Minding the E-Store

Web merchants are flooded with so much information on consumer traffic that they can’t make sense of it all. A new software system might help.


When you enter a department store, there’s a good chance that your every move is being watched and assessed. You might think that the same thing is happening in online stores, but the fact is that Web merchants often have only the sketchiest idea of what you’re actually doing, even though their servers are indeed dutifully recording every page you visit. It’s just too hard for site owners to take all that raw data and condense it into something they can use. A new product from a company called TeaLeaf might help address this problem.

Retail consultant Paco Underhill pioneered the “science of shopping” as a research tool for bricks-and-mortar retailers. Hiding behind display racks or potted plants, or using hidden videocameras, Underhill’s retail anthropologists would track shoppers through a store and keep logs of how long people browsed and who bought what. Then Underhill would advise the store on how to position its wares more enticingly. He discovered the now-infamous “butt-brush effect” by studying videotapes of Bloomingdale’s shoppers. When shoppers’ backsides were brushed by other customers passing by, they dropped whatever they were looking at and headed somewhere else. It was as if they subconsciously felt rushed. Relocating the displays so that butts didn’t get brushed translated immediately into higher sales.

During the past 20 years, Underhill’s consulting firm, Envirosell, has made a lot of money, for one simple reason: Many retail environments were broken, and his research helped fix them. Many Internet stores are similarly in need of repair, but website owners are often blind to the problem. There’s no butt-brushing online (we’re thankful), but a host of other glitches chase customers off left and right. Inscrutable error messages appear, shopping carts suddenly empty themselves, links don’t work — and baffled customers get frustrated by it all and simply log off empty-handed.

Meanwhile, merchants may have no idea what went wrong. Web applications are so complex that it’s hard to keep track of everything. A single purchase can involve not only the e-tailer’s Web servers but also its central database servers (which may be housed in a different location), a transaction processing system on the corporate mainframe, and servers operated by various outside business partners (a credit card authorization company, a shipping service, suppliers, and so on). (For a glimpse of the many layers involved, check out Business 2.0’s “E-Business Parts List.”)

Customers don’t really care about this underlying complexity, though, and ideally they shouldn’t even be aware of it. Corey Ferengul, a vice president at market research firm Meta Group, asks, “Do I as a customer care if it goes outside your boundaries, if you have an outside credit card processor?” In a word, no. “If your application isn’t up and running at a performance level that the end user actually wants,” Ferengul says, “then it’s failed.”

TeaLeaf’s product, IntegriTea, attempts to resolve this impasse. The software acts as a kind of videocamera for websites, capturing not only what each customer does but also all the content each customer sees (including dynamically generated pages, which are tailor-made for each individual site visitor, on the fly). It does this by monitoring the stream of Web data that passes between the server and the customer’s browser, recording everything as it goes by — even data from third-party services like credit card processors or shipping companies.

It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one. When a problem occurs, IntegriTea alerts your IT staff, which can then use the recorded information to re-create the problem, diagnose it, and prevent it from happening again. Help-center personnel can also use TeaLeaf’s software to handle customer support calls — that way, if the website fails to respond or starts generating bizarre error messages in the middle of a transaction, the customer can call a toll-free number and get help from someone who can see exactly what just happened, page by page.

IntegriTea, which costs $10,000 per server CPU plus $5,000 for each IT employee or help-desk representative using it, is currently being used by Colgate, Palmolive, Tower Records, and a handful of smaller companies. It’s too early to tell whether TeaLeaf’s technology actually pays for itself in reduced service costs or increased sales, but it’s a good bet that, like videocameras in retail stores, IntegriTea can only help e-merchants create a better online shopping experience.

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Minding the E-Store