebay-store-of-ben
Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

I walked to a corner of eBay's office in Manhattan to find a sign that read "Store of Ben."

Just behind that sign, the e-commerce company set up a small model store filled with a bunch of items it thought I'd likely jump at buying, including Philadelphia Eagles gear, Batman toys, PlayStation and Sonos gadgets, and even children's books for my kids.

This Ben-centric mini-store offered a physical representation of eBay's next step in attracting new buyers to its site. The company on Thursday introduced something it's calling "Interests," a way of turning parts of eBay's homepage into a personalized store built for each shopper. The new tool is available now in the US on iOS and Android, and coming to more countries over the next several months.

This personalization is powered by a survey that customers need to fill out asking them to tag any of 450 different categories, such as goth, street art, snowboarding or yoga. While the concept of a consumer survey is hardly cutting-edge, eBay said it did a ton of behind-the-scenes work to marry that information with its over 1 billion active listings to compile groupings of products someone would want.

It's  a similar concept to how Spotify or Pandora use their troves of data to tailor music to your tastes using cues from your listening habits and searches, the company said.

"If you're a heavy-metal-loving, midcentury art fanatic, yoga buff with a cat and two kids, that should be your eBay,"  Bradford Shellhammer, the company's head of browse and personalization, told me.

The new personalization tool is part of a broader push in the e-commerce industry to use all your browsing data to help you find more of what you want faster and more easily, in hopes of making the buying experiences better and, naturally, getting you to buy more stuff. eBay had already been personalizing its site for users by tracking what they've shopped for and purchased on the site. Amazon offers similar personalization on its site, too.

But with eBay embarking on a years-long project to better organize and track the vast, sometimes overwhelming mess of stuff on its site, it's now able to take that personalization work a step further, aided by customers offering more information on what they like.

That way, if you go to eBay looking for bridal gowns, you'll be less likely to be served listings for tires. Plus, the new tool could help eBay bring new users to some of its strongest areas, such as collectibles, hard-to-find electronic components, and one-of-a-kind art and antiques.

I completed one of these surveys in a few minutes before meeting with eBay on Wednesday, and it used that information to fill my store with all that stuff. They got most of it right -- after all, I told them I liked these things. But they didn't nail everything. Style can be a little tricky, so I was turned off by both a Nike running jacket and a denim jacket (maybe I just don't like jackets), much to Shellhammer's chagrin.

Shellhammer said his team is still figuring out how to use the new tool and the algorithm will improve the more you use it.

Also, the way the survey will be presented to customers is still being tested, with eBay planning on introducing small bits of the questionnaire during the buying process, instead of requiring people to fill it out all at once.

 If you don't fill out the survey, you won't get the new Interests icons at the top of your homepage, and eBay will instead only recommend stuff from your browsing patterns and watch lists.

Shellhammer added that eBay won't sell this new user data, instead using it only to power shopping on eBay.

"Our opportunity and our goal," Shellhammer said, "is to get more people to fall in love with eBay the way our core customers do."

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