Stealth Marketing

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Are you an Internet window-shopper? Are you part of the reported 70% of Web surfers who browse retail sites without actually buying anything? Anthony Bell, president and CEO of

Skunk Technology

in Santa Monica, Calif., wants to turn you into a consumer, and thinks his company has developed the software to do just that.

Bell takes as his inspiration the

Disney

mall stores, where customers aren't allowed to stand idle for more than 15 seconds without a salesperson attending to them. By contrast, he finds the Internet experience flat and static.

"You have to give people an experience that they like, that they're used to, that they're comfortable with," Bell says. "If you could provide human interaction and real-time responses to customer service concerns, you could immediately and exponentially increase the amount of revenue."

Skunk's software is designed to let Web customer service employees interact with customers through separate panels that monitor user action. If, for example, a potential customer surfing

L.L. Bean's

site was lingering at a fleece jacket page, the customer service rep could enter the screen, either through actual voice/image or text, and say, "Hi, interested in a fleece jacket? Can I help you with anything else?" As Bell describes it: "Now I'm taking you to pages I want you to see. I'm walking you through the entire site. Your comfort level has increased."

This immediately raises three questions. First, how are we supposed to feel about being "followed around" in our online shopping experience? Isn't there a privacy issue here? (We'd like to know what you think.

Email us -- is an online helper a great innovation, or a creepy idea?)

But Bell points out that current technology already enables Web sites to identify their users. "When someone visits my Web site, their IP address is immediately logged, and I know what page they are browsing." Bell maintains that his software simply gives retailers a tool to use that information and interact with customers. He points out that retail customers are free to say no to customer service and continue browsing. And he says that retailers can tailor the program to make it less intrusive, if need be.

Second, doesn't operating a helper like this increase the personnel burden on what has always seemed an austere business? No, Bell merely sees a redeployment of the current customer service corps used to maintain a 1-800 phone line.

Third, does the technology exist to allow a Web browser in Peoria to be seeing and talking product with a sales assistant in Maine? Considering that new PCs routinely come with microphones and sophisticated sound cards, the answer is yes. Will current bandwidth technology allow it? It's unlikely that you could experience the full richness of Skunk's media unless you're at home on a cable modem, though you can easily interface with text. But bandwidth technology is likely to improve, and Skunk Technology is poised to take advantage when it does.

In addition to retail applications, Bell sees an untapped reservoir in business-to-business e-commerce. "Anyone with traditional call centers taking lots of inbound service calls is a potential customer," he says. "A company like

Cisco

, theoretically, could be a client of ours." While this area doesn't generate the same degree of investor frenzy as

Amazon.com

or

Broadcast.com

, it's a source of tremendous potential growth.

Skunk Technology's initial product will be shipped this month. Pilot customers, principally overseas, include

BMW

in Munich and one of the largest grocery store chains in Europe. "We're starting with narrowly focused vertical markets in large enterprises," says Bell.

An investment banker for 12 years in Boston and New York, Bell has extensive international experience and sees the Internet from a global perspective. The company is currently closing on a $12 million equity round from several European venture capital firms. "Our goal is to finance the company with this money, build the infrastructure both domestically and throughout Europe and Southeast Asia, and have the company at a revenue run rate in 12 months at about 10 to 15 million a month." Bell foresees an IPO sometime in the next nine to 12 months.

Skunk Technology took its name from the famed Skunk Works division of

Lockheed Martin

, which developed the Stealth bomber. (The firm tried to call itself Skunk Works, but Lockheed nixed that idea). Can its own software steal a niche in the world of e-commerce? Bell doesn't see much direct competition; companies such as

Acuity

and

E-Share

focus on Web-based customer service but aren't involved in front-end transactions. Rather, he sees his company with a specific mission: to make e-commerce attractive to the mass consumer.

"The Internet can't be a collage of high-tech information that only guys with pocket protectors in Silicon Valley can understand," says Bell. "The people who ultimately are going to be buyers of goods and services via the Net are going to be common, everyday, hard-working Americans. Firemen, policeman, plumbers -- people who know nothing about software, who know nothing about engineering, who bought the PC because the PC was the thing to buy. So the PC itself becomes a commodity like a toaster oven or a television."

Skunk Technology is banking that by making the Internet experience more human and familiar, it can help turn a huge potential market from browsers into buyers.

Michael Katz is a novelist, screenwriter and producer who lives in Los Angeles. Previously he has worked as a banker and financial analyst.