Bezos: Up close and personal

Personalisation, the ability to tailor a website's interface to each user logging on, is key to Amazon.com, one of the most recognised names on the internet, Bezos said in a keynote address Wednesday at PC Expo.

"If we want to have 20 million customers, then we want to have 20 million 'stores' ... our mission is to be the earth's most customer-centric company," Bezos said.

Modern technology and culture have given us supermarkets and giant bookstores where merchants don't know the people who are shopping, Bezos said.

What's the ultimate in personalisation? When "you go into a bar and sit down, and the bartender puts a whiskey in front of you without having to ask what you want," Bezos said.

Amazon.com has filtering mechanisms to try to get close to this kind of personalised service, Bezos said.

Amazon.com records what a shopper purchases and then matches the acquisitions to the aggregate purchases of other shoppers who have bought similar products, Bezos said. By comparing what an individual shopper has purchased to what shoppers with apparently similar tastes have purchased, Amazon.com has come up with, for example, a "new for you" feature.

The features can suggest, for instance, that based on a certain book purchase, a shopper might like a certain musical artist on compact disc.

Amazon.com shoppers can also set up lists of "trusted friends" to see what those whose taste they trust are buying, Bezos noted. Individual shoppers can also set up "best-seller" lists of favorite purchases, review them, and make the reviews public. Then other shoppers can rate the reviews according to how helpful they found them.

The idea of a merchant getting to know customers, introducing customers to each other, and making recommendations is "in a sense, a return to yesterday," Bezos said. "In a sense, what technology has taken away from us is the ability for small-town merchants to make recommendations. But I think that what technology has taken away, maybe over time, technology can return."

In a question-and-answer period following his prepared remarks, Bezos fielded a number of questions about privacy.

He pointed out that Amazon.com does not ask for demographic data such as income of shoppers, although he did not rule out that it would do so in the future. He said that Amazon.com would possibly use the information on a shopper's purchasing habits to place paid advertising from third-party businesses, but that the difference between a paid-for recommendation and a recommendation that is the result of Amazon.com filtering would always be made clear to the shopper.

Responding to questions about when Amazon.com will be profitable, Bezos refuted an investment company report issued last week that forecast the company will run out of cash soon. He said the music and DVD segment of the company was about to break even and that the books segment was profitable for several quarters recently.

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Marc Ferranti

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