New e-commerce model: Where everybody knows your name — and everything else about you

An app that sets up a profile of you for all the e-tailers you visit could be convenient, but it carries some troubling privacy implications

Privacy
Credit: IDG News Service

Some former Amazon managers are fine-tuning an app that, in effect, becomes shoppers' personal CRM profiles. Today, shoppers interact with specific retail sites and, maybe, develop a profile with that retailer. But every time that shopper visits a new e-tailer, it all has to start anew.

Part of the approach of this new app, called Mona, is to create a shopper app that gathers a ton of customized shopper information and then uses that data with a wide range of participating retailers to find matching items. If Mona stopped right there, it would be quite interesting and compelling. I use Amazon quite a bit and it can be very helpful that the app knows my delivery address and payment details and lots of product preferences. If I have very little time, I go to Amazon because it will be the fastest experience.

The idea of the Mona magic is to allow the shopper to not only enjoy a "fill-it-out-once, use many" approach to e-commerce, but to also be able to tell the app all about her interests, using quite a few categorization options (favorite size, favorite brands, favorite colors, etc.).

Mona co-founder, and former Amazon senior product manager, Orkun Atik, argues that the customization at many e-commerce sites today limits what they can show. "Since they don't know who you are, they have to show you the most popular items," he said.

But Mona goes far beyond asking shoppers about themselves, and that's where things get a tad dicey. The app defaults to asking shoppers to enter the full credentials for a primary email account, so that Mona can scan all emails, searching for hints about their shopper preferences, especially purchase receipts.

This gets worse. As the iOS-only app stands today, the scanning of email (or social media accounts) is the only way the app learns about the shopper, as the self-questionnaire isn't yet available. From the site's privacy policy: "By linking the Services to your email or other Internet accounts, you authorize us to gather, parse, and retain information, including personal information, from past and future emails and other communications you receive that relate to your online and offline shopping and purchasing — 'transaction information'). You may associate your email accounts with the Service by providing us with log-in credentials for your email accounts. Once you have authorized us to do so by associating your accounts, we will use our automated technology to regularly review the contents of emails in your email accounts to look for shopping related emails, including those with information about recent purchases or shopping newsletters."

There's nothing about how the app might be restricted in using any personal non-retail data the system finds in your Inbox and/or social media accounts.

Even worse is that the scanning of email or key social media accounts is not — at this time — optional. Indeed, I gave it the email access (for a Gmail account I hardly ever use) and then wanted to take it back. The app's preferences do not permit this. The only way to halt access is to go to the email provider and shut down access from there.

It didn't even permit me to tell it anything about myself that I wanted to share, although Atik said that "it is already in our plans and will be available in our future iterations."

I asked Atik about whether the app could limit what it sees to only retail-related messages, but it said that today it's an all-or-nothing scenario.

"As for limiting our access to information in the email, we would love for that to happen and have contacted Google since they are usually the industry movers. However, unfortunately it looks like it will be a while before that happens. All current email providers do access to all or none," Atik said. "We believe that email is a great source of information to provide a great personalized shopping experience. However, we also understand that some customers are not willing to share as much information and have considered alternatives. Logging in with Facebook seems like a good next option we can provide in near future."

If offering a non-privacy-invading option is the goal, not so sure asking the shopper to type in a Facebook password and to grant the full access it delivers is exactly the way to go.

"This is a customer trust issue," Atik said. "That would scare some people."

A favorable point about Mona, Atik argues, is that Mona is a learning system, meaning the more interactions a shopper has, the more accurate the recommendations become. That's an excellent goal, but my initial experience didn't cast an especially good light. It's recommendations — based on the few pieces of email it was able to access — were woefully off-base. On the one hand, it is true that it had access to an account with very few messages.

But isn't that the point? Namely that the software didn't know enough to conclude "Hmmmm. Three emails about the scheduling of a podcast rehearsal is probably not going to give us enough data to make meaningful clothing recommendations." That didn't stop the recommendations from pouring into the app, though.

One of the things that I have always admired about Amazon was its marketing and programming discipline. It strictly limits how many suggestions to make and it waits until it has enough data to be confident that its recommendations are helpful — or at least appear to be close.

On the plus side, it looks like the app has done well in getting access to enough products to make it useful. "We currently have access to the top 300 retailers and sellers that represent 90 percent of the U.S. e-retail sales," Atik said. "In our beta we will start with supporting the top 100 that represent 83 percent of U.S. e-retail sales."

If this app could be customized to only accept the information a shopper chooses to share and to then use it to accelerate and make more useful interactions with hundreds of major e-commerce sites, this could be a powerful offering. But as long as it insists on full control of all email messages, it's hard to see this going very far.

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