Reverse Auctions - and why Priceline REALLY succeeded

Business Pundit has a post today about a new auction site named jittery

One thing BusinessPundit mentions is that the new site will have a

"Buy Offer" feature, which I believe gave him the idea in the first place. Basically, instead of buyers competing over an item and raising the price, buyers specify what they want to buy, which features are important, what prices they want to pay, and sellers compete to give them the best deal.

I am extremely skeptical that this would work.  As background, I ran the marketplace portion of Mercata, that similarly tried to bring a different, more buyer focused model to table and failed fairly spectacularly.  We found that you can be as innovative as you want, but you need a lot of traffic to your site, and building such traffic takes a lot of time or a lot of money or both.  You also need to provide a value proposition for both buyers AND sellers.

A LOT of people have tried some sort of reversal of the auction process, where buyers specify the goods they want and sellers bring them to the table, bidding against each other (ie lower and lower prices) to get the business. FreeMarkets made some hay with this in the B2B world, but from the beginning the auctions were never really the money maker, but were a Trojan horse for supply chain consulting, which helps to explain why they merged with Ariba. 

The only people to make this model work in the consumer area is Priceline.  However, what most people fail to realize about Priceline is that it fulfilled a real business need for SELLERS, even more than for buyers. 

Airlines have a classic fixed cost pricing problem.  They want to sell as many tickets at a high price as possible, but an incremental passenger costs them nothing, so if the plane is not full, getting even $50 for a passenger to fill an empty seat at the last minute is profitable to them.  The problem is somehow offering the $50 fare only to the passenger who would not fly otherwise, and not cannibalizing the customers who are willing to pay $300. 

The problem is, if they offer the $50 fare to anyone, they can't hide the fact very well.  The airline industry, as most know, have very transparent computer systems that let everyone know their prices on every route every minute of the day.  If an airline cuts prices on a route, everyone knows - so that competitors can match the cut immediately and customers can switch from the higher to lower fairs.  Airlines protect themselves somewhat with limited availability of certain fares and advanced purchase requirements - so that people, particularly business travelers, who need to maintain flexibility, have a reason to pay higher fares.

However, advanced purchase requirements were not providing enough protection.  What airlines really wanted was a way to cut fares for one person who might not have flown otherwise, and let no one else see them do it.   And Priceline was the answer.  Yes, airlines had to tell the Priceline computers what the lowest bid they would accept from a customer for a flight was, but this did not constitute an official price that went into the reservation systems.  So, the airlines could cut their price (via Priceline), but only the customer who got the price ever saw it.

In fact, the story is even better.  At the time Priceline came around, one airline had a particular problem they needed to solve.  When TWA got a loan from Carl Icahn, an almost unnoticed part of the deal was that a certain travel agency owned by Icahn, small at the time, would be guaranteed TWA tickets at a healthy discount off the lowest published fares.  This agency, with this boondoggle, grew to enormous size as Lowestfare.com.  TWA, beyond the reasons listed above, therefore had a second reason for not wanting to publish their lowest possible fare.  Normal limitations that most airlines could set on how many seats would be available at their lowest fare could not be enforced by TWA.  If they offered a new $100 fare, Lowestfare.com could blow out an unlimited number of tickets at $80 or less and TWA would have to accept it.  Therefore, by offering discounts unpublished via Priceline, TWA prevented the travel agency from getting inventory even cheaper.  And so, a huge portion of the early Priceline inventory was TWA.  (ironically, after the American Airlines acquisition of TWA killed the deal, the Lowestfare.com URL was bought by ... Priceline.

Anyway, I just don't see how reverse auctions can work in the consumer world, particularly if the customers are allowed to specify price and quality and features, etc.  The transaction costs for suppliers would be just too high wading through this stuff -- in fact, many companies in the B2B world, where transaction sizes are in the millions, have come to this same conclusion - for a variety of reasons, they are choosing not to participate in reverse auctions (here too).

Marketplaces must offer value to both buyer and seller.  If you don't offer honest value to sellers, then no products appear on the site and it will fail.

Basically, there are two gorilla's in the online marketplace arena - eBay and Amazon.  eBay had the head start in building a brand and community in the marketplace space, but Amazon has brought some really nifty technology to the table.

As a user of both, I welcome a new competitor, sortof.  I hope that there will be competitors who force eBay to adopt some overdue new features (e.g. auction sniping protection and better search features on past auctions) but I don't really want any to be successful enough to create a third or fourth or fifth major platform out there, because that just increases my search costs and time when I want to buy something.

UPDATE

I missed pointing out one bit of irony.  The Internet is generally attractive to consumers because it increases product information, and particularly increases knowlege about market pricing.  However, in this case, Priceline's attractiveness to airlines was that it decreased pricing transparency in the market.

UPDATE #2

Welcome Carnival of the Capitalists readers.  Have a look around, and check out our thoughts on replacements for Dan Rather.

  • http://www.priceding.com Pavi Agrawal

    PriceDing.com is having a better and different business model, which allows users to submit request for a travel ticket price quotes without giving there credit card numbers and the response they receive is from at least local small 20 travel agents.

    These small travel agents do usually have better deals than priceline.com like.

    Go http://www.PriceDing.com.

  • http://www.whyabe.com whyabe

    I agree that the powerhouses of Ebay and Amazon have developed stable platforms and have attracted lots of users. However, there are new ventures out there such as http://www.WhyAbe.com. This site allows buyers to create a request for proposal or a reverse auction and have the suppliers bid for the business. In order to attract suppliers to the site, http://www.WhyAbe.com has incorporated value-added services such as the ability for suppliers to receive free trade leads and to create their own stores for free.