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Jewish World Review
July 24, 2008
/ 21 Tamuz 5768
Online Shopping Gets a Rich(er) Relevance
The direct marketing business has come quite a ways from the time when Asa
Montgomery Ward, a nineteenth-century railroad clerk, sent out a circular
advertising watches and other trinkets. But if you thought the Amazon.com Web site
is the ne plus ultra of personalized online commerce, you might want to reconsider.
There's more and better in the wings, one marketer says.
RichRelevance.com, a San Francisco-based firm headed by the man who refined Amazon's
product recommendation system, is moving to make your shopping experience even more
personal, while not compromising your privacy. The goal is admittedly commercial:
the firm wants to help online marketers sell more products. At the same time, they
hope to make your shopping experience a bit more life-like.
"The real power in shopping for a consumer is [in] 'turning my shopping experience
into something I enjoy,'" said David Selinger, founder and chief executive of the
firm. A Stanford University computer science graduate, Mr. Selinger led the team
that boosted Amazon.com's profits by over $50 million in 2003 through enhancing the
way recommendations are generated for online shoppers. He later went to
Overstock.com, and has continued to refine the process there and elsewhere. Now,
RichRelevance is serving companies that do at least $10 million a year in online
sales. Interestingly, the one client he's willing to name is Sears, namesake of the
early mail order catalog pioneers who followed Montgomery Ward in creating an
Making online shopping more enjoyable involves more than a little science. Anyone
can click on a Website's catalog listing and, presumably, find an item and buy it.
But, in real world stores and malls, few shoppers are merely linear beings who make
a beeline for an item. When we go to a Barnes & Noble outlet, for example, we'll
look at a Harry Potter volume, then check out a cookbook or the music section. Mr.
Selinger argues that, online, we should be steered towards doing the same thing.
A word about privacy is in order here: RichRelevance will help track what you look
at and where you are computing from (are you logging in from McLean or Marlow
Heights?), but the firm's software observes privacy laws: the tracking and analysis
is to guide you towards products, not to poke around your life. With such
parameters, I have no problem in accepting online recommendations, and neither would
"We bring to the table a scientific approach to 'how do we find products that would
be relevant to the customer?'," Mr. Selinger explained. The RichRelevance software
and proprietary algorithms are paired with the knowledge an online seller already
has. If, for example, Sears notes that customers looking at refrigerators online
will also likely buy baby stuff -- growing families may well need a new icebox,
after all -- then that inside knowledge is linked to the formula.
"That knowledge lives in the merchandising group," Mr. Selinger said of a client
such as Sears. In designing services for the online marketer, he believes he is
"bringing the art and the science together, the science being the algorithms in the
software and the art being the merchandising knowledge."
If all this suggests the sci-fi flick "Minority Report," with its quick-change
billboards keyed to the consumer walking by, think again: "We're not shooting for
that level of experience," Mr. Selinger said. "You can't really predict the next
Instead, he asserted, "we see this as a natural [online] extension to the way you
walk about a store. You're in the kitchen area and looking at a refrigerator, you
might look at a freezer next, or a different brand, or you might head over to the
With up-and-down-and-maybe-up-again gas prices, plus the hassle of going to stores
and malls during peak times, having a better online shopping experience seems like
an appealing prospect. Mr. Selinger said RichRelevance expects to announce other
large customers in the coming months. It strikes me as a service worth checking out,
if your business is of an appropriate size.
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JWR contributor Mark Kellner has reported on technology for industry newspapers and magazines since 1983, and has been the computer columnist for The Washington Times since 1991.Comment by clicking here.
© 2008, News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times. Visit the paper at http://www.washingtontimes.com