Buyhandpicked Applies Mechanical Turk Model To Personal Shopping

Shopping online can be a tedious affair, characterised by bottomless trawling of search engine results and price comparison websites to try to locate whatever finicky thing you really need this time.

Shopping requirements can also get pretty specific — a pair of blackout curtains with a 70+ inch drop, say, or a toaster that has a removable basket so you can lift your toasted bagels out without getting your fingers burnt.

Requests that are often far too specific for a simple search engine query to turn up purely relevant results. Further human digging is all-too-often required to wade through the machine generated results and pull the wheat from the chaff.

So enter a startup, launching today in the U.K., that’s taking a Mechanical Turk approach to cracking personal shopping online by building a platform where online shoppers can submit detailed shopping requests, and — at the other end of the pipe — get humans to go a-hunting on their behalf.

Buyhandpicked is starting off with a small team of personal shoppers signed up to its platform — when I started corresponding with co-founder Ben Cole earlier this morning the site had 23 shoppers. A few hours later (now they’ve opened up the personal shopper sign up process) it stands at 37. He says the aim is to have more than 100 within 48 hours of launch.

How does it work? Would be purchasers submit shopping requests via the platform and one of the personal shoppers should pick up the request within a few minutes and start looking. The Buyhandpicked interface includes a chat window so the personal shopper can ask you questions and you can feed them more info as the search progresses. When/if they find something that matches your requirements they send you a description with a link to click through to buy the item. Or apologise for being unable to deliver.

If they do recommend something, and you’re not happy with it, you can say so and send them back to the digital coal-face again.

The service is entirely free to use from the shoppers’ point of view. The personal shoppers only get paid if a search results in a validated purchase (or purchases), and even then they’re only getting slice of the commission that Buyhandpicked gets for purchases via a small pool of websites it has affiliate sales deals with (which currently boils down to around 20 U.K. retailers including Amazon, John Lewis and Currys).

So really these virtual personal shoppers are likely going to be getting virtually nothing for total time spent, assuming a large number of the searches they make result in no sale.

Here’s the breakdown of what Buyhandpicked’s personal shoppers (apparently) get paid when a  user does end up clicking through and buying the recommended item from one of the sites it has commissions deals with, as Cole tells it:

Personal Shoppers earn a sales commission of between 1% and 4% (excluding VAT (sales tax)) of the price of the products they have suggested when a purchase is made by the customer.
 For example, if they submit a link to a laptop on Amazon for £479 (ex VAT) and the customer buys it, they’ll earn approximately £14.37 (~$23.60).
All requests are indexed by Google, so subsequent purchases of the item will also earn a commission – if that laptop is bought by 3 customers, they’ll earn approximately £42.11 (~$69.14). The amount they can earn in a day depends on the quality of the suggestions they make and whether they meet the customers requirements.

How sustainable Buyhandpicked’s business model will be will depend on having enough personal shoppers willing to spend time search for only the chance of a fee, and doing a decent job of tailoring recommendations to requests. So time will tell on that one. (Sign up euphoria might soon convert into petty cash disappointment.)

It’s also currently only accepting personal shoppers based in the U.S., U.K., Canada and Australia — so isn’t (yet) looking to take advantage of lower rates of pay in emerging nations. (Worth noting that the founders hail from London but relocated to Chiang Mai in Thailand to bootstrap the development work to keep costs down — so are clearly not averse to cutting business costs by taking advantage of differing global pay rates. Whether their personal shoppers remain based in Western nations, or end up outsourced to markets where small commissions can stretch further, is one to watch.)

Cole describes the main competitors for Buyhandpicked as price comparison websites — which still require users to do a lot of leg-work figuring out which item to buy, instead of getting a single tailored recommendation.

“They don’t really compare as they rely on algorithms to find products and prices which simply can’t provide the personal service BuyHandPicked will provide,” he says via email, adding: “We use collective knowledge (crowdsourcing) of hundreds of Internet savvy shoppers to provide truly personal and perfect results.”

The latter claim doesn’t stand up quite yet — being as Buyhandpicked hasn’t yet recruited hundreds of personal shoppers. And, as mentioned above, it remains to be seen whether the personal shoppers it does sign up remain happy campers, or decide to seek more lucrative employment elsewhere.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen this sort of Mechanical Turk platform for personal shopping. At TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, back in September, a bro-friendly startup called BRANDiD presented a website for taking the strain out of clothes buying in our battlefield competition, for example. BRANDiD’s San Francisco offering targets specifically guys, and even more specifically guys with a fair amount of ‘tude — and a burning desire to reduce the time they spend on sartorial acquisition to as close to zero as possible. 

But BRANDiD charges a 10% surcharge for any items purchased in the process of using its recommendation service. Which again plays into its targeting of a very specific sub-section of dudes who care more about not being bored than paying a premium for their threads.

Buyhandpicked is not so tightly focused. For starters, as mentioned above, its service is free to use for shoppers — so you can get a personal shopper to look for something on your behalf for absolutely zip. Gratis. Nada. Which does feel a bit decadent (so do resist the temptation to send your virtual helpers off on a fruitless search for a ‘long stand’ or a ‘big weight’).

It’s also not focusing on a specific category of shopping — which is probably a bit of a risk, being as its crack team of human Internet trawlers are going to have to grapple with all sorts of random and specialist requests (some of which presumably can never result in any kind of shopper commission if they can’t be bought from a retailer the website has an agreement with).

Ultimately, the proof of the pudding will depend very much on the quality of recommendations Buyhandpicked can generate. If its shoppers are good, they might be able to fire up a sales conversion machine. If they’re bad, well, no one gets paid — and that doesn’t sound like a business with very long legs.

To test the service I asked for something I’ve previously trawled the Internet for: a cat litter tray with an entrance on top of the box, i.e. rather than the more usual side-placement. I made this search even harder by requiring the item not to cost a small fortune to a U.K. buyer — as apparently this ‘Holy Grail’ of cat litters trays does (for some reason).

My own prior searching for this elusive litter tray did eventually turn up one U.K. option — still pretty pricey for what is essentially a plastic box with a circular hole cut out on top. But it took me considerable Internet trawling to find even that scant picking. How would Buyhandpicked fare?

Katie, the Buyhandpicked personal shopper who picked up my request, had the same troubles as me initially — especially as I’d set the budget to a non-lavish sub-£50. But after a few minutes, maybe 10 or so, she delivered — finding the exact same item that my own web trawls had previously turned up.

That’s either highly reassuring, or rather depressing if you’re the kind of shopper who hopes that there’s something even better out there, if only you spend enough time looking for it.

Another Buyhandpicked shopper, called Ken, failed to find anything for a second request I made — for a no-drilling picture hanging system for a 6kg+ picture.

“Due to the weight of the painting I can’t find any suitable products,” he said regretfully, not least because he’d spent time searching for something that probably doesn’t exist — and not getting paid to do so.