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Start-up gives online shopping a makeover

Boston-area software start-up Allurent emerges from stealth mode, promising a better Web checkout experience.

If you do enough online shopping, you've probably been there.

You enter four or five Web pages of personal information to purchase a sweater or book, then decide to add something to your order. You click back. You start over. You get an error message. A sudden urge to hurl the mouse across the room comes over you, and then you give up.

Shopping cart abandonment--it's been a thorn in the side of e-retailers and shoppers alike for years. Allurent, a 12-person start-up based in Cambridge, Mass., has set out to tackle the problem with Web animation technology.

The company's shopping cart program is designed to let consumers easily revise an order at any stage of checkout within a single online form. Shoppers don't need to download anything to run the application because it relies on Macromedia's popular Flash Player, already installed on most computers.

Allurent, which has been in stealth mode for the past year, plans to release the product and launch the company on Monday with the mission of creating a more compelling online shopping experience. The company's three founders, Joe Chung, Fumi Matsumoto and Paul Shorthose, have put their heads together on this subject before.

In 1991, they founded Art Technology Group, a publicly traded company that supplies e-tail software to American Airlines, Best Buy, Target and dozens of other big names. Other people associated with Allurent include Nicholas Negroponte from the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former MIT Chairman Alex D'Arebeloff. Both are angel investors.

Chung, Allurent's chief executive, claims that online stores are ripe for renovation. That's because the tools for navigating them haven't really changed much since the early '90s. Web stores are mainly based on Hypertext Markup Language, or HTML.

Although HTML pages are a trusted and familiar interface, they have drawbacks for shoppers, Chung said. For one thing, it takes time to load pages. HTML also dictates the order of events--enter shipping information first, then billing information, etc. And HTML is more static compared to the more animated Flash-based programs.

"That whole interaction is kind of clumsy," Chung said.

The rise of high-speed Internet access and dynamic Web applications like Flash are combining to make online shopping a much slicker experience, Forrester Research analyst Harley Manning said. And shopping carts are just the beginning.

Browsing and product search are getting makeovers, too. "It's an idea that's reached a tipping point," Manning said. "Bandwidth is faster, processing is faster, and people are building these more sophisticated sites."

Up until now, such work has largely been the domain of Web design companies, including Molecular in Watertown, Mass., which built a Flash-based checkout program for T.J. Maxx, Manning said.

TravelClick, which caters to hotel chains, offers a Flash-based, single-screen room-booking system. But Allurent is one of the first software makers to offer tools to let companies build such sites themselves.

"It's going to be a while before we know if this thing plays out successfully or not," Manning said of Allurent. "But no question, someone is going to make a business out of this."

In a demonstration, Allurent's application looks quite nifty. Shoppers can flit around the screen, changing billing and shipping information and the content of their shopping baskets in any order, without ever clicking the Back button.

The application instantly detects incomplete information, such as a credit card number or ZIP code with too few digits, and prompts the shopper to fix it. Pictures of other merchandise scroll across the bottom of the page. Shoppers can browse the products and return to checkout as they left it.

The application is designed to be automatically downloaded to the shopper's computer at the start of the process, so there's no waiting for servers to deliver Web pages. The program is also meant to tap into the computing power of the shopper's desktop, so it can make calculations and respond to changes as quickly as, say, a Microsoft Office program.

With a $150,000 price tag, Allurent's program is aimed at retailers with deep pockets. The company is initially targeting the top 200 largest retailers in the United States, Chung said. He's already signed up one of them, he said, a household name that he declined to identify. Such investments can pay off, it seems. Shoppers using Flash-based systems completed orders 50 percent more often than people using HTML-based ones, according to a recent Forrester study.