uGenie is a comparison shopping service that not only finds the best price on a single product, but on groups of products which it calls a 'bundle'. uGenie computes the bottom-line price (including shipping, taxes, and discounts) and claims to "find the cheapest way to buy the exact items you want from one or more merchant sites." It also offers filtering features - such as Merchant Rating (e.g. 3 stars), Item Condition, Shipping Options, Promotions, etc.While I was in San Francisco, I met up with uGenie co-founder and President Harish Abbott.
I asked Harish what he thinks is the market potential for ugenie and 'bundles' in general? He told me that bundles are obviously useful for "anything that we buy which requires us to have multiple items to achieve one goal" - for example a desktop computer, travel, home theatre system. Less obviously perhaps, Harish said that bundles can be "things that on the surface seem unrelated but are linked through our interests or situations" - e.g. an Amazon Wish List, or a shopping list.
uGenie seems to be a classic middleman, but for the Web age - i.e. it aggregates and filters other middlemen (online retailers like Amazon and BestBuy). In order to get real time prices and accurate transactional data such as shipping, taxes, coupons and discounts; uGenie scrapes prices real time and their system has the ability to calculate most coupons and apply them real time too. Harish also told me their algorithms "can crunch through millions of options in milli seconds".
Why uGenie can't automate the 'last mile' of transactions
However as of now uGenie is not an entirely automated process. Once the best pricing for a bundle is found, the consumer then has to manually complete the transaction. In other words, the consumer needs to go through the check-out process at each vendor's website. The best uGenie can do now and in the forseeable future is to give the consumer a step-by-step list of things they need to do to complete their bundle purchase.
So I asked Harish what some of the challenges of getting shopping sites to auto-process bundles - will this be possible in the near future? He told me:
"For now we guide the user through the checkout process in terms of buying different items. The user can click on the buy now clicks and a new window opens up for each merchant. We are working to streamline this process so that user does not need to reenter information on multiple sites. We also closely monitoring efforts on the universal shopping cart taken by other merchants."
What it comes down to is that the big online retailers - Amazon, Barnes&Noble, BestBuy, etc - have little incentive to automate bundle transactions. If consumers could do that, then why not just go to the wholesalers directly to source items for their bundles? The retailers are already essentially middlemen, so uGenie - as a meta-middleman - is a threat to the existing e-commerce retailers.
Future directions for uGenie
I asked Harish where they're headed with the product over the next few years. He told me their core focus on "true price discovery" will be strengthened by expanding their merchant set and continuing to improve the accuracy of prices. They are also working with merchants to "create more efficiency into the commerce supply chain so that we can deliver extra savings to our customers" - translation: trying to get retailers to cut them some slack!
uGenie will soon be launching more new categories for bundling. They will also push the use of tags and voting to "help us build the community around shopping". The idea here is that users can discover new bundles by searching on what others have tagged their bundles - e.g. if you purchase a birthday gift for your Mom, then others can search on the tag "mom" and perhaps find an appropriate pre-packaged bundle. Harish says "this is a massive shift from an editorial driven categorization of products, which in our opinion is myopic."
uGenie is currently a slick product, with a lovely user experience. The only sticking point is that 'last mile' of the bundle purchase. Having to manually complete the process and making transactions at 3-4 different retailers is a lot of effort for consumers. If uGenie or any of its competitors can solve this issue, then I can see such a product being a huge success. For now it remains a promising, well-designed solution that gets consumers 75% of the way to online shopping nirvana.