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Alice, you broke my heart!

Alice.com logoNot often these days a new shopping startup comes around that gets me excited. Modista looked cool but was not very useful. ShopSavvy was useful but I only used it so much - my shopping is mostly online. BeatThat had a cool idea but implementation fell short - too few products. All these services offered something novel but they all lacked the scale.

Alice.com is a new startup launched by the same folks who sold Jellyfish to Microsoft in 2007 and pocketed $50 mln, and it really promises to be something big. On the outside Alice is a neatly built shopping site to buy household essentials with thousands of names in stock and free shipping on everything. On the inside, Alice is an open platform for manufacturers to sell the kind of products they want at the prices they set, the first of a kind from what I know.

How Alice helps consumers

The shopping part of the site is very clean. Products are presented in a nice grid view, each one is provided with an image, details, and even price comparison. Some items come in several packaging sizes and if they do you can easily cross reference them. The overall interface reminded me of Endless.com, the shoe store by Amazon. It is very clean and very nicely organized.

As you add items to your cart you can also add them to your list of things to buy regularly and select the refill frequency. Alice will then send you a reminder when you are about to run out of toilet paper, toothpaste, or whatever else you added to your list. As I already mentioned, shipping is free on all orders, something a bargain hunter will certainly appreciate.

The closest competitor to Alice is probably Amazon, and I have to admit Alice stands favorably so far. Even though Amazon offers a greater variety of brands, Alice has the most popular ones covered and the package size assortment is much better. Amazon typically forces you to buy large amounts while with Alice you get same package size you will typically find in your local grocery store.

One more complain I have about Amazon is the third party and “soon to be in stock” offers which flood search results and really degrade your shopping experience. I wish there was a way to filter them out on demand. Alice on the other hand only lists in-stock products and all of them qualify for free shipping (did I already mention it? ;-) )

On top of the typical shopping functionality Alice offers some bells and whistles like Budgeting (these are in essence your monthly expense stats by product category) and Neighborhood (a basic set of social tools like friends, profiles, chat, walls, etc). There is not much going on yet in the Neighborhood except for the chat area which is dominated by the former JellyFish members some of whom have ported their screen names to Alice.

How Alice helps manufacturers

However it is not the bargain hunter and online shopper in me who was more excited by the Alice’s launch. It was me - the entrepreneur. What Alice is doing in the CPG market now is what Zecco have tried to do with online stock trading. This article explains a lot of details about why this is different from what has been done so far. In the words of Brian Wiegand (Alice.com CEO) himself:

We’ve created a platform that allows the major CPG manufacturers to actually become the retailer and sell directly to the consumer,” Mr. Wiegand said. “Retailers increasingly have become manufacturers. So the next logical step is for manufacturers to become retailers.

I am eager to see if the idea stands and if Alice grows enough to successfully compete with the traditional players and to become profitable. According to this Reuters post, the startup makes money off of manufacturers “by giving the companies spending data, advertising space and distributing samples for them to targeted customers”. My understanding is that with the traditional model the store makes money via price markup and so the revenue comes from the consumers.

Will this new model bring shoppers lower prices and better service? It is hard to say. Initially the answer is definite yes since everyone including the manufacturers is vested into the success of this enterprise and are willing to sacrifice some of the revenue in exchange for great initial impression. What will drive prices down later on? It could be the transparency that Alice built into the platform, or it could be the volume (if the site really takes off). Whether Alice.com is successful or not, I already feel it is promising to be a very interesting experiment!




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