Tuangou in Translation
• Haggling for a better price: as old as commerce itself.
• Web sites that aggregate consumers so they can command volume discounts from sellers: a dot-com era trial balloon (mobshop.com, mercata.com, and others) that popped when most business models proved unsustainable.
• Tuangou: “group shopping” as the Chinese do it in growing numbers. Consumers with similar wants find each other on line, then meet up in person (sometimes by the hundreds), appoint a leader, and negotiate face-to-face on the spot with a seller.
• UForce, Inc.: Andrew Atkin’s new Edina company that seeks to “Americanize” tuangou by putting the whole process on line.
In the decade since the dot-com years, smart phones, mobile apps, and social media have all primed consumers for a shopping experience like UForce, Atkin says. He adds that UForce transcends the limitations of competitors like Chicago-based Groupon. Groupon tries to anticipate what members will want and selects a specific item to offer at a discount each day. By contrast, UForce (theuforce.com) invites members to define a shopping “mission”—an item they want to negotiate for—then allows other UForce members to join that mission. The site can aggregate similar missions and enables sellers to negotiate a blanket deal with all of those prospective buyers.
UForce launched in April and planned to relaunch with an improved site in June. Atkin says he’s recruited 120 sellers as of late May, in categories including automotive services (Tires Plus and Sears Auto, for example), home maintenance (Scott’s Lawn Care, ADT Security), education (Sylvan Learning Center), and fitness (Life Time Fitness, Snap Fitness, Curves). Sellers pay nothing to be on the site, but they share a varying percentage of each sale with UForce.
Buyers also pay nothing to be member-users of the site. Atkin claims several million members in late May, many by virtue of relationships that UForce has formed with universities, charitable groups, and labor unions, though Atkin says confidentiality agreements prevent him from naming these. His company gained some of those relationships by partnering with St. Paul–based Augeo Affinity Marketing. UForce shares revenue with affiliate groups whenever one of their members makes a purchase.
Tuangou’s rise in China is attributed to a general lack of price transparency there: It’s hard to do comparison shopping when a clear retail price isn’t stated up front. Similarly, Andrew Atkin says UForce is recruiting sellers in categories like insurance and professional training, where there’s “opaqueness” in pricing.