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Buying pots and pans over the Internet

Department store buyers and members of the public soon may be able to compare and purchase housewares over the Internet, using a technology developed at Stanford University.

A prototype of a new virtual housewares catalog was demonstrated this week at the 1997 International Housewares Show in Chicago. It is a joint project by Stanford, the National Housewares Manufacturing Association (NHMA), Corning Consumer Products Company, Regal Ware Inc., Mirro Co. ­ a member of the Newell Group, GE Information Services, the National Retail Federation, Sears, Epistemics Inc., and CommerceNet.

The technology, called Infomaster, can link online catalogs from various houseware providers in a way that allows the user to search and compare their contents, even when different manufacturers use different terms for equivalent features. For example, a search for pots with non-stick interiors will find them even if manufacturers give the coatings different names, such as Teflon(tm), Silverstone(tm) or simply non-stick. After a search, the relevant information, including pictures and video if available, can be displayed on a single computer screen, making comparisons easier to draw.

"There is a critical business need in the industry for this type of electronic catalog because it allows suppliers to give retail customers immediate access to more complete product descriptions and product data for all of the specific products they are searching for," says Chris Marti, director of finance and information technology at NHMA. Association president Thomas P. Conley has estimated that the technology could save the $58-billion-a-year industry millions of dollars annually.

"We have two versions of the catalog," says Michael Genesereth, professor of computer science at Stanford and president of Epistemics, a company that he started to commercialize Infomaster technology. "One is tailored for the needs of buyers at retailers like Sears. The other is designed for the consumer. This technology may show up in electronic kiosks in department stores. It may also allow people to shop from home."

The prototype that was demonstrated at the housewares show included 260 houseware items from three manufacturers: Corning, Regal and Mirro. The user can search for items by factors such as type, material, interior surface, capacity and color. A search for 12-inch aluminum skillets with non-stick interiors, for example, comes up with 11 products. The display provides basic information about each of these products, including pictures.

In addition to improving electronic commerce, the industry is interested in this technology because of its potential as a market research tool, Genesereth says. "Right now the industry is limited to looking at what people buy and don't buy. But, by analyzing what products customers look for in the electronic catalog, the industry can get an idea of items people are looking for that are not available."

The housewares catalog is a niche application of Infomaster technology, which is designed to extend the Web beyond its current text and document base into the realm of databases ­ highly structured collections of data that are specifically designed to make it easy to search and locate information.

The effectiveness of the Infomaster approach is being tested over the next two years on the Stanford campus through a project called the