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Gadget review aggregator Retrevo opens own store

Retrevo's main function, to date, has been to provide tech buying advice to consumers. Its new service climbs over the ethical wall separating content from commerce.

Retrevo will now sell some items directly. Instead of linking out to other stores, it will have its own "Buy" buttons. Retrevo

Tech hardware advice site and reviews aggregator Retrevo is opening its own online store. The company has struck deals with 10 online resellers that will fulfill orders for Retrevo, but buyers will conduct all their business on itself. Retrevo is also taking on the support role for customers who need help with products they purchase on its store.

Retrevo's main function, to date, has been to provide tech buying advice to consumers. It aggregates reviews data from professional sites (like CNET) as well as consumer reviews (from sites like Amazon) and generates reviews scores and other analytics to help users make buying decisions. There's also a strong editorial hand at work at Retrevo to come up with the criteria that the site's algorithms use to rank products.

Retrevo has always linked out to online stores for people who want to purchase a product they read about. Today's new store function replaces the links to other stores with Retrevo's own "Add to Cart" button for select items.

The ethical wall
There is a barrier at good reviews sites between opinion and commerce, for one big reason: If a site is recommending a product and then turns around and makes a direct profit from selling it, one could think the site's recommendations are tainted by potential profits. Retrevo CEO Vipin Jain says you can still produce a trustworthy editorial service even if you are helping readers close the loop in commerce.

Reviews sites like CNET also engage in consumer commerce, but at a different scale. When a user clicks on a price link on a reviews page, we earn a referral fee, which is a small fraction of an item's selling price. When a user buys a product directly from Retrevo, though, the company books the entire purchase price of the item. It does then have to buy the item from its reseller or manufacturer partner, but actually reselling items opens up avenues to Retrevo to negotiate for more attractive profit margins. These profits may vary by product, and the user won't know which items are more profitable for Retrevo, adding to the potential perception that the site's recommendations may be slanted.

To be clear, I do not expect Retrevo to juggle its recommendation algorithms so it sells more of the items that make it the most money. That would lead to only a momentary financial gain, at the cost of killing the site's credibility and ultimately its ability to do any business at all.

Retrevo won't sell items determined by its algorithms to be bad deals. Retrevo

Jain feels that making commerce easy for the reader can be a service itself, especially if the content itself remains pure. Retrevo takes this position a step further and aims to "own the customer experience," Jain says. All products available from the Retrevo store will ship free and come with 30-day return privileges, which Retrevo will handle.

Prices, not profits, can affect Retrevo's recommendations, but in a consumer-friendly way. In some cases, for products that are overpriced, over the hill technologically, or just outmatched by competing products, even when Retrevo has access to sell the product directly it may put a "Do Not Add To Cart" flag on a product page instead of a Buy button. Jain says this feature will reinforce his service's editorial independence and customer service philosophy. Users can still buy such products from other stores; Retrevo will provide links.

Currently, only a small percentage of the products on Retrevo are available on the Retrevo store, since the resellers Retrevo has deals with are on the small side. Over time, additional partnerships could give Retrevo more items for direct sale. Jain still has to close these deals, however. He's banking that resellers will be more interested in incremental sales than in the fact that they'll be losing direct contact with customers who buy via Retrevo itself.