What you want, when you want

Operator is a chat interface for online shopping. In just two taps, you’re connected with an expert who can help you find exactly what you’re looking for.

Tap “Send a Request” then choose a category, and you’re instantly connected with an Operator

Talking to an Operator was easily the smoothest shopping experience I’ve ever had, in-person or online. I snapped a photo of a tapestry I bought at a street market, asked the Operator if she could find something similar within my price range, and, after a short wait, I was presented with several options.

All I had to do was provide my credit card info and shipping address, tap the “I’ll take it” button, and the tapestry was on its way to my friend’s apartment.

This blew my mind. I probably would have spent at least an hour searching for this on my own, on the computer, and instead I got the same task done just by texting someone on my way to class one day.

But Operator can do a lot more than get a tapestry shipped to you. Operator can help you plan a vacation. Operator can get you sold-out concert tickets. Operator can get your car repaired at the best price. Operator saves you the hassle of comparison shopping and has an expert handle it, for free.

Even more mind-blowing, last month, Operator announced a partnership with UberRUSH — making it possible get items delivered within an hour. The combination of Operator’s incredibly simple user experience with Uber’s logistics platform could be the next big thing in eCommerce, and it might even help brick and mortar retailers by recommending their items for purchase.

But Amazon Prime Now already delivers items within a couple hours, so what’s the big deal? It’s really the combination of the expert-curation with the logistics that Uber provides. Amazon is for buying toilet paper and extension cords. Operator is for buying stuff you’d want to research or get an expert opinion on. Operator is your “I have a guy for that” — a guy for literally anything (and he’s always available).

So what could the future look like for Operator? There are a few possibilities:

  1. Monetization

Right now businesses aren’t paying to use Operator, but they could be. Operator could take a cut of each purchase or allow retailers to advertise in-app.

But why charge businesses, not users? The reality is that brick and mortar stores are simply not getting that much business during the work week, but people shop online all the time, even during work. Retailers might be willing to spend a little to get more sales when they wouldn’t be otherwise making money.

Users are used to getting apps for free. A precedent has been set — we’re happy with companies taking our data, so long as we don’t have to pay. And Operator could do just that — data on buying habits could be very valuable, perhaps valuable enough for companies to pay for it.

Another way Operator could make money is by integrating with other platforms, the same way Uber has. Anyone that’s selling goods and wants people to buy them could benefit from having the Operator experience.

2. Smart notifications

Giving Operator access to your calendar could allow the app to send smart push notifications. Operator could parse event names and remind you to get your sister a birthday gift or suggest activities for your next vacation.

3. Recommendations

Once you’ve bought a few things in the app, Operator will get a sense of your taste. But it won’t be machine learning doing the recommending alone, it’ll still be real people.

There is one part of Operator that I really don’t get. Besides sending a request to an Operator, you can browse recent requests by other users.

Cool record player, but that’s not what I’m looking for…

As it currently exists, it’s basically a useless list of what other people have been buying… I don’t really see a reason to browse it when I could just ask an Operator for what I want. Though it does serve as an example for what you could ask for — this could be part of the onboarding process, rather than a mainstay in the app.

I think there’s potential for this part of the app to become analogous to Snapchat’s Discover feature — a part of the app that makes the app money but that users feel lukewarm about. Advertisers on Snapchat pay exorbitant amounts to show ads that most users just tap through, but maybe the sheer number of users makes it worth it if a few actually watch them.

Retailers could compete for sponsored real estate in the “New on Operator” section, driving purchases and hopefully providing users with relevant recommendations. If Operator doesn’t need to do this to make money, I think they could do without it.

Operator does of course have competition. Facebook’s M is probably the biggest threat to Operator, in part because of Facebook’s enormous userbase (800 million people use Messenger). Messenger is already part of daily life for many, and the buying experience could be more seamless within M, given that buying cues arise all the time. For example, you might be chatting with a friend about getting dinner or going to a concert — you could make a reservation and snag tickets within Messenger instead of switching apps.

Once M is rolled out to the rest of Facebook’s user base, I can see Operator falling by the wayside. Its biggest hope is getting the right balance between machine and human. If Operator gives better suggestions, it might have a leg up.

Whether it’s Operator or Facebook that leads the way, I think we’re coming upon a change in eCommerce that’s more than just a trend, it’s a revolution. So tell Operator what you want, what you really really want.