Allurent Looks to Usher in the Next E-Commerce Era
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$4 million Series A round for which Polaris was the sole institutional investor: Polaris co-founder Jon Flint and technology partner Sim Simeonov both sit on Allurent’s board.
The technology developed by Chung and the Allurent posse is all about “rich Internet applications,” an umbrella term used to describe interactive experiences built using tools like Flash, Ajax (the combination of technologies used to create Google Maps), and Flex, which is the Ajax-like developer environment Allurent uses. What you need to know here is that such environments allow developers to create richer, more dynamic and user-friendly online experiences than are currently widely available.
Chung can speak volumes about the woeful state of e-commerce interfaces. But the part that resonates most with me is his rap about the checkout experience, especially what happens if you forget to type in, say, your zip code, and you get a “missing field” error and have to go back to the form page and hunt for a small asterisk in the field you missed. “How did a term like ‘field’ make it up into a consumer interface to be used by ordinary people just trying to buy some underwear online?” he asks. “That is bad. It just shows you that the first generation of consumer interfaces was built by geeks for geeks.”
Sparing us underwear buyers from such experiences was one of Chung’s prime goals. The motivation, and his ATG track record, resonated with potential customers, too. “One of the things I was very pleasantly surprised about was that people took us seriously right away,” he says. “That got us going out of the gate. It’s been, knock wood, a pretty smooth path so far.”
Indeed, Allurent’s list of announced customers is pretty impressive for a start-up whose first products didn’t come out until this fall. They include women’s apparel retailer Anthropologie, Borders Direct, Kohl’s department store, and Urban Outfitters. Allurent has several other, unannounced customers. In addition, it has partnered with a number of other firms, including GSI Commerce, an e-commerce solutions company based in Pennsylvania, and Cambridge’s N2N Commerce, a spinoff from Limited Brands and General Catalyst Partners that offers an e-commerce platform for large multi-channel retailers. These partners incorporate elements of Allurent’s technology into their own products.
Chung walked me through a quick demo of Allurent’s product presentation system, called Details, as well as a shopping cart feature, his checkout technology, and other products still in development. With Details, for instance, you can hover your mouse over a color swatch to view a piece of clothing in a different color. Then, if you want to add the item to your cart, the cart feature pops up so you can see all your stuff—and add more or remove items—without having to interrupt your shopping by going to another page. Anthropologie is already using many of these technologies at its website, Chung said. (Hey Amazon, you listening?)
Finally, comes checkout. “This is the point at which your customer has their wallet open,” says Chung. “You don’t want to screw this up.” Yet, as we all know, it can get pretty frustrating if you get one of those “missing field” messages. Instead of making you hunt for an asterisk on the field you forgot, Allurent’s interface checks your work as you go and provides a big, impossible-to-miss flag pointing right to things that you miss and spelling out exactly what you need to do.
All this marks a welcome step up from today’s e-commerce experience—but I couldn’t call it revolutionary. Chung, though, gave me taste of other applications Allurent has in the works that should bring us much closer to a true transformation in e-commerce. One provided a cinematic way to view a site—scanning items by scrolling left or right the way your eyes might peruse the shelves of a physical store. In another application, you can drag and drop clothes onto a virtual mannequin to see how things go together. Chung also showed me the prototype Allurent Desktop Connection. This is a small application designed to reside on a PC, like Microsoft Word or any other desktop application. It allows a retailer to push information about items directly to the consumer, into their own personal catalog. Allurent is again working with Anthropologie to test the technology with the retailer’s most loyal customers. “People love with a capital ‘L’ their apparel brands,” says Chung.
Of course, in the world of online shopping, where a competitor’s store is only a click away, anything that increases the bond between customer and client is golden. To the extent Allurent’s products offer a more pleasant online experience, they should help retailers attract and retain customers. Chung says they should also improve cross-selling by making it easier to offer additional items to the consumer. But that’s just the front end of the technology. The rich Internet applications will show up on the backend of Allurent’s platform too, so that any employee can update a site by dragging and dropping items a store wants to feature, be it by the week or even the hour. It used to be you had to call in the design, marketing, and IT departments for such an overhaul. No more.
Chung says Allurent will use the $7.5 million it just raised to add 20 new employees (bringing its total to about 50), enough to carry the company through these tasks and the next phase of its evolution. Maybe that next phase will help bring an end to field errors and asterisk hunts. I’ll drink to that, I thought, as I walked out past the empty Brew Moon digs.