The Netty Professor
Is Bruce Weinberg's obsession with on-line shopping a warning that E-commerce will consume us all?
It's just after 8 p.m. on a Tuesday evening, and Bruce D. Weinberg has stationed himself inside the nerve center of his suburban Boston home. Seated among stacks of new-economy publications and a Macintosh computer carcass -- his two-year-old son, Sam, uses the central processing unit as a step stool so he can see his dad's computer screen -- Weinberg stares into his monitor with enough intensity to rival the two bare lightbulbs burning overhead. At this particular moment, as at most moments, he's deftly clicking around the virtual aisles of yet another E-retail outpost. Finding what he wants at 20% less than what he expected to spend, he says, "Wow, are they going after market share." Suspicious, he freezes the window for safekeeping but keeps searching just to make sure there's no better deal anywhere else. Fortunately, he's got a cable connection with a maw wide enough to match his hunger for hunting. And parked atop his desk, at roughly the dimensions of a Yugo, is a printer that spits out 17 pages a minute. "Time is at a premium for me," says Weinberg, petting the machine.
Sure it is. Weinberg's busy. An associate professor of marketing and E-commerce at Bentley College, just outside Boston, he's also got three small children. But more significantly, he's always got shopping to do. It's not that Weinberg, 41, is the ultimate conspicuous consumer, although he does have his buying sprees. He's self-conscious enough to issue a warning before unlocking a bunker in his basement. "I'll show you the collection, and you can tell me if I'm off the deep end," he suggests, indicating that he already knows the answer. The door swings open to reveal "400, at least" Batman action figures. "Bruce delves into things very enthusiastically," says his wife, Amy Ebersole.
But what separates Weinberg from the mall-medicated masses isn't how much stuff he buys or how hard he strives to spend as little as possible on it. His buying consumes him because he insists on shopping solely by computer. That means everything: an instantly gratifying gallon of milk, a set of tires, a pair of cuffed khakis, a package of calculator batteries. He's purchased ruby earrings, foot-cushion inserts, film, Creole seasoning, a "good-quality" spatula, a Tom Peters book, and a toy replica of George Harrison, the quiet Beatle. In short, he's bought (and, in the case of the khakis that were too long, returned) everything on-line that he would normally buy in what he now calls the "dirt" world. And he's done so since mid-September 1999, when he set out to try it for three months, later extending the project's duration to a year. Not that he's been out to perform a survivalist stunt. "If I'm in a mean mood, I'll just mention DotComGuy to him. 'That's not research,' he'll say, 'that's a sham,' " says Jonathan Hibbard, Weinberg's "manager" on the project and an assistant professor of marketing at Boston University's Graduate School of Management, where the project originated. DotComGuy is the bogeyman of Internet obsessives, a Dallas-based fellow who, on January 1, reduced his life to a yearlong Webcast. Weinberg, on the other hand, considers himself a scientist on a mission.
Bruce Weinberg buys everything on-line: milk, ruby earrings, footpads -- even a toy replica of George Harrison.
That mission first took shape a couple of years ago, when Weinberg, having spent eight years as assistant professor of marketing and E-commerce, lost his battle for tenure at Boston University's B-school. Afterward, he felt "exposed." He decided that the mathematical forecasting he'd been doing was "not in my soul. I liked it, but I didn't love it."
What he feels for E-commerce is much different, though he's not prepared to label his emotions. "I didn't expect this," says Weinberg, leaning back in his chair, displaying his Batman T-shirt at full wingspan. "I'm feeling things that I was definitely not expecting to feel." But the goals have been suitably scholarly: to generate hypotheses about how the consumer decision-making process, as marketers have traditionally understood it, differs in an on-line environment.
"In E-commerce, a consumer is still a consumer. However, the language is different," he explains. "It's like being dropped in a foreign country where they have a lot of the same things -- department stores, food, trains -- but the way they go about meeting those requirements is different." How can on-line sellers create the right type of buying experience for consumers? How can buyers prepare themselves for a satisfying foray?
"This is a great time to get engaged and to try to understand all of this," says Weinberg. "If I can find some principles here -- don't do it this way, do it that way -- then it's saving everybody some aggravation."
Typically, such a study would involve surveying consumers. But Weinberg, having zeroed in on a phenomenon he describes as "fast-changing, uncharted, and 'Wild West,' " has chosen a "highly qualitative" methodology. He's studying himself. For now, anyway. "If we wanted to do a study asking, 'What do self-consciously sophisticated marketing people think of shopping on the Internet?' then we could start with him," says Sidney J. Levy, head of the marketing department at the Eller College of Business and Public Administration at the University of Arizona. "He's typical of who he's typical of. And that's OK as a way to start thinking about anything."
Perhaps unintentionally, Weinberg's approach has enabled him to chronicle a more dramatic experiment than the one he set out to conduct: namely, how much E-commerce has transformed him. Only his relentlessness has allowed him to explore the subject as deeply as he has, bending it to meet his own needs. But the fact that he's emerged with a new sense of himself -- more than empowered, he's on an empowerment trip -- offers a hint of what some consumers may experience in the years ahead as E-commerce becomes accessible to more people. "Once you do this, it has a huge impact," Weinberg says, describing not only his own reaction but also that of students who are required to buy and sell online in a course he teaches. "I feel in charge of my destiny. That's not about shopping, but that's what this has done for me."
In short, he's consumed by E-commerce. Not just by the "crazy deals" he can obtain through it -- which he knew from early on would dry up when the Internet bubble popped -- but by the novelty and convenience of the activity itself. Until July 1999, Weinberg had never bought anything from a Web site. Nine months later he could hardly stand to go on a four-day family vacation without doing some on-line shopping. "I got at least four calls from him where he left me messages about trying to buy something or wanting me to check out this or that," recalls B.U.'s Hibbard. "Finally, I gave him one call, and I said, 'I'm not calling again.' 'OK,' he said, 'I'll call you.' All I could say was 'Bruce, you are on vacation, and you are going to get into trouble.' "
He got into trouble anyway. "He told me several times during the vacation, 'I really want to go to the library and use the computer,' " Ebersole recalls. "I said, 'Bruce, it's only four days. Can't you just relax?' " She already knew the answer. "This whole thing interferes with his interaction with his family," she says.
Yet on this particular Tuesday evening, Weinberg grabs a family member to witness his most memorable on-line purchase to date. He grips the mouse as his mother-in-law points a camera. He clicks, she clicks, and it's done. "I'm kind of skeptical. That price was way too good," he says afterward. "I'm really bracing for them to somehow weasel out of it."
Weinberg has just agreed to spend $21,100. The minivan he's ordered, in dark emerald pearl, is supposed to appear in his driveway at 10 a.m. sharp the next morning. It's now nearly 11 p.m. "I should go to sleep," he says.
Weinberg keeps a detailed diary of his E-exploits on his home page for anyone to read. Anyone who visits the site (http://people.bu.edu/celtics/) can glean assorted oddball facts about the author. He owns the plate President Clinton used at lunch on June 1, 1994; it still has a bean and some sauce on it. He mastered broomball while studying for his M.B.A. at Boston University. In 1983 he finished the Boston Marathon in three hours and 10 minutes -- well, the first 22.5 miles of it anyway.
If someone were to make a movie from his diary, the trailer would undoubtedly tout it as a modern coming-of-age story (suggested title: Stand by E). For Weinberg, E-commerce isn't about burn rates or business models, or even stock volatility. He's backed by the example of Amazon.com, which has always addressed investor anxieties concerning its constant expansion, by insisting that it's not about selling books or CDs or power tools -- but about providing consumers with a particular kind of experience. Weinberg is out to examine that experience.
He's emotionally invested in every transaction, applying determination ("I will get black dress shoes on-line. There is no doubt about it"), anticipation ("I feel a printer purchase coming on this weekend"), and eagerness ("OK, Streamline, let's see what you got") to each task.
As a result, his assessment of any given E-tailer is proudly subjective. Early on, in order to help categorize different kinds of E-commerce experiences, Weinberg began doling out his own awards: Brucies for "impressive on-line service" and Noosies for those who have "hung themselves with their own rope" by mistreating him. What specifically matters to Weinberg about an E-commerce experience -- such as offers of coupons and rebates that can lop a satisfying 88¢ off a price -- may not matter to anyone else. But with every cent he spends (the money's all his own, he proudly points out), he adds to his overarching observations about the differences between sites that succeed and those that don't.
Six months into the project, Weinberg combined his observations about buying and selling on-line into a research report. He'll gather even more grist in October when three fellow academics (including Levy, who formerly chaired the marketing department at Northwestern's Kellogg school) will present their analysis of Weinberg's diary at the Association for Consumer Research conference. He calls their presentation "The Three Faces of E-Commerce."
"This whole thing interferes with his interaction with his family."