Remember that scene in Pretty Woman in which Richard Gere brings Julia Roberts to one of the best boutiques on Rodeo Drive and explains to the staff that she's going to buy a lot of stuff? Why did he have to go to such lengths just to be able to spend a fortune on overpriced clothing?
The best part of shopping on the Web is one-click shopping on Amazon. You get to the site, it knows who you are, it knows what you want, it knows what you bought last time, it knows your credit-card number, it knows your address, and it lets you buy whatever you want in about two seconds.
I don't know about you, but I can no longer shop in the real world. It annoys the hell out of me that the people at the hardware store around the corner(where I've been shopping for at least three years) treat me like a stranger every time I show up. They show no gratitude for the fact that I have forsaken the low prices at Home Depot just to give them a chance at survival. They don't know my name, and they don't even remember whether I live in a house or an apartment.
I also hate standing in line at the supermarket. I get impatient at having to try on shoes. I get really, really annoyed at the music that I hear in the local boutique. In general, shopping in the real world is almost an Andy Rooney-like experience for me now.
Ready for the future? I call it Magic Wand — cookies for the real world.
What would happen if you walked into the local Gap, and the staff knew everything about you that Amazon knows? Suddenly, those way-too-cute salespeople with the headsets would run over (realizing that you'd just been shopping at Target) and immediately take you to just the right section of the store. Of course, if you'd just been shopping at Neiman Marcus, they would be doing even more sucking up. Either way, they'd be spending time with you instead of with the inveterate browser.
Leave the Gap, and head over to the local supermarket. Take a cart. A little map on the cart's handle lights up with multicolored dots to show you where the stuff that you need is located. Even better, as you walk through the aisles, spotlights flash on the stuff that you usually buy and on the stuff that's on sale. Apparently, your fridge has been talking to the supermarket, which already knows that you just emptied the ketchup.
There are bags already set up in the cart, so you load your own groceries as you shop. When you're done, roll the cart straight out of the store. A small Bluetooth-enabled scanner has read the chips embedded in every single item you bought, so there's no need for a checkout line. And don't bother with a credit card: It's all embedded in your one-click settings.
Magic Wand Is Politically Correct!
Before you grab your copy of 1984 from the shelf, let me tell you the name that I first had for this service: Private Idaho. Permission is embedded into the whole thing. If you want to be anonymous, be anonymous. No store gets your data unless you volunteer it. You can configure your Magic Wand settings so that your data is totally private, totally public, or anywhere in between.
Here's how I'd build Magic Wand: It's a protocol, not a closed system. MW Inc. publishes the standard and then lets all the players get involved in whatever way they choose. Merchants (like the Gap) tap into an MW-enabled server, which gives them access to data — provided that the consumer has signed up with an MW-enabled portal (like Yahoo) that gives them rewards for being tracked. In the middle are MW-enabled data processors (like Experian) that charge the stores for the data and kick some of it back to the portals.
The mechanics of the system are governed by the same protocol. Users will carry a small key chain, or maybe a cell phone, equipped with a Bluetooth transmitter. Bluetooth is a transmission protocol to send bits of data across distances as great as 100 feet. Soon, we'll be able to build one of those key chains for about $2. The protocol is free, so anyone who wants to build and sell Magic Wand transmitters is welcome to do so.
What will your business do when Magic Wand gets here? Will a universally available database of customers in the real world finally force you to embrace the lifetime value of a customer? After all, valuable customers are going to demand something special if you want their business. This could either save my local hardware store or force me to switch to Home Depot.
Save an Hour a Day!
My second marketing tall tale is a bit different. Traffic squanders some of the most finite resources on Earth: time, clean air — even human life. Traffic congestion costs Americans more than $72 billion in wasted time and fuel a year.
Enter telematics and Gridlock. Telematics represents the convergence of wireless communications and global-positioning technology. Much of the telematics work to date has been automotive based, but Gridlock takes it to the next level: It solves the traffic problem — by providing user-specific guidance in real time. It does this by taking advantage of the fact that quite soon, every cell phone will "know" its own location. The FCC has mandated that phone companies use GPS or similar technologies to make cell phones location-aware in order to improve 911 services. If a cell phone knows where it is, and if it can tell other computers where it wants to go, then we have everything we need to crunch some very serious numbers.
Imagine a million users submitting continuously updated location information to a centralized database. If you're stuck in traffic, the system knows — because you haven't moved since the last time your device submitted its location. If that computer knows where you are and where you're going and where everybody else is and where they're going, it can route and reroute traffic. Think about that the next time you find yourself stuck outside the Callahan Tunnel for two hours on a Friday afternoon.
Do these two brilliant ideas exist today? No. Could they exist soon? Possibly. Will they exist sooner or later? Absolutely. The future is going to get here even quicker than you'd think, no matter what you hear from the stock market.
Seth Godin (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends, and Friends Into Customers(Simon & Schuster, 1999) and Unleashing the Ideavirus (Do You Zoom Inc., 2000). Get his latest book for free on the Web (www.ideavirus.com).
A version of this article appeared in the August 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.