Personal Shoppers

At Amazon.com, they're trying to figure out better ways to recognize who you are so they don't try to sell you a book on asphalt shingles on every visit just because you fixed your roof during El Nino.

At Amazon.com, they're trying to figure out better ways to recognize who you are so they don't try to sell you a book on asphalt shingles on every visit just because you fixed your roof during El Nino.

Personalizing the Web remains a daunting task. When it comes to meaningful interactions, the Web is nothing if not a cauldron of witless and impersonal exchanges. It's now possible to have the pleasure of spending thousands of dollars on the Web with the retailer still having no idea who you are.

For the most part, the Web site you just left is not only impersonal, it is blind and suffers from Alzheimer's as well. Even if you come back a few seconds later, it can't remember who you are or what you look like. If it put a cookie in your browser, a Web application can recognize that you've been to the site before, but it doesn't know anything about you.

If it happens to be connected to a data mining system, it can order the system to look you up. But chances are good you will be several thousand miles away on another site before a lumbering data mining system responds with any intelligence.

Even if a system summaries your purchase history and service and support record, it doesn't know what you are interested in today. Last time, you wanted hubcaps for a 1999 Corvette. This time, you need a carburetor for a 1951 Ford pickup. To understand your current interest, Web retailers are going for quick analysis of your click stream or navigation around their sites as an indicator of interest.

At best, click stream analysis reveals patterns of interest and behavior that can be matched to those of a like-minded group. It's personalization without individualization - an ability to recognize who you are and what your mood is, the way the barber or the hairdresser does effortlessly.

And yet, one can sense that we are on the verge of linking together the systems needed for generating an accurate profile of each Web site consumer. And a new wave of personalization will usher in a new economy. Someone's going to get it right and start interacting with us as individuals over the Web, capturing valuable personal data with each transaction. Having sold us a Sarah McLachlan CD, that retailer will then find the right presentation to sell you a sweater, a vacation or a car.

Instead of Web retailers' mimicking stores and offering narrow product lines, they will evolve to individualized cross-selling, with many needs met on one site that's got your number. It will be like having Sam Walton, a little "e" winking on and off in each eye, greeting us personally at the door of an endless online Wal-Mart. Once you are in shopping mode, you will be able to go on a binge, buying dozens of seemingly unrelated products pitched to you based on deep background knowledge of who you are and what you want.

Suburban malls will go back to cornfields, and department stores will rent out as elegant meeting halls for nonprofit community groups. In another 10 years, a handful of electronic malls will serve as the gateway to endless merchandizing with the individual in mind. Behind impressive electronic facades will stretch links to thousands of additional storefront vendors, each formerly languishing in geographic isolation until the Web came along to display a set of specialized wares.

It will be tough to figure out what to do with all those parking lots.

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