Magazine Article | November 1, 2001

Eyeing The Competition

Source: Innovative Retail Technologies

Tap into the vast amount of online customer information before your competitors use it to get ahead of you.

Integrated Solutions For Retailers, November 2001

Imagine that an undercover retail spy sets up camp outside of your store. The secret agent sits patiently and watches each of your customers enter the store, browse the shelves, make purchases, and leave. The whole time he gathers counterintelligence - demographic and behavioral information - without your knowledge. He even goes so far as to peer inside your customers' bags to see what they've purchased. Then, he hands off his keen observations of your retail store's traffic to your competitor.

This kind of espionage may sound like the plot of a best-selling thriller, but it's no fictional tale. Companies like Compete, Inc. (Boston), an advisory services firm for online businesses, are working with Internet providers to access detailed information about online consumer buying, so watch out. You have heard of using Web logs and CRM (customer relationship management) software to track your own Web site traffic, but there's nothing stopping your competitors from tracking your traffic too.

Follow Where The Clicks Lead
As much as you would like to think your site is the only one your customers log on to see, you are mistaken. Forrester Research estimates that 82% of e-commerce companies rely on hits and page views to manage the success of their Web sites, but only 2% of Web visitors actually make an online purchase. A customer's entire Web experience, including where they went before and after your site, can provide valuable information on how to direct more shoppers to your online address.

This is where companies like Compete, Inc. can help. Compete is an analysis firm that provides retailers with more than business advice. It turns random clicks into quantitative information about what users are actually doing online. This particular Web analysis company caught my attention because it has created data partnerships with major Internet providers, but it will partner only with those that have privacy policies to anonymously track and resell users' clickstream data. Clickstream data records the URL (uniform resource locator) paths of each user throughout an entire online session. "We have access to the data of over 9 million people right now and collect about 40 million individual clicks a night," said Reed Cundiff, founder and VP of business development at Compete. "This sample size is roughly 10% of the U.S. Internet population, which allows for a very detailed level of what is happening on our clients' sites, as well as on our clients' competitors' sites."

The company analyzes the top 200,000 Web sites page-by-page, click-by-click and then helps retailers determine online purchasing patterns. What advertisement got the most sales? At what point in the buying process did customers abandon their shopping carts? Where did they go after your your competition?

A Melting Pot Of Customer Data
There is a definite need for retailers to learn how to read online data. The good news is that it's public information; the bad news is that there's a ton of it. Those Internet users who opt to allow their providers to anonymously resell their demographic information are allowing yo u to track their Web surfing. This is something your brick-and-mortar store cannot provide no matter how many loyalty programs or surveillance cameras you install. There are countless ways to access and analyze online data.

Compete has been compared to audience measurement services such as Media Metrix or NetRatings. There are also Web log file analysis tools like WebTrends and HitBOX, or straight strategy consulting firms that can offer some order to the chaos. Some of these require in-house employees to sort the information, while using third parties to translate the data into business advice. Cundiff said his company is not a replacement for in-house log file analysis software, but that it can give a more complete view. "You can't really know what's happening on other sites, until you have a handle on your own site," Cundiff said. Clues to understanding your customers are out there. You just need to know how to look.

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