How eBay is winning over big brands with big data insight
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How eBay is winning over big brands with big data insight

Jessica Twentyman — June 2015

The ecommerce giant has had to up its analytics game since it started targeting major retailers — not via the IT organization but through finance, explains Davide Cervellin, eBay’s merchant analytics head in the EU.

Over the past decade, eBay has moved well beyond its origins as a consumer-to-consumer auction website to establish its value as a mainstream platform for business-to-consumer retail and, latterly, as a strategic channel for some of the world’s top brands. In doing so, the online giant has had to dramatically raise the sophistication of the insight into transactional data that it provides to those higher-level retailers.

Rather than just passively operating a retail platform, the company has become highly active in helping enterprises to refine their online sales approaches, forecast product potential, understand why targets are missed, and much more — while also helping to draw customers into those online stores.

n Europe, the company’s Merchant Development organization has been building a roster of big names in recent years. Leading department stores, including Spain’s El Corte Inglés and the UK’s House of Fraser, have their own eBay storefronts, as do German electrical appliance retailer Wermuth and French catalog company La Redoute.

And the sheer scope of the service it provides to enterprise-level merchants is documented in the job spec of eBay strategic account managers: “Search and listing optimization, marketing, inventory management, shipping, economics, fulfillment strategy, improving the buyer experience, risk management, fraud, trust & safety policies, negative account actions, and other strategic and operational needs.”

Behind that promise is data — and lots of it, says Davide Cervellin, head of merchant analytics across the EU for eBay.

“The first question is always: what business value do we expect to get in return for our analytic effort?”

“We’re extremely lucky because, as an online company, everything has always been tracked,” he says. “From the start, the company has put data at the very center of the decision-making process and that really puts us several steps ahead of bricks-and-mortar retailers who are [only] starting to find new ways of analyzing data.”

The challenge of working with such big data, he says, is ensuring the analytics being applied create tangible business value. “Our main focus is to drive improved decision-making — for either our merchant development team or for the merchants themselves. The first question is always: what do we expect to get in return for our analytic effort?”

Cervellin and his team have a wide variety of analytical techniques and tools at their disposal when pursuing that business value on behalf of clients. These range from the underpinnings of a Teradata data warehouse for structured information to a Hadoop data pool for more freeform data and business intelligence tools from MicroStrategy, and Tableau Software for analysis, reporting and data visualization.

Using those, the company creates bespoke dashboards for its large retail clients, Cervellin outlines, and display aspects such as changing sales by country, product category and season, the effectiveness of promotions and the use of keywords, comparative pricing against rival brands, and hundreds of other variables. Sentiment analysis, for example, enables teams to understand how eBay customers feel about the purchases they’ve made, thanks to the scores they award merchants and the product reviews they submit.
Analytics as a part of finance

Interestingly, while most other organizations would put the analytics function firmly within the IT group, the eBay team is considered so mission-critical to the business that it reports into company CFO Bob Swan.

Cervellin sees a number of benefits to this direct link to finance. The first is closer involvement with the business, which in turn helps to raise the profile of the analytics function.

david cervellin
Davide Cervellin, head of merchant analytics across the EU for eBay

“Finance used to be about treasury, tax and compliance, now it’s about business data and the analytics that can be used to boost agility, efficiency and proactive decision-making. So the CFO is a powerful guy, and whenever there’s a big investment decision to be made we’re in the loop. We’re the people who can give the CFO the data he needs to build a business case.”

The second benefit, Cervellin says, is the empowerment of his team. “If we need to escalate a request for new tools, for example, we can go straight to the top. And having this relationship also helps streamline the conversations we have about the data the business needs and why.” In other words, if a line manager knows their request may be discussed with the CFO, it’s likely they’ll have considered that request more carefully before making it.

The third benefit is to boost the ownership and accountability that the analytics team feels towards its clients, whether they’re internal users or enterprise merchants, which in turn makes them more inclined to really dig deep into business issues and work hard to meet expectations.
Mutual empowerment

With that in mind, how does Cervellin characterize his group’s relationship with the CIO and the IT team at eBay?

“Our group directly faces the internal consumer of analytics at eBay while IT generally doesn’t. So I see it as a business partnership, a mutually empowering type of relationship. We need IT to support us and to have our back. With the systems we use [for analysis], sometimes we need to cut corners or access technologies quickly — and IT are the people who will fix it so such decisions can deliver long-term value.”

First published June 2015
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