TECHNOLOGY: Getting personal online

May 01, 2000 9:30 PM  By

Customized sites keep users coming back

As competition grows increasingly fierce, more Web catalogers are using online resources to personalize their sites. One technique, the customized shopping list, is on its way to becoming a hot application. At online drugstore PlanetRx.com, for example, shoppers can use the site’s MyShoppingList to select items from a list of their previous purchases and then proceed to checkout.

Enabling consumers to personalize their shopping experience is not new, says Jill Frankle, director of retail e-commerce for Gomez Advisors of Lincoln, MA, a company that tracks and analyzes e-commerce. Information portal sites such as Yahoo!, Excite, and Lycos were among the first businesses to use the technology by adding features to their sites that allowed visitors to get more relevant information by supplying personal data. For example, users could provide a zip code to get a local weather report. The next logical step was to use personalization to facilitate shopping.

A user who invests the time and energy to customize a Website is less likely to switch to another vendor, Frankle says. And each time the user returns to that Website, “it’s going to be a better, more valuable experience for the customer, locking him in and increasing his loyalty.”

FogDog.com, a sporting goods e-tailer based in Redwood City, CA, began offering its MyFogDog customization feature last May. Since then, “we definitely see a higher level of conversion in terms of site activity,” says Adam Berenstein, FogDog’s retention marketing manager, though he won’t provide specifics.

Visitors who register for the MyFogDog service receive benefits such as the ability to access a breakdown of their past order history and discounts on sporting goods. In registering for MyFogDog, customers provide their name and address, as well as which sports they play and for whom they buy equipment.

FogDog can in turn provide the customer with his own MyFogDog Web page on which the company provides a more specific selection of merchandise and special sale items. The company also uses the MyFogDog information to specially tailor its opt-in e-mail newsletter so that MyFogDog customers receive news only about products in which they’ve expressed an interest. “We’re allowing them to organize their billing and shipping information so that they can go through checkout faster, in an express checkout environment,” Berenstein says.

This information is all collected behind the scenes using proprietary technology. The system uses highly structured relational databases that store customer data in real-time as transactions are made. The company keeps track of both previous transactions and a customer-provided wish list of items, all related in the database to an individual MyFogDog shopper.

South San Francisco, CA-based PlanetRx.com’s MyShoppingList program tracks previous purchases and speeds the shopping experience for repeat customers by reducing the number of clicks it takes a patron to get to final checkout. “It’s the convenience of being able to go to one place where you can, with the click of a button, load your shopping cart with any number of items so that you can get in and out of the store quickly,” says Dennis Joyce, PlanetRx’s director of marketing communications.

Joyce contrasts the PlanetRx MyShoppingList feature to the traditional brick-and-mortar drugstore visit. “Once you arrive at the store, you go up and down the aisles for the same products, and then you wait in line. With MyShoppingList, it’s more akin to having your products already in a shopping cart when you arrive at the store, so all you have to do is go through the express checkout.”

Not cost-prohibitive

Costs for creating a system like FogDog’s or PlanetRx’s depend on the size of your operation, says Damian Christianson, director of sales and projects for InterVantage, a Stream Wood, IL-based Website developer. Creating a sophisticated personalization system ranges in price from $2,000 to $2 million.

Websites that process more than 500 transactions a day probably need to enlist the help of professional programmers and consultants to create a program robust enough to handle the traffic. But for e-tailers that receive no more than 500 transactions a day or offer 40-50 SKUs on their sites, Christianson estimates the installation of a personalization function to cost around $5,000, and it could conceivably be done inhouse using active server page technology. All told, most online marketers can expect to spend $5,000-$10,000, he says.