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."
But from the look on his face while he's shopping, there's no question that this has become more than a professional quest. Weinberg gets an expression as if someone's just set down a birthday cake and handed him a knife. Actually, he's shopping for pillows. "Isn't this fun?" he asks, grandiosely poking at buttons on his keyboard. "Why is this fun?"
Ebersole, on the other hand, doesn't sound as if she's having a blast. "I understand that he has to live this," she says, "but I do think he gets carried away."
Among the "new behaviors" she's watched Weinberg take on: bounding downstairs in the morning. "He doesn't even say hi to the kids before he turns on his computer," she reports. He's even tried to come between Ebersole and her favorite on-line grocery vendor, Streamline.com. Once, when a delivery person from rival HomeRuns.com, Weinberg's personal online grocer of choice, tracked mud and snow through the house, he rushed to wipe it up before Ebersole could see it. "HomeRuns, doing another fine job," he assured her.
And she got blamed for what Weinberg describes as "perhaps the dreariest moment in my Internet-shopping life." It unfolded on a fateful day in May, when he came home to find that his beloved spouse had left the kids with a baby-sitter and gone out to buy a bed -- the very bed he'd hoped to purchase on-line. "Amy came back, and before she could say, 'Honey, I'm home,' I asked, 'You bought the bed, didn't you?' " he wrote in his diary. Ebersole came up with a "consolation prize" for him: the mattress. "I said, 'Will it make you happy if you can buy that on-line?' " she recalls.
It did, but the time it took him to do it made Ebersole miserable. "I can't begin to tell you how many hours went into that one," she says. "It just seemed like a waste of time, and I told him so. He said, 'You just don't get it. You just don't get what I'm doing.' I get it. But it feels like he's always on that computer."
Technically, Weinberg didn't even buy the mattress on-line. He used the phone.
Frustrated that he couldn't find what he wanted on the Web -- a fact that he might simply have noted about the limits of e-commerce -- he persuaded 71-year-old Sam Cohen, a distant relative who has driven a taxi for 40 years, to pick up a mattress for him at Costco. Weinberg rationalized that using Cohen would keep him pure, keep him from violating his vow to stay away from dirt-based stores. As he saw it, he wasn't simply hiring someone to go to a store for him. No, he was testing a new concept for a consumer service called My Personal Internet Valet that he'd come up with, whereby customers could send shopping requests by E-mail or through a Web site and have merchandise picked up and delivered to them. It would not be "just a transaction or a delivery service," Weinberg explains, it would be "someone who is always on the lookout for me. He's out there, and if he sees Charmin toilet tissue at an unbelievable price, he'll get it for me because he knows that's what I want."
Cohen didn't exactly fit Weinberg's specs for an ideal Internet valet, especially since he didn't even have a computer. "If Bruce thinks something like this will succeed based on the Internet -- which I know nothing about, incidentally -- then who am I to comment?" Cohen says.
With that vote of confidence, Weinberg forged ahead. "As a researcher, I felt I had to test the concept," he now says. "Maybe this is how Kozmo.com started. Or look at [Idealab founder] Bill Gross. He gets these ideas and just does them. I'm not saying I'm Bill Gross, but why can't I build this?"
Well, he did. And he's got the pictures to prove it, having snapped Cohen in Costco's parking lot. "It was historic," Weinberg insists. "It's like when you go into a restaurant, and they have that first dollar bill on the wall."
Except Weinberg's supposed to be the restaurant critic, not the owner.
As the experiment progressed Weinberg seemed at least as interested in dominating E-commerce as in testing it. Nine months into his "Internet Shopping 24/7 Project," he went way beyond simply cataloging his on-line shopping experiences. Weinberg just couldn't stop himself, despite warnings from Hibbard.
A former student refers to Weinberg as the "E-commerce vampire" because he's corresponded with his prof as late as 3 a.m.
The more he explored E-commerce, the more untapped potential he saw, the more he wanted to make it his own. He was led astray, seduced. "Why do people like to work at dot-coms?" Weinberg reasons. "It's because you get to use your brain. There's nothing rote, and it's always stimulating."
And he means always. By the early part of this year, Weinberg extended the time he would spend holed up in the nerve center -- a walk-in closet of a room, doused in pale yellow paint -- into the wee hours. Moshiko Levhar, a former student, refers to him as the "E-commerce vampire" because he's corresponded with his prof as late as 3 a.m.
Weinberg detects the changes in himself. "Shopping on-line is just a gateway. I haven't come up with elegant words for what it is that happens, but it's not just about becoming a great E-commerce shopper," he says, hoisting Sam onto his lap. "I've become a little more self-confident, a little more open in who I am."
Put it this way: he's now a bit of a cyberbully. In December he clashed with Hibbard after deciding to open his own e-commerce page, an Amazon.com affiliate called Bruce's Corner Five and Dime. "I told him, 'Get that off your site,' " Hibbard says. "You can't be objective about your shopping and be commercial at the same time."
Weinberg ultimately relented -- but not before assuring himself and readers of his diary that "I am evolving and behaving in an absolutely normal way." If there's any truth to that, then who can help wondering what will happen when the multitudes maneuver on-line as nimbly as he does? Will E-commerce inspire regular folks as it has inspired Weinberg in particular, so that we're all hoarding domain names (he's already got redsoxyankees.com, redsox1918.com, and bruceweinberg.com, among others) and declaring a nationwide "Shopping On-line Week"? (He's aiming for mid-October.) Will medical journals tally the dimensions of this hidden epidemic, outlining symptoms that sound strangely similar to those that have already come to characterize Weinberg?
Symptoms? What symptoms? "I think I'm becoming a little bit evangelical," Weinberg says. So intent is he on proving the superiority of E-commerce that he agonized with Hibbard over whether he should have the pictures he'd taken of Cohen developed at a photo-finishing store. He's agonized all along about breaking the rules. "Maybe I'm becoming too militant in my thoughts," he allows.
In his actions, too. One night in mid-May, he came upon Ebersole in the final stages of ordering from eToys and tried to stop her so that he could look for coupons on the site. "He got all upset because I didn't do it the way he does it," says Ebersole. "I don't use coupons in real stores, so why should I use them now?"
Weinberg concedes her point. "I should let her be, with her on-line shopping experiences," he says, sounding genuinely disappointed in himself. But he recovers from that quickly, excited about that minivan he bought on-line.
On Wednesday morning, just past 10 a.m., he gets an E-mail from the dealership's head of Internet sales. That car, the message says, has already been sold. To get what he wants, he has to wait three months -- oh, and pay full price too. "They'll dash the American spirit, these lowly car dealers," Weinberg shouts, thrilled by this fresh twist. Settling inside the nerve center, he stares into his monitor, from which a cartoon Batgirl stares back. "Oh man," he squeals, clicking buttons. "The Noosies are gonna be flying."
Joshua Hyatt is a senior editor at Inc.
Inc.com recently sat down with the Netty Professor to talk about his favorite sites. Also, join Weinberg when he hosts a virtual tour of the best places to shop online in a free online conference Wednesday, November 29 at 1 p.m. EDT.
Great Moments in E-Shopping
Bruce Weinberg absolutely insists that there was a time -- though he's awfully sketchy about the exact chronology -- when he worried about whether he ought to censor the writing in his on-line diary, in which he chronicles the year he's spent shopping exclusively online. "But once I got comfortable," says the associate professor of marketing and E-commerce at Bentley College, "I decided to just be myself. So I put a lot out there."
Did he ever. Even diary reader Sandy Baird, a toxicology consultant who's a close friend of Weinberg's wife, admits that "I know much more about them than I did before I started reading Bruce's diary. I think maybe I know more than I want to know."
Apparently, that's OK by Weinberg. "He likes to give people a little perspective about the man behind this," says marketing professor Jonathan Hibbard, who has served as Weinberg's informal adviser on the "Internet Shopping 24/7 Project." "Who would read it if he just wrote, 'Went to Pets.com. Got a dog collar at a good price. See you tomorrow.' ? It's the drama of it that makes it so engrossing."
Such as? Herewith, some of the startling confessions and life-changing revelations contained in the well-chronicled life of a devoted e-shopper:
1. In an entry dated November 15, 1999, Weinberg announced that his wife was pregnant with their third child -- a fact, incidentally, that Baird didn't know until she read of it in the diary. "When something like this happens," Weinberg mused, "it helps put many things in perspective. ... Suddenly, getting the best printer at the best price was not as important to me."
2. On December 31, pressured by his two "tired and cranky" young sons in the backseat of the car, Weinberg "almost entered" a Toys "R" Us store, thereby violating his vow to avoid real stores. "With reservations, I headed for the store," he wrote. But he shrewdly took the long way, giving his kids time to fall asleep. He had been none so canny on September 23, when a flat bicycle tire had prompted him to buy an inner tube at a store. "Oh dear," he lamented, "we humans do not change overnight." Clearly. On October 27, as he tattled on himself, he stepped inside a gas station convenience store against his will. "I tried not to look at the candy shelves below the counter," he wrote. "I'm not really here, I thought."
3. His April 13, 2000, entry, in which he ostensibly explained his affection for buying Internet domain names, deteriorated into a pagelong list of possible domain names relating to the Three Stooges (among them: www.OhaWiseGuyEh.com and www.ImavictimofSoicumstances.com). Other entries include parodies of Paul Harvey and Frank Sinatra. "You have to be about Bruce's age to get some of these jokes," says Hibbard of his 41-year-old friend's diary.
4. "I WILL NEVER NEVER NEVER (if I can help it) USE PEAPOD AGAIN," began Weinberg on February 28, as he inflicted one of his dreaded Noosies on the on-line grocer, after a delivery arrived damaged and more than 90 minutes late. His edgy temper flared again on April 18, when he lowered the boom on Zoots, a dry cleaner. He began, "Knock, knock. Who's there? Noosie. Noosie who? Noosie to Zoots." He was furious not only that Zoots had delivered the wrong clothes to his house -- three times -- but also, on March 24, that he'd spied a delivery person rummaging through a bag of clothes he'd left out for charity. So much for the E-shopping relationship that seemed so promising back on December 3, when Weinberg wrote: "Zoots collected my dry cleaning on Friday morning. It will return on Tuesday. Let's keep our fingers crossed that it turns out well."
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