Bookseller focuses on e-mail to move product

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Amazon.com gives customer control over sales messages

Each week, online bookseller Amazon.com sends thousands of e-mail messages, advertising the latest books for sale. So far, its customers haven't read it the riot act.

The key to success is keeping the e-mail process firmly in the hands of the customer, said Jeffrey Bezos, CEO of the Seattle-based company that dubs itself the "Earth's Biggest Bookstore," boasting one million titles in its Internet-based online catalog.

GIVING CUSTOMERS CONTROL

Launched last July, the service has grown from a 400-square-foot facility into a 20,000-square-foot administrative and fulfillment center with 40 employees.

The free service sends thousands of e-mails to "tens of thousands" of subscribers each week, said Mr. Bezos, a former investment banker.

Customers "have to actively sign up for it," he said. And if a customer tires of the messages, he or she must be able to cancel or alter search requests in a matter of seconds.

But beyond being unobtrusive, Internet merchants must provide an e-mail service that consumers want to use.

EYES AND EDITORS

In the case of Amazon.com, that involves two notification programs alerting customers to new books of interest to them. One automated service, called "Eyes," informs customers weekly of newly published books in hardback or paperback, selectable by author or subject.

The other e-mail program, "Editors," provides customers with reviews and recommendations every few weeks about new books in 23 subject categories.

Despite the sophisticated technology used for its automated system, Amazon.com has yet to track the response rate to the e-mail messages.

"We simply have too many other parties [to attend to] right now," said Mr. Bezos, who plans to begin analyzing response rates within the next six months.

STEEP DEVELOPMENT COSTS

Personal notification programs such as Eyes and Editors don't come cheaply, however. Mr. Bezos estimated that the custom automated database program required to run Eyes cost several hundred thousand dollars to develop.

Amazon.com's next step is to refine the service by expanding the number of categories available on Editors to 47.

The company also last week tapped CKS Partners, Portland, Ore., to redesign its Web site and handle traditional advertising.

Copyright June 1996 Crain Communications Inc.

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