Itemize reads your e-mail to build a shopping profile

You don't have to tell this service what you like to get coupons and offers. It knows.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
3 min read

I wrote recently that receipts are the the new check-ins. And now companies are emerging that are trying to roll up the receipt collection process for consumers. One smart new business doing this: Itemize. It scans your e-mail receipts to build a profile of your favorite brands, and then it sends you deals so you can get the stuff you like at a discount.

"We are receipt geeks," CEO Jim Thomas told me. He previously worked on analytics for MasterCard, which you'd think would have the mother lode of data when it comes to analyzing what people like. But think again: credit card companies know where you shop, but not what you buy. "I wanted to build a Pandora for shopping," Thomas said.

There are two challenges facing Itemize. First, it needs a diet of receipts to work. Pretty much everything you buy online will generate an e-mail receipt, which works to its favor, but things you buy in physical retail stores generally don't--except for, say, the stuff you get at the Apple store. Thomas believes more retailers will be following Apple's lead, though.

Itemize will get a physical-receipt-scanning app eventually. The iPhone app for that is being built. Thomas does think that physical receipts will eventually vanish, but not soon enough.

Itemize builds a complete dossier of all the stuff you buy online--and eventually, offline too. Screenshot by Rafe Needleman/CNET

The other problem: So you have this mailbox full of e-mail receipts. How do you get them to Itemize? The service gets your receipts by scanning your live inbox. You give it access to your mail (it works on Yahoo, Hotmail, Gmail, and several other mail providers) and it watches for receipts. Thomas says the service does not keep your e-mail nor read anything that it doesn't at first determine is a receipt, but there will be consumers, like me, who don't like the idea of giving yet another third party access to their communication.

There is another way: Do what TripIt does, and let users forward their receipts to the service as they wish. (TripIt, by the way, now has inbox scanning as an option.) Thomas says, "We wanted Itemize to be self-learning, not requiring the user to teach it a little bit every time the user shops. We don't think shoppers want to change their behaviors that much. We think our core users who are heavy online shoppers will find that attractive." Nonetheless, for the paranoid realists, a TripIt-like forwarding destination will be added later.

These hurdles stipulated, I think Itemize is a very smart business. Once it has a dossier on you, it knows what you buy, and specifically what brands you like. If you buy a certain brand of shoe, or breakfast cereal, or game, then it will aggressively match you with offers for products from those brands, and not necessarily with the stores you bought them from, mind you. You'll get the deals from whatever store is selling something you like at a bargain.

Itemize will make money for itself by taking affiliate revenues for getting those deals into the hands of the right consumers. The company could also sell anonymized consumer behavior data back to brand companies, which could also make it a lot of money but is a privacy quagmire. A final way the company could make money (and tons of it), is to sell access to consumers to the brands that compete with consumer preferences. Thomas recognizes that he has to play that last card very carefully, or maybe not at all, since his users won't like the service much if it appears to be yet another generator of unwanted offers.

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Stores may not like Itemize, since it reinforces product brand loyalty potentially at the expense of store loyalty. But stores that have good prices could see extra business. Which Itemize would get a cut of. If the company can navigate its important privacy issues, it could make a killing.

See also OtherInBox, which does a nice job of automatically organizing the commercial e-mail you get and which sends you a digest of the coupons and offers you're receiving from stores you shop at. I use it and find it helpful.

"Customers are saturated," Thomas says. "They can't open 50 offers a day." He clearly thinks Itemize offers will break through the noise. What do you think?