Holiday Central

EBay leans on A.I. to help you find the right gift for the holiday season

Key Points
  • EBay is using artificial intelligence to help streamline the shopping experience.
  • The company now tags its merchandise to help sort its vast marketplace thematically.
  • The holiday season will test if AI can help drive sales.
An employee walks past eBay signage at the company's headquarters in San Jose, California.
David Paul Morris | Bloomberg | Getty Images

This holiday season, eBay wants its technology — and vast marketplace — to help you be a bit more unique in your gifting.

"If we know you like superheroes, there's a world of things on eBay you don't even realize we have," said Bradford Shellhammer, eBay's head of personalization and engagement.

EBay operates one of the world's largest online marketplaces. It had 168 million active buyers as of the third quarter of this year. Its size and the breadth of its offerings have been a point of distinction when compared against Amazon. "Don't shop like everybody else" is the theme of one of its holiday advertisements. The challenge, though, has been making sure eBay shoppers find and buy those items.

This season will be the first to test many of eBay's newest initiatives to help shoppers realize. That awareness will be vital as the San Jose, California-based e-retailer continues to define its space in online shopping.

"The diversity of our catalog makes us like no other retailer in the world," Shellhammer said. "The hard part, has been where do you start? And how do you find things?"

So eBay has been investing in technology that helps to organize those products in an streamlined fashion. It acquired Sweden-based Expertmaker last year to help bulk up these efforts. It launched a new webpage, which organizes and curates in a "Netflix style." Last month, eBay began rolling out its "Grouped Listings," which condense listings by product, not seller, in order to rid of clutter.

It now tags items through a combination of technology and human input. In doing so, it has the capacity to categorize items by theme, not only similarity. For example, a shopper browsing for yoga mats might also be shown a Lululemon top, not just other yoga mats.

Going forward, eBay will move beyond monitoring what shoppers are buying, and instead ask them for their preference directly, said Shellhammer.

Other holiday initiatives for the company include its new guaranteed delivery program, which ensures more than 20 million items will arrive within three days. It also has a price-matching program for more than 50,000 deals.

Online shopping is projected to generate $107 billion in sales in the U.S., a 13.8 percent jump from last year, according to Adobe. Of those sales, analysts at SunTrust Robinson Humphrey expect Amazon to grab 24 percent, up from a 20 percent in 2016.

EBay generates about a quarter of its revenue in the fourth quarter of the year, according to SunTrust. Its share of online dollars in the U.S. dropped to roughly 6.5 percent in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with 7.5 percent the previous year.