Secret Shoppers Offer Personal Touch Online

FRAMINGHAM (04/24/2000) - Secret shoppers are commonly used by bricks-and-mortar retail businesses. People go into a store or restaurant to buy some items and make notes on such points as the store's appearance, the clerks' service, the merchandise displays or the bathrooms' cleanliness. Their opinions are bundled into a report that reveals how a potential customer would view the business, and it gives the management an idea of what works and what areas could use improvement.

Seattle-based BuyerTouch Inc. has adapted that idea for e-commerce stores, offering an assessment of a site from a visitor's perspective, including site usability, navigation and functionality. The idea is to find out what aspects of the shopping experience at a Web site attract and repel potential customers.

The secret-shopper touch is what differentiates the service from purely software-driven site-analysis tools, says BuyerTouch President and CEO Mike Bezona. While analysis software can tell you which pages were visited and for how long, his company offers customers insights into why people chose the actions they did. "We're not into the clickstream," he says. "We are the human aspect."

Delivering the Demographics

BuyerTouch is trying to solve a tough problem, says Steven Telleen, managing director of the Web Site Scorecard Service at high-tech consulting firm Giga Information Group Inc.

Telleen, in Santa Clara, California, says technical performance is fairly straightforward to measure, while customer acceptance isn't. What's going to make or break BuyerTouch, he says, is its ability to deliver testers who match the demographics sought by the Web site operators.

BuyerTouch has tens of thousands of shoppers, says Bezona. They all have to supply a demographic profile of themselves, he says, and they're screened through a third party that validates their profiles using existing databases of personal information. BuyerTouch gives them participation incentives in the form of cash or gift certificates.

The rest of the staff consists of analysts with backgrounds in market research who write summary reports on the shoppers' responses and make recommendations about site improvements.

At Seattle-based Shopnow.com Inc., Val Sanford, general manager at the online business portal's B2Bnow division, has been using BuyerTouch since January to give its customers independent feedback on the user interface experience.

B2Bnow will build a high-end custom Web site, test its usability with BuyerTouch and then use the information to fine-tune the site.

Having the opportunity to select testers from a particular demographic segment sold Sanford on the service. Different target markets of online shoppers have different Web site requirements, she explains, and BuyerTouch understands that.

"They're saying that there are different experiences for different goals," she says.

Choosing Targets

In addition to targeting site builders such as Shopnow.com as customers, BuyerTouch is looking to target large e-commerce sites, says Bezona. It also provides general reports that summarize aggregate data as a kind of best-practices curriculum for smaller organizations that can't afford an individualized test, he adds.

BuyerTouch's next move is to qualify its existing database of shoppers as corporate buyers and to find new shoppers who meet that profile, in order to build a service for business-to-business sites, according to Bezona.

The company is also working on a way to marry clickstream data with a shopper's reported experience. There's a strong desire to please among testers, explains Bezona, and the clickstream data will help pinpoint any discrepancies between the actions of shoppers and their reported experiences.

For now, says Telleen, this type of usability research and recommendation service is so new that it's a wide-open market. BuyerTouch has a grace period at the moment, he says, but it will soon face a shakeout. The company's survival will depend on whether it has correctly picked the kinds of testing services - brand preference, usability and competitive analysis - that site managers want, he says.

In addition, BuyerTouch faces the potential pitfall presented by the ever-changing nature of the Web. With sites changing frequently, it needs to compile reports speedily in order to provide value; if the analysis cycle stretches out, the interface and navigation presented to testers may be buried on last week's backup tapes.

Johnson is a Computerworld contributor in Seattle.

BuyerTouch Inc.

Location: 725 North State St. Seattle, Washington 98225Telephone: (360) 733-6400Web: www.buyertouch.comThe technology: Web site usability and functionality testingWhy it's worth watching: The "secret shopper" testing method elicits opinions and experiences of people with the site's target customer profile.

Company officers:- Mike Bezona, president, CEO and founder- Rusty Swayne, chief technology officer- Philip N. Richins, vice president of research and developmentMilestones:March 1999: Company foundedSept. 1999: First product introducedNumber of employees: 11; increasing at 50 percent per yearProfitability date: Anticipating profitability next yearBurn money: Private sourcesServices: BrandTrac, LoyaltyTrac, Benchmark and Competitive KnowledgeCustomer: Shopnow.com Inc.

Red flags for IT:- Will the demographics of BuyerTouch shoppers match the profile of your ideal customer?- Can BuyerTouch complete its research before a site changes enough to render a report obsolete?- Will it survive the inevitable shakeout in this emerging market?

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