Feb 2, 2012

Future of Retail: Why eBay's Milo is cooler than any mobile coupon apps


I think of shopping as a necessary evil and never believed in the eBay ‘shop victoriously’ slogan. Online shopping saves time, but some items need to be looked at (‘squeezing tomatoes’) or should be ‘returnable’. Amazon doesn’t help. Store web sites? Good luck finding anything useful like stock availability there and I hate shipping fees!

Enter eBay’s Milo.com. It is not a sexy app. It is a plain web site that lets you check real-time store inventory connecting with the back-ends of major retailers, but I think it points to the future of retail (according to eBay CEO John Donahoe), whether eBay or someone else succeeds there. Why:

Milo answers the key consumer question – is the item available in-stock across multiple retailers & stores at a good price (than just price alone), instead of the painful ordeal of going to each web site or physical store. Milo helps you decide whether a drive to Best Buy or Sears is easier than waiting for a package, even if 2 days from Amazon Prime.

Milo is not perfect. It works only for a few national chains and has many glitches. I don't think many people use it. It’s not a cutesy mobile app that bombards you with coupons or makes you feverishly run for offers or check-ins or announces your shopping skills to your friends. It is a start-up acquired by eBay in 2010, but interesting point here is demonstrating the value of tight real-time inventory check and availability-to-promise function across all stores and online. This establishes the consumer at the center of his multi-channel activities, without being segmented as mobile/ social/ web/ physical shopper, especially when mobile-to-web, web-to-store, mobile-to-store and even physical catalog-to-mobile-to-store flows are much more the norm.

In the last few years, many high profile mobile apps for shopping/ scanning/ pre-purchase promotions have emerged – ShopKick, AmazonPriceCheck, eBay’s RedLaser (which still needs to integrate better with Milo) etc and loyalty card/ mobile wallet/ payment apps from start-ups and behemoths alike. However, for physical goods, any app without a tight link to the back-end inventory, catalog and order management processes is only marginally useful at best, and embarrassment at worst (like the recent Best Buy fiasco) emulating the death march of Borders and Circuit City.

eCommerce is bound to explode, but still has huge disadvantages against brick-and-mortar stores for physical goods. Seamlessly integrated solutions connecting enterprise software (such as SAP) and consumer front-ends (mobile/ web) to offer multi-channel commerce are increasingly required to meet the new user expectations, merging online and offline commerce. As a curious consumer with enterprise software background, this is a fascinating convergence and I hope to discuss some observations in this blog and also learn from you!