March 28, 2013, 3:40 PM

The challenger

(Page 3 of 3)

The numbers bear that out. Buy.com, which since the end of January redirects visitors to Rakuten.com, attracted 2.2 million unique visitors in January, according to Kantar Media Compete. Amazon had 119.2 million and eBay 83.8 million.

Geeks.com sells on all three marketplaces, and marketplace sales account for about one in every four sales—the rest occur on Geeks.com. Tracking with traffic, Rakuten.com Shopping generates the least amount of sales for Geeks.com, about 5% of marketplace sales, versus 60% from Amazon and 35% from eBay. But comparing January traffic versus Geeks.com's marketplace mix shows that Geeks.com gets more sales per visitor on Rakuten.com Shopping than it does from visitors to eBay or Amazon. Although that is just one merchant's experience, it provides some evidence that Rakuten's approach is resonating with some consumers.

Zinsmeister likes the direction Rakuten is going in providing sellers more flexibility in merchandising and communication, but says there are rough edges to selling on the marketplace that need to be smoothed if it wants to draw lots of sellers. Right now he says listing products on the Rakuten.com Shopping marketplace requires more work because the marketplace doesn't already have in its catalog nearly as many items as Amazon does. On Amazon, and on Rakuten.com Shopping, if a SKU matches an existing listing a merchant can list that product for sale with a click. When a product's not on Rakuten.com Shopping, Geeks.com has to upload photos and wait for them to get approved, which can take up to two weeks, he says. Because of that, Zinsmeister says Geeks.com lists about 600 SKUs on Rakuten.com Shopping versus about 2,000 on Amazon.

Ultimately, it will be the consumer who will determine Rakuten's fate. Rakuten's approach to marketplace shopping may seem unfamiliar to U.S. consumers today, but Mikitani contends they will eventually find it appealing. "The physical shopping experience is more standardized in the U.S.," Mikitani says. "The U.S. market is more like function, function, function. However I still feel the forum of shopping is not just about price [and function,]" he says. "There should be more communication, more talking between who is making it, who is selling it and shoppers."

Do web shoppers around the world want that kind of communication? The answer to that question may determine Rakuten's prospects for becoming a genuine challenger to Amazon and eBay.

allison@verticalwebmedia.com

@AEnrightIR

Rakuten's chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani will deliver a keynote address June 5 at Internet Retailer's 2013 Conference & Exhibition in Chicago.

Rakuten international expansion and investment timeline:

  • 2005 Rakuten Inc. acquires U.S. affiliate marketing firm LinkShare Corp.
  • 2008 Opens Taiwan Rakuten Ichiba
  • 2009 Acquires Tarad.com, a marketplace operator in Thailand
  • 2010 Launches "Englishnization" initiative, making all company communication in English; opens a research and development facility in New York; buys U.S. e-commerce firm Buy.com; buys French e-commerce firm PriceMinister
  • 2011 Opens a development center in San Francisco; opens a marketplace in Indonesia; buys German marketplace Tradoria; buys U.K. e-retailer and marketplace Play.com; buys a minority stake in Russian e-retailer Ozon.ru
  • 2012 Acquires Canada-based e-reader and e-book business Kobo Inc.; launches Rakuten.com Shopping Brazil; buys Wuaki.TV, a video streaming service based in Spain; buys Alpha Direct Services, an e-commerce fulfillment business in France; invests in social network Pinterest, U.S. marketplace operator Daily Grommet and U.S. e-retailer AhaLife 2013 Rebrands Buy.com (U.S.) and Play.com (U.K) as Rakuten Shopping
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