How Relational Databases Can Push Business

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In creating a successful e-commerce Web site, relational databases that aggregate site traffic and behavior can play a crucial role in converting online browsing customers into repeat and buying customers.

A relational database focused on user behavior also is key to providing strong customer service that also boosts strong product sales and helps establish strong Web site consumer relationships. This is true whether you're building a brand new online enterprise from scratch or enhancing an established up-and-running brick-and-mortar retail operation with an Internet storefront.

Relational is the dominant technology for databases used to push data within a Web-site environment. By constructing a well-designed comprehensive database that tracks visitor behavior -- from the point they log in to each area they visit and action taken -- an online enterprise can push certain products and content focused to that individual shopper's needs and preferences.

With established offline vendors and manufacturers, it usually means tweaking and fine-tuning a current database used for catalog or mail-order operations. The data is then pumped in as a foundation, with online consumer activity layered on.

On the other end of the spectrum, for a new Web-based enterprise, the effort requires building a relational database that incorporates the tracking and recording mechanisms that push personalization features out to the visitor. In each scenario, however, there is a shared component for success: knowing and understanding the customer base and its wants and needs.

Bloomingdales, a well-known upscale retailer, knew that to make its Web store as vital as its real-life enterprise, it had to provide the offline shopping experience at its Web site: a cozy, personal experience where shoppers not only can purchase exceptional merchandise but undivided attention and ease of selection.

But how to do that on the Internet -- an impersonal environment -- and still not infringe on a shopper's privacy is a main challenge in developing a Web site. By integrating consumer site interaction, Bloomingdale's has made the crossover and has even taken advanced shopping features a few steps further. Online shoppers are given their own private dressing rooms that are stocked with products tied to the customer's personal fashion preferences. These preferences are culled straight from the relational database. That data results from onsite registration information detailing fashion and shopping preferences.

While Bloomingdale's had a substantial catalog presence up and running, it was not produced via a database application, which meant having to build the e-commerce database foundation from scratch.

In effect, Bloomingdale's relational database plays the role of a sales person and offers the same breadth of knowledge and experience. By tracking and logging consumer Web-site action, a database lets retailers push relevant and wanted product right in front of the buyer.

Relational databases also allow Web sites to track site behavior for pure marketing adjustments as well. Are shoppers popping in and out, with a quick look at what's new on the racks this week? The high and low traffic patterns, data provided by the database, helps indicate what merchandise should be relocated in the store to meet those shopping patterns.

The ability to personalize on consumer, and even real-life trends, can prove valuable for a vendor. Take the example that a certain vitamin has been in the news and getting a great deal of attention. By being able to pull that product from its database, a vitamin vendor or even online pharmacy can quickly get it to the forefront of Web store shelves, capturing that high activity attention.

By using the quantitative data collected on client behavior, site operations can see where and how long people browse for products before they buy, where site consumers originate, and what prompts shoppers to do go a certain area. All this information plays a part in marketing a Web site and maneuvering site components and features.

While relational databases aren't cheap, nor easy to do, the amount of development work directly relates to database development currently in use, and technology systems in place.

For a company with a catalog or mail-order database up and running, additional Web-site efforts include incorporating site registration information and customer feedback on shopping needs With a good catalog database to work from, 95 percent of the e-commerce database effort may already be in place.

For other enterprises, it may mean building everything from scratch, both on the technology side and on the database creation level. But no matter the development scenario, if implemented correctly the return on investment is immediate. Given that the current conversion factor on the Internet is less than 1 percent -- meaning less than 1 percent are actually buying product -- there's a substantial opportunity to increase sales and profits using the relational database tool.

If a business completely understands its client base and can track and document Web-site behavior, everyone benefits with the personalization benefits that databases provide. The Internet consumer is rewarded with good customer service, and vendors' sales increase through the ability to put products right into online shoppers' hands.

Cynthia Hollen is co-founder of Internet consulting firm Knowledge Strategies Inc., New York. Her e-mail address is

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