E-tailers reach for human touch on screen

Welcome to the new e-commerce. It's smarter, more sophisticated and it wants to know you better. But it might not be as friendly as you like.

The longtime customer fills her shopping cart, including some products advertised only moments before. The store somehow knew she would want these items, especially the toothpaste with the 10-percent-off coupon. She heads for checkout, hoping for a speedy exit in the holiday rush. But the store isn't as loyal as she is, letting brand-new customers with far lighter baskets jump ahead, hoping to lure them back with early displays of fast service.

Welcome to the new e-commerce. It's smarter, more sophisticated and it wants to know you better. But it might not be as friendly as you like.

Powered by new e-commerce engines equipped with "personalization" technology, online stores are trying to mimic the human touch proffered by salespeople in brick-and-mortar stores. The online approach still looks clunky, but e-tailers believe they are getting closer to achieving the same relationships that help make offline retailing so successful.

"[With] all this information that the customer is leaving behind, why not capture it and focus on it?" says Jeff Roster, an analyst at GartnerGroup.

Retailers say information gives them the power to sell directly to an individual's personal preferences. "Every experience is recorded, so you have a better shot at saying the right thing" on the customer's next visit, says Mitchell Toomey, vice president of Fashion500.com, which is adding the new version of BroadVision's e-commerce engine.

The new generations of e-retail software are far more nimble, letting e-tailers track rapid changes in markets and reverse course to match customer whims. "It's a very flexible system for our Web designers," Toomey says of BroadVision's new technology. Changes that would once have required six months of rewriting code from scratch now may take only 10 days.

Integrated selling

New e-commerce software is also helping click-and-mortar retailers integrate their online and offline operations - an important point, when retailers need to know how their customers are using the Internet, says Cliff Apsey, a vice president at BroadVision. "Instead of a site on one side and a storefront on the other, you need integration so you collect all of your customers in one basket."

BroadVision's software analyzes what online customers are buying and recommends related products in a practice known as "cross-selling," or "up-selling" higher-priced products.

Across large groups, the software analyzes shopping and buying patterns, then recommends ways the retailer can capitalize upon them. It may suggest offering a coupon to shoppers in a certain region.

Software from the Art Technology Group lets e-tailers program responses for "scenarios." For example, a repeat customer might come shopping for shirts, triggering the display of a banner ad for short-sleeve shirts the e-tailer wants to unload at 25 percent off. The customer may ignore the ad, choosing to stick with his plan of finding long-sleeve dress shirts. At that point, the scenario programming may call for withholding the banner ad, but e-mailing a promotion separately.

"We're giving business managers control," says Rich Caplow, ATG's director of product marketing. And hopefully giving online shoppers the kind of useful information - from promotions to targeted product information - the Web promises to deliver.