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November 28, 2007 4:27 PM

Amazon vet launches shopping valet service

Posted by Brier Dudley

I used to write about Microsoft employees who got so excited about the tools they were developing that they quit to build companies around them.

That's what happened with Mikhail Seregine at Amazon.com, where he helped develop Web services the company provides to software developers and startups.

One project he worked on from inception to launch was Mechanical Turk, a service that helps companies hire people willing to do various jobs that can be done online.

Seregine left to start ClayValet, a company that claims to simplify online shopping by "having someone else shop for them." The 2002 Stanford computer science graduate started building the service in January, received funding from undisclosed angel investors and launched on Friday, just in time for the holiday shopping frenzy.

ClayValet asks visitors to describe what they are looking for, then its "shoppers" analyze customer reviews, prices and other information then send them a report within 24 hours.

The site provides up to five free reports per week and its performance charts say 90 percent of the queries are answered in less than 13 hours.

I asked a little while ago for ClayValet to find me a Nintendo Wii for under $300 and haven't heard back yet. I'll post an update when I get a response.

ClayValet has four employees at its offices on Capitol Hill. They're supplemented with services provided by Mechanical Turk, and the company also uses Amazon's hosted storage and processing services.

Seregine also followed Amazon's quirky naming practice. When I asked spokeswoman Darcy Camden about the name she said it's "a name that encourages questions. It is also a literary reference to the Golem, a servant sculpted from clay who follows written instructions."

I guess that makes about as much sense as Mechanical Turk.

UPDATE: It was fast, for me at least. The report came back in just about an hour. Unsurprisingly, it couldn't find a reasonably priced Wii. It recommended that I buy the system from PriceGrabber.com for $364.89, including shipping, and provided some Cnet reviews and a summary of customer opinions.

It's kind of fun and might be useful for complicated product searches that don't work well with automated comparison shopping services.

I wonder how broadly ClayValet will go beyond Amazon, which seems to appear frequently in its results. If it mostly points people to Amazon, they may opt to just search the site themselves. I also wonder if it will ever direct users to sites that don't have a lower price yet don't offer referral commissions.

But I'm curious to watch the experiment and see whether consumers are willing to wait a bit longer for really detailed, human-processed results to their queries.

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