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No. 2647:
The Give and Take of Internet Shopping

Today, getting to know you. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

If you have a computer, chances are you've bought something online. Buying online has a lot of advantages, including greater variety and a chance to compare prices. Online retailers want you to come to their Web site and buy. But many shoppers come, look, and leave. So in an effort to make more sales, online retailers are looking beyond price and variety and Web site design. They're now looking at you

Wharton Interactive Media Initiative poster

I was recently drawn to a Web site hosted by the Wharton Business School. The school is home to the top rated marketing department in the country. It's also home to the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative. "Interactive media," says the Web site, "are methods of content distribution and information acquisition that allow for the precise tracking of individual users and their specific actions over time."

Let's think about what that means. The World Wide Web is the quintessential example of an interactive medium. Web retail sites aren't a one-way proposition. When we shop, we look at what a site has to offer. But the site looks at us, too. It can examine what we do and tailor its responses now and in the future. Web sites coordinate the flow of information using small files left on our computers called cookies.

More and more, our every mouse click is recorded. What did we look at? What did we buy? This information is stored in a huge database, waiting to be analyzed for clues about our buying habits. If a Web retailer can turn just a fraction of window shoppers into buyers, the extra revenue adds up quickly.

Wharton's certainly not the only place peering at shoppers. Throughout the world, hundreds of businesses and academic institutions are busily crunching away on click stream data. Does Dorothy prefer a particular style of clothes? Would Jason be interested in the new Head Bangers CD? The more effective the recommendation, the more likely a sale will result.

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customers also bought this item

And we're left to ask, is this ever-increasing analysis of our lives good or bad? It's wonderful to get great book or movie recommendation from a Web site. But some people find the idea of being constantly analyzed by a computer disturbing. And there's certainly room for abuse. But legitimate Web retailers would argue they have only two things in mind: maintaining your trust as a customer, and presenting you with something you really want to buy. And that's why they're spending so much time and effort getting to "know" you.

[Audio: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Getting to Know You]

I'm Andy Boyd at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Notes and references:

Wharton Interactive Media Initiative Vision Statement. From the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative Web site:  

The logo of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative is taken from the Initiative's Web site. The remaining pictures are captured from the Web site of