News & Views
From Uber to eCommerce

Uber disrupted the transport industry, and now co-founder Garrett Camp is taking his experience in the on-demand economy and applying it to eCommerce. Much like Uber did with passengers and drivers, his new ‘request network’, Operator, aims to bring the physical and digital shopping realms together by connecting consumers with retail workers.

“Our goal is to help people find the right product within the right store and to do it interactively,” says Camp. “It’s like Siri, but with a person on the other end.” So if you have worn out your favourite pair of Converse or Nikes, you can take a picture of them and upload it to Operator, which will find you a participating store where somebody will be able to advise you on potential replacements. Customers can view prices and product photos, and even complete purchases through the app with a ‘Buy It Now’ button.

But is this personal shopper gimmick enough to set Operator apart from giants like Amazon, eBay, Walmart and Alibaba? Especially when the youngest generation of shoppers are already used to finding bargains on their phone? The obvious answer is ‘no’, but then nobody could have predicted the stratospheric success of Uber.

“To gain traction, Operator must get enough customers and merchants using its apps in a dizzying array of competitive product categories, from furniture to shoes,” says Bloomberg’s Brad Stone. “Because the company is also hiring its own operators to field some customer requests, it will have much higher expenses than a typical start-up in the low-margin retail business.” Currently in private beta, Operator has yet to name any of its retail partners.

Operator’s co-founder and CEO Robin Chan believes that service is what makes Operator unique. “You used to dial ‘0’ and there was a human being on the other end,” he said in a recent interview with TechCrunch. “Why isn’t there an app on your phone where there’s a group of people helping you?”

According to Chan, the world of eCommerce can easily be divided into two groups; those who enjoy an automated process with no human contact, and those who prefer a personalised level of service. It is this second half of the market that he and Camp will be targeting with Operator. With names like Uber, StumbleUpon, Zynga and Xiaomi on their resumes, Camp and Chan’s joint venture might just have legs.


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