Online Shopping Adapts To New Times

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Online retail has come a long way in the past decade. Web sites offer virtual try-on rooms, and soon sites will be able to morph to adapt to an individual user. What's more: There are sites that will find the lowest price for a particular item — even a rebate.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Well, despite the recession, it is the holiday shopping season. And if last Friday was Black Friday, online retailers want you to know that today is Cyber Monday. Their hope at least is that you'll return to the office after a weekend of consumerism and continue it online while you're supposed to be working. NPR's Wendy Kaufman has this story about how technology is changing online shopping.

WENDY KAUFMAN: Online shopping with Sue Perry is an eye-opener. The deputy editor of ShopSmart, a Consumer's Union publication, can direct you to sites that offer product reviews for shipping deals, bargain prices, coupons, even rebates after you buy something. But her very site, one she recently used to buy a food processor, is pricegrabber.com.

Ms. SUE PERRY (Deputy Editor, ShopSmart Magazine): I typed in just the brand that I was thinking of and what it did, and it located the absolute best deal on that food processor for me. And so, I had already seen it in a local store, and I knew how much it cost. And on PriceGrabber, it was $100 less, and that included the shipping and the tax.

KAUFMAN: Another trick is to search for promotional or coupon codes. Perry uses retailmenot to find discount codes that can be used at the online checkout. To keep her shipping cost down, she consults freeshipping.com.

Lower prices and convenience drive shoppers to the web, but the online experience matters, too. Today, you can watch runway fashion shows drag and drop items on a mannequin. You can sample sunglasses to see how rosy things look with different tints, even examine the insoles of a shoe.

But beyond that, there's interest in something called website morphing. The idea, explains Tamara Mendelson, a former analyst at Forrester Research, is to serve up a website in real time that matches a shopper's cognitive style.

Ms. TAMARA MENDELSON (Former Analyst, Forrester Research): A particular person's way of gathering and processing and evaluating and understanding information. So, one person might be much more analytical and another person might be much more visual. So depending on...

KAUFMAN: Mendelson, an MBA candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management, says so-called click stream data can be used to figure out what a shopper's preference is.

Ms. MENDELSON: So, if I have the choice to watch an interactive video or see detailed specs depending on what I click on, the algorithm begins to learn about me and the types of things that I would choose to look out on the site. So, an example might be if you're...

KAUFMAN: Kelly O'Neill is director of marketing at ATG Commerce, a leading provider of e-commerce products and services.

Ms. KELLY O'NEILL (Director of Marketing, ATG Commerce): If you're on a home electronic site, and you start by looking at our plasma screen TV again, and you start by looking at things like pixels and technical information about the TV, and then you shift over, and you start looking at a different product, well, you know you've got a technical buyer there. So rather than serving up, here's how this TV is going to look in your living room, you're going to serve out, you know, the technical information about the next product first.

KAUFMAN: The technology to do this isn't quite ready yet, but O'Neill says you can design templates and automated systems to deliver somewhat tailored websites.

Ms. O'NEILL: Let's say I've got a pharmacy-type site, and I know that the person on the site is a senior. You know, I might serve up a template with a larger font size, and that's optimized for them.

KAUFMAN: Online retailers will need all the tricks they can muster. The market research from Comsco(ph) reported today that so far, online holiday sales are down four percent from last year, and no one knows whether that will pick up by the end of the year. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News.

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