Let's make a deal: This Chicago startup wants to help you negotiate with shopping sites

Blue Sky Innovation

A Chicago startup wants to change the way consumers shop online by reintroducing an old-school shopping technique: haggling. But will retailers bite and allow customers to set their own prices for goods?

The idea for Treatail, a browser plug-in launching Wednesday for Chrome and Firefox, aims to counter a common threat to online retail: cart abandonment. By the time sales tax and shipping fees are tallied up, three out of four consumers ditch a purchase, the company said, citing a study by Statista.

“The problem is, the buyer wants to buy, the seller wants to sell, their fingertips are almost touching, but the conversation stops,” said founder and CEO Adam Selsby, who worked in e-commerce before launching Treatail. “We think Treatail can bring them together to (finish) that conversation.”

The feature is triggered by the shopping cart page on any retail site. Treatail’s dashboard then prompts the shopper to submit a proposed price and a limit for how long he or she is willing to wait for a response.

On the seller side, if the store is new to Treatail, the startup reaches out to the online store’s manager to explain the feature and invite them to register. Once in the system, retailers get access to an interface that lets them accept, counter or deny the proposals. Sellers are also able to view the buyer’s entire shopping cart and offer deals for other items instead of, or in addition to, the original request.

The only requirement for retailers is that they accept payments through PayPal. Treatail expects to generate revenue by taking an undisclosed cut of the total sale amount, including items that were not discounted. The plug-in will be free to consumers.

While Treatail’s business is buyer-driven, the company hopes to convince retailers of potential upsides, too.

“(Retailers) go to great lengths to connect with their customers on social media,” Selsby said. Treatail offers a more purchase-oriented interaction that likely prompts business they weren’t going to get otherwise, he said.

Another perk for retailers could be the ability to discount selectively without the diminished brand value that can come with offering a sale.

Yet to be determined: How many retailers will respond to the idea. So far, Treatail has been tested by a small cohort of friends and family, Selsby said. About one in five retailers engaged with the early users and about 60 percent of those stores accepted the deal.

Selsby would not say what stores responded, but characterized them as small businesses. So far, no larger retailers have responded to requests, he said.

“We’re going to go wherever our buyers go, and if they do want to go to the larger (stores), we certainly will,” Selsby said. “I’m not saying that we’ll only do small ones — it’s just that it’s a new way of engaging with customers and larger organizations are going to have to do a bit more to make the decisions.”

Selsby says there is no identical browser plug-in on the market, though some products offer related features. Ebay allows buyers to make price offers to a seller. Other plug-ins, like Honey, help consumers find discounts online through suggesting coupon codes and other promotions.

Treatail, based out of TechNexus in the Loop, has a team of four employees. Selsby said the company has raised an undisclosed amount of funding in the six-figure range from entrepreneurs and angel investors in Chicago. The startup plans to expand its platform to include iOS and Android phone apps by the end of this year.

maclevine@chicagotribune.com

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