Can an online and mobile shopping service make web-based purchasing tolerable? The answer to this question is the lynchpin of Scratch, a personalized e-commerce app. Announced back in July, when it secured $3.6 million in funding, its creators aim to connect consumers with expert shoppers who serve as digital middlepeople in the vast arena of online spending. Available on iOS as of October, with Android soon to follow, this free pocket shopper is relatively free of glitz, and all the more appealing because of it.
But should you shop for Scratch? It’s straightforward to operate. Its out-of-the-box start time is almost immediate, allowing you to answer a few questions — prompted by a ‘bot — concerning the item you’re after. Then one of Scratch’s shoppers contacts you for more details, and returns with a range of suggestions based on your specifications. Click through, enter payment details, and the item is yours.
At a time when the market for personal aides that can outsmart Siri is on the rise, Scratch one-ups the chatty A.I. by integrating real people into its service. The question of timing here is key. Announced the same month as Facebook’s purported Moneypenny service, it appeals to the same bustling demographic: people too stressed and too busy to consider shopping. While GoButler and Magic are two other options to tread this lucrative territory, its biggest competitor is likely the user-generated algorithm Amazon uses for its “Recommended items” and “Users who bought a katana also bought health insurance!” widgets. Scratch’s selling point is in serving up those suggestions through personal interaction rather than, say, scraping your browser history or rifling through your previous purchases.
So how does it fare? I gave Scratch a whirl by throwing a number of item requests into the search. It’s easy to use, with practically no distracting widgets cluttering up the interface. Its areas of expertise are however limited to home decor, gifts, and clothing — this isn’t the place for finding one-off esoteric trinkets or rare vintage memorabilia. The shoppers here won’t replace the guys at CNET whose tech savvy is a first-stop for consumers eager to learn more about electronics. This is your standardized gift location app. Touted as a mobile and web app, I was unable to use it on my phone — the downfall of having a UK-registered Apple ID in a U.S.-registered iPhone — as the app is only available in the States. I made do using Chrome on my Macbook. I soon learned that the mobile angle is misleading anyway.
I liaised with three separate shoppers on three different queries: a Christmas present for my nephew; a book for a flight; and a pair of jeans. Waiting for results is a quibble. This is not a real-time service that bounces results at you immediately. On the other end are actual humans, who have to really search the web. That takes time. My trio of shoppers sent me additional questions a few hours after I began the process, to firm up details. The shopper helping me with my nephew said that my results would be back next week; I mentioned that he’s out of the mainland United States, so the earlier the better. Along with my other two items, results for his gift came within a day, as promised. This lag somewhat counters the marketing angle of having a personal shopper that’s “mobile.” This isn’t an app to take to stores, IM’ing your experts to see if they can find you a better bargain on those thigh-high lizard skin hooker boots. In fact, it’s not really about price comparison because Google.
The quick response and adjustment to my speedy needs was nevertheless impressive. Queries are divided into individual toggles, presented as an IM stream, that includes all of your dialogue and the results.
Clicking on an item opens a slideshow. Each slide is dedicated to individual results, with comments from your shopper on how this item might adhere to your spec and the option to buy.
What’s most appealing about this process is how it sparks your own dormant shopping prowess. I might purchase that Boba Fett alarm clock for my nephew — but if I don’t, I’m less fazed by the thought of entertaining other gift ideas for him.
Now that Christmas is a mere eight weeks away — thanks, Facebook memers — Scratch will save some headaches. If the thought of shopping, both virtual and IRL, brings on immediate hair loss and palpitations, this app cuts out the hemming and hawing. It’s a service designed to shoulder the burden of choice, summed up by its tagline “shopping without the shopping.” How limited is that pool of choice? On that, the company remains curiously opaque. But if you’re not bothered why certain brands appear and others don’t, or the scope of expertise available, you can’t really go wrong. For me, I’ll be waiting for a similar concept to guide me in the long, arduous process of buying my next TV.