Research in Exploring the Online Consumer Experience

Bruce D. Weinberg, Bentley College
[ to cite ]:
Bruce D. Weinberg (2001) ,"Research in Exploring the Online Consumer Experience", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 227-232.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 227-232


Bruce D. Weinberg, Bentley College

In this paper, I discuss important areas for research in the realm of online consumer behavior based on my experiences in the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project. First, however, I focus on a couple of my own interpretations which were arrived at post hoc the presentations in the special session "The Three Faces of E, commerce: Insight into Online Consumer Behavior Through the Interpretation of an Internet Consumer’s Experiences." These presentations helped me perceive some underlying aspects of this experience which may have gone unnoticed otherwise.


I believe that most of the interpretations about my behavior and musings as an online consumer during the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project experience were C pardon me while I take a deep breath C either accurate or plausible. Throughout each presentation, I frequently found myself either nodding in agreement or ruminating about the many thought provoking interpretative statements C with many instances of hearty laughter along the way as this was a fun special session. Any clarifications hat I could offer are somewhat minor. For example, Brunel states that I am cheap, whereas I believe that I am frugal; and the interpreters (and others) refer to this research as an "experiment" (and, then based on this assumption, argue for deficiencies such as "control") whereas I never said or wrote at all that the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project was an experiment.


The presentations were thought provoking; having been removed from my year of exclusive online shopping for less than a month, the presentations helped me gain some perspective on the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project experience. I discuss some of my own post hoc realizations and interpretations that were stimulated by the three interpreters.

CEO of a dotcom

In my "About Me" section of the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project website, I state:

"The Internet Shopping 24/7 Project was partly an outgrowth of my autonet research, and my desire to immerse myself in and learn about the nature of e-shopping. Through, a company started by Bill Gross of idealab! and Scott Painter, consumers can shop for and buy a new automobile entirely online; the car can even be delivered directly to your door. Initially, I thought that this concept was crazy as it excludes visiting a dealer for the time honored traditions of tire kicking and test driving. Later, I realized that tire kicking in this day and age is absurd; and a five minute spin on a smooth surfaced highway doesn’t really provide much value, and is nothing more than a part of a dealership’s manipulative sales script. I reasoned that if visiting a dealership is unnecessary for a significant purchase like an automobile, then visiting a retail outlet may be unnecessary for lesser purchases; I shall see..."

I never state in the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project website ( that I was in Southern California during the late spring of 1999, interviewing executives from, and about the autonet industry (Weinberg 1999) and car buyer behavior. In addition, I do not mention that after I had completed my research interviews with the Vice President of Marketing and the CEO of, they surprised me by offering me the position of Director of Marketing Research, with all the usual dotcom temptations (e.g., 50,000+ stock options, which they kept saying to just add two zeroes to the end in order to estimate their near future value, i.e., shazam, I was going to become a millionaire C I kept thinking, yeah right, it’s probably more like just multiply by zero, and besides I do things more out of love than for money, but I kept my mouth shut).

I was initially excited about the opportunity C recall, that ecommerce hype was at or near its high at this time C as it would enable me to learn more about "real" ecommerce through immersion from the "inside" and it fit perfectly with some of my passions (i.e., cars) and past research experiences (e.g., I developed a computer based automobile shopping system as part of my "information acceleration" dissertation C Weinberg 1993 C and one of my publications in the Journal of Marketing described the information acceleration forecasting methodology and an application of it for an electric vehicle by General Motors, the currently available EV1 C see Urban, Weinberg and Hauser 1996).

Amy and I seriously considered the offer and moving from Boston to Los Angeles. I spoke with idividuals who I felt understood well the dotcom experience and industry, and could offer me valuable input in evaluating this job offer (e.g., Mohan Sawhney). One of the individuals with whom I spoke about this job offer was a venture capitalist that I had met while serving as a visiting professor at Northwestern University. In summary, he made statements to the effect "you’ve got to do it, these are rare times, the learning will be tremendous, you’ll never have a greater time, the dotcom experience is incredible." In the end, after careful consideration about my family situation and what I wanted to discover in my research, as well as my academic leanings, I declined the offer from

The enthusiastic statements made by the venture capitalist, however, kept ringing in my ear. I had felt some of the dotcom "rush" and I had decided to "get in the game." In addition, it was my perception that Mohan Sawhney’s high degree of understanding about ecommerce was partly due to his involvement with firms engaged in this practice. I wanted to be part of the great potential learning experience that was at hand and I believed that immersion, in some way, in "real" ecommerce would be a worthwhile approach for realizing this potential. To make a long story short C as I can hear Sidney saying, he is "able to type a blue streak" (Levy 2001) C I perceived the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project as a "real" engagement in an area of ecommerce that both interested me and had many questions unanswered (e.g., in light of the hype about ecommerce, why were so few consumers satisfied enough with online shopping to try it and why were so few dotcoms firms profitable?).

So, why mention all of this? I believe that it can help explain some of the interpretations of my behavior. For example, Levy commented, "He tolerates many negative experiences" and that I have an "insistent determination to find the superiority of Internet shopping." In addition, Brunel notes that I am "evangelical" and I state that "one must believe" in the process, "for if I do not do this, who will?" I do not take issue with these statements. In fact, they helped me realize that my stated reasons for undertaking this research C to develop hypotheses about the online consumer buyer decision process C may have been partly a scientific veil for an entrepreneurial part of me that was determined to "figure it all out" and then, as a result be able to help make ecommerce work. (And why I felt this need is potential fodder for additional interpretation which I will likely engage in another publication forum.)

Perhaps, I was behaving not only as a researcher investigating ecommerce, but also as a CEO of a dotcom who was immersed in ecommerce. A dotcom whose mission it may have been C and how this happened is a question that may be worthy of exploration at a later time C not only to search for principles for success based on both positive and negative experiences, but also to engage others in the experience of online shopping and to get them to contribute their wisdom to understanding better and improving ecommerce. As the CEO, I had to motivate the troops and keep the spirits up. Yes, I tolerated some negative experiences, however, I believed that this would result in important discovery which could, in turn, be used to improve the online shopping experience (I believe that in some situations, failure can be a great teacher). I was indeed immersed in ecommerce; this was one of the reasons that I had selected the ethnographic methodology. A priori, I believed that this immersion would enable me to "get inside" the phenomenon that I was studying, ecommerce (as has been done before, e.g., see Schouten and McAlexander 1995).

The rebellious 1960s

I believe also that I may have been evangelical about online shopping because I came to perceive it as a gateway to engaging the Internet; and I believed that the Internet, because it did so for me and C in my estimation C others, could assis one in identifying and pursuing one’s passions and in realizing greater equality (e.g., with the powerful forces of Big Business, Lobbyists or "The Man"). I hold some beliefs which, perhaps C were I older at the time C would have made me a good candidate to be a rebellious "flower power" teenager or twenty-something who held certain (altruistic?) ideals during the 1960s in the United States. For example, I believe that anything is possible; I have some intolerance for authority that uses its shear muscle to get things done in a less than optimal way (and because it is "its" way and implicitly designed more for its own betterment); and I like to assist consumers who are at a lesser advantage, for whatever reason (e.g., less knowledge or understanding), not get "taken" by others (e.g., "slick" sales people)CI believe in fairness and equality.

Many dotcom organizations, perhaps the majority, were founded and led by either teenagers or twenty-somethings. In the 1990’s, rather than have love-ins, lots of sex, Woodstock, Rock 'n roll and Vietnam War protests C the acts of rebellion and protest during the 1960s in the US (as opposed to conforming along with Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and Ward and June Cleaver by not questioning authority and serving loyally the corporation) C the dotcom "youth of America" may have been protesting conformance to Corporate America and its rules of business by creating their own companies (based on technology they either created or better understood how to use), doing things their own way and proving that they were adults with valuable opinions and skills.

I felt as part of this alleged revolution. A part of me felt like telling Corporate America to stuff it and that "we" C the consumers (?), the employees (?), the techy geeks (?), the people (?) C do not have to take it anymore; no more boring and meaningless jobs; no more forcing us to take products on terms that are not agreeable. (Via the Internet, the Web and other current technologies that "we" created) we could reach everyone else now too and we could make, buy and sell what we wanted. We were going to create and advance a new playing field for business where anyone could participate and have greater access to success and control of their own destiny. We were going to come of age and build something better.


The Internet Shopping 24/7 Project enabled me to participate in a large variety and number of online shopping experiences, and to interact with a large variety and number of people (e.g., consumers, students, CEOs, members of the media). Based on these rich experiences and interactions, I believe that I have identified several important areas to both researchers and practitioners.


I believe that the issue of control is very important with respect to examining and understanding online consumer behavior (or if you prefer to say, consumers’ behavior online or consumer behaviors that are related to online phenomena). In many respects, I felt that I was in greater control when interacting with an online environment than with an offline environment; yet, as Brunel said to me during a debriefing after our final post depth-interview, my actual control may have been diminished when moving from a predominantly offline experience to a highly online experience (e.g., online retailers had information pertaining to when I arrived, what I viewed, when I left, etc.). This stimulates much curiosity about the definition of control in a marketing context and its antecedents from both consumer and service provider perspectives.

Independent of this, I had identified control as an important issue. I perceived myself (as well as other consumers online) as having greater control online in man of my shopping experiences when compared to offline experiences. For example, I was able to shop at any time of the day; the store was open when I wanted to shop, not just when the store management wanted to be open. Any online retail store was, in spirit, available to me in every city or town that I visited C assuming that I had access to a computer; whereas, bricks & mortar stores were, for the most part (e.g., excluding telephone ordering) available to me in only the cities in which the parent firm elected to operate a store. I was able to shop alone when desired (e.g., sales clerks on commission were not hounding or pushing product on me) and I could obtain assistance when I desired it (e.g., live sales help available through instant chat sessions such as Lands’ End Live).

In a general sense, I define online consumer control as: 1) consuming or getting an item a) that (i.e., what) one wants,b) when one wants it, c) where one wants it, d) how one wants it, e) from whom one wants it, and 2) the ability to a) obtain desired information (which implicitly includes aspects of source, timing, complexity, breadth, depth, etc.), b) retain selected information (e.g., birth date, social security number), c) distribute selected information, d) interact with other consumers, e) collaborate with other consumers (which includes aspects such as organizing, aggregating, sharing, and building), and f) interact and collaborate with suppliers, manufacturers, intermediaries and stakeholders of these organizations. Inherent in this is an ability to bring about desired results both physical and psychological.

Extending the buyer decision process to incorporate the importance of "selling" behavior

I found access to easy tools for experiencing not only buying behaviors (e.g., information search, purchase), but also selling behaviors (e.g., advertising, listing products as available for sale). For example, I sold a board game in an eBay auction and I sold some books as an associate (for which I earned a commission on the sale). Millions of other consumers participate as sellers in much the same way.



As the project evolved, I believe that my selling behaviors became more involving (e.g., I eventually evolved to a point where I was buying website addresses and creating websites C my products were primarily content) and that my selling activities informed my buying behavior. I felt engaged in ecommerce not only as a buyer, but also as a seller. I considered myself, at times, to be an Internet Consumer Entrepreneur (iCE) C see, Weinberg and Hibbard (2000).

I believe that a "feedback loop" exists in that as iCEs gain online selling knowledge and experience, it influences their online buying behavior (see Figure 1). iCEs, are more aware of marketing processes because of their selling behavior, and, as a result, are more sophisticated and more demanding than "buy only" consumers. Marketers need to update their fundamental view of online consumer behavior by recognizing this distinction and developing more sophisticated marketing strategies and tactics to acquire and satisfy iCEs.

Weinberg and Hibbard (2000) observed that online consumers who evolve toward iCEs, and in essence are opening their own "virtual lemonade stands" move through a series of "selling stages" that become increasingly challenging and complex. Stage I selling involves the use of consumer-to-consumer (C2C) trading sites such as eBay and Yahoo! Auction because of their ease-of-use and low resource requirements. Stage II selling involves the utilization of affiliate-related programs where affiliate members (e.g., iCEs) earn a "referral" commission on qualified purchases made by a shopper. Stage III selling includes more sophisticated and deliberate activities such as Web address purchase, site creation and management.


A significant part of the excitement and perceived potential about ecommerce was the ability to shop anytime C "24/7" (i.e., 24 hours per day, 7 days a week). With no constraints in the time dimension, it was believed that this increased (and theoretically always open) access to shopping would reward significantly retailers with an online presence. As is now well known post the "dotcom bubble" burst, creating an online 24/7 shopping environment was no guarantee of profitability.

I believe that researchers and practitioners have overlooked another important dimension with respect to Internet access and developing ecommerce C space. At the present time, the most widely used technologies, which enable access to the Internet, tether consumers to a fixed physical location (e.g., in a home, at the office, wherever a data port is available). Consumers, however, stroll the earth untethered from the confines of their base location (of Internet access), and encounter "needs" and access to means for satisfying these needs while "away from the desk"; needs can arise anywhere.

It is important for researchers and practitioners to study environments where both Internet access is available and one can shop anytime and anywhere. I characterize these types of scenarios as "24/7/360¦" where "360¦" represents the concept of access anywhere C the full span of the globe. Mcommerce (mobile commerce) technologies have already, to some extent, made these environments a reality. A significant impact can still be made in this burgeoning area.

The concept of 24/7/360¦ can be valuable to consumers in environments where shopping is defined along the dimensions of ubiquity and seamlessness. Consider some hypothetical scenarios which suggest the potential value of a 24/7/360¦:

$A consumer walking by Macy’s Department Store, on the way to lunch with a friend, glances at a sofa being displayed in the window that arouses interest. Information about this sofa is being transmitted and can be received with a portable device. The consumer may either peruse information about the sofa immediately or record the location of this information for later review (e.g., over lunch with the friend). In addition, the consumer may enter the store to learn more or, if certain enough about purchasing it, could even put in an order while on the way to lunch.

$While walking through a park, a consumer admires the detail and juxtaposition of a lamp post and bench; he sits on the bench and enjoys the sparkle of light coming from the lamp post. He would like to purchase these products and construct the same juxtaposition in his back yard. Utilizing a portable device that can receive a transmission of information that is always available about these products, the consumer reviews the reputation of the manufacturer and the product prices and then decides to put in an order while sitting on the very type of park bench being ordered.

$On the way to a friend’s house on the Upper East Side of New York City, a consumer decides to get a toy for her friend’s daughter. Unfamiliar with the area, the consumer uses a portable device to contact her credit card company, who can either inform her of where to purchase a toy in the area or can have the desired toy delivered to her, where she stands, by a local merchant who sells toys.


The Internet enables not only a different medium for communication, but also the preservation and public posting of experiences. For example, participants of’s Townhall post about their experiences with automobile manufacturers and dealerships. Thee comments are easily accessible and remain posted (presumably for as long as maintains the Townhall).

Given the potential availability of information to all consumers about any individual’s exchange experience with a merchant, it becomes important for a merchant to be honest, as its exchange experiences with all consumers could very well be posted and become known to all current and potential customersBi.e., as in a small community, there are no secrets. Consumers would likely notice and reward consistent integrity, conversely merchants who, often enough, try to or do succeed in "pulling a fast one" on a consumer should not assume that the case would likely go no further than "you said vs. she said." The evidence of "you said versus they said" will be available and harder to sniggle out of.

I believe that it is important to define and assess trust with respect to online consumers and relevant environments. What are the components of trust? How do online consumers assess the trustworthiness of a merchant, manufacturer or peer? What are the cues of trust? What are trust busters? When do consumers devote significant effort in assessing trust? When is trust assumed? When is trust most important?

Consumers are more than click-streams

I purchased a Weber charcoal chimney starter from; in a visit to Amazon shortly after this purchase, it recommended, especially for me, the Leatherman multitool product. I have no interest in the Leatherman multitool at the moment and this experience lead me to believe that Amazon does not know me very well. Amazon’s Leatherman recommendation was partially based on their quantitative analysis of my prior click-stream data (e.g., webpages visited, when items were placed in a shopping cart, items purchased); a method used by many firms for gaining an understanding about their online consumers. These data are used to estimate preference functions in an effort to create true "one-to-one" relationships with consumers. While these data can inform about a customer, I do not believe that they provide enough insight to establish and maintain a rich one-to-one relationship.

To do this, researchers and practitioners could utilize qualitative methods (e.g., online chat, email, actual in-person or "voice-to-voice" interviews or visits) and visit environments where consumers express themselves. These environments could be the consumers’ 1) own websites C e.g., see to learn about DP, currently a computer science student at Stanford University who dislikes sushi, prefers Coca Cola over Pepsi, roots for the Detroit Red Wing, drives a Suzuki Esteem, and hails from Las Vegas., or 2) online communities Ce.g., see @163.n7dlaXWCikV^7@.ee93ec6/88 where Trevor, a Honda vehicle accessories salesperson, provides valuable and detailed information about C surprise, surprise C Honda vehicles and accessories; he gets to know the members of this Honda Odyssey online community by reading their posts, providing useful responses to a broad range of community member posts, and by emailing with them outside of the forum.

Culture, deep rooted beliefs, trial and adoption

Online shopping is not the "be all and end all," yet many consumers reject it or do not try it when it could be a better shopping alternative in many situations. Some of the reasons have face validity (e.g., limited access to a computer with an Internet connection, limited technical proficiency C though I question this as Weinberg (1993) found that consumers with limited or no computer experience found his "information acceleration" computer based "point and click" automobile shopping system easy to navigate and use) while others do not.

For example, many consumers who have rejected trial of online grocry services have told me that their primary reasons were that they a) "like" shopping and b) "prefer" to hand pick their own produce or meats. On average, I do not believe that these are the primary reasons (I acknowledge, however, that some people "like" to grocery shop in certain situations and some might "like" to grocery shop under all conditions, of course). These fairly consistent knee-jerk responses have aroused my curiosity as grocery shopping consists of many less than desirable aspects, which happen to be eliminated when using an online grocery service (e.g., physical lugging of heavy items, getting dings and dents on one’s car while parked at the supermarket, using time that could be put toward other activities). I do not suggest that tradeoffs are not made when using an online grocery service (e.g., getting products immediately vs. waiting until the next day, sku selection), however, consumers are not so quick to raise issues beyond "liking" and "picking produce" when explaining their rejections of online grocery shopping services (at least in my experiences).

I believe that the true nature of the rejection lies deeper below the surface and has a strong cultural component that harkens back to the long history and importance of the relationship among man, woman, family, hunting, food, eating, meals and the inside of one’s body (and the placement of objects C physical, psychological and spiritual C inside it). Given the ubiquity, frequency and the seemingly visceral attachment to in-store grocery shopping among consumers, then exploration and discovery in online grocery shopping may inform on important lessons for not only grocery shopping, but also many other online shopping domains.

Some specific questions that I have are:

$What are the benefits of grocery shopping? What is the perceived purpose of grocery shopping? (e.g., Caring for the self? Caring for the Family? Hunting? Carrying on tradition? Socialization?)

$What is being adopted when using an online grocery service? (e.g., Technology? A new way of life? The Internet lifestyle? Freedom? Time to engage more preferred activities? Revolution?)

$What is being rejected when consumers do not adopt online grocery shopping? (e.g., Technology? Something untraditional? Inexperienced "upstarts?," Assignment of responsibility to a "stranger?," All of the reported fears of the Internet such as privacy and security? Radicalism?)

$Do consumers reject the entire online grocery shopping process or just certain aspects of it?

$What actions might compensate for the rejected aspects?

$For which products and why is hand selection preferred when grocery shopping?

$Have these types of consumers felt discomfort when any other individual has done the grocery shopping for them? Why or why not?

$What are their attitudes toward technology? Internet?

$Which food preparation or food delivery services have been successful and why (e.g., takeout food, takeout food delivery services, Harry & David). Could these reveal clues for success in the online grocery service business?

Online grocery shopping services may be facing a problem that is similar in nature to that confronted by Betty Crocker when it first launched its instant cake mix in the 1950s C all one had to do was add water to the mix and put it in the oven. Product acceptance was poor; analysis of focus group data concluded that homemakers associated baking with the birthing process and that they did not feel that simply adding water to a mix made them feel that they were taking good care of their family. In response to the focus group findings, the recipe was modified to include "adding one egg." In concert with the "Bake Someone Happy" campaign, the reformulated Betty Crockercake mix flew off the shelves. Perhaps online grocery services would take off if they could identify their "egg" and make it part of their service?

The Five Senses and Technology

Consumers require certain types of information to reduce uncertainty in order to proceed with a purchase. Consumers have become accustomed to utilizing many of their senses when processing this information. At the present time, the technology which is widely used for engaging the Internet limits the extent to which consumers can utilize their senses. An important challenge to consider is the technology necessary for increasing the potential value of the online consumer experience.

For example: developing body scanners that can be used to inform precise body measurements, which in turn can be used to either order the correct predetermined/manufactured size or manufacture a custom fit size article of clothing (e.g., shirts, slacks, dress, shoes, etc.); building sensors that enable one to feel a product "in use" (e.g., do these clothes feel comfortable, does this camera feel good in my hands, etc.).

It is important to identify the shopping processes and the information used by consumers and to simulate online these processes. Or, assuming either an inability to or significant prohibitions in simulating these processes, to identify alternative or new online processes and information (i.e., not direct translations of existing nononline shopping processes and information) that could more readily be delivered and would provide similar utility or reduce a similar level of uncertainty?

Sample Size of One

Levy (2001) acknowledges an issue that has been raised by some colleagues as to the generalizability of my experiences as I am a "sample size of one." I recognize this issue as well, however, I provide some evidence that my experiences are indeed representative of what a large part of the population could experience in the future and that these experiences could provide significant insight into understanding the behavior of a significant proportion of the online consumer population.

Many of the observations, interpretations and findings reported in Wolfinbarger and Gilly (2001), which involved interviews with 60 online consumers, were similar to many of those presented in this special session (i.e., The Three Faces of E, commerce) which were based on my experiences and detailed in the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project website (e.g., the importance of control, accessibility, convenience, selection, information availability, social interaction, sales staff avoidance, shopping motives).

According to the Gartner Group, as reported by Mahoney (2000), "The average American who logs on [to the Internet] is 41 years old with an average income of $65,000 (US$), married with 2.81 children and uses a PC at work." During the data collection phase of the Internet Shopping 24/7 Project, I was an American, 41 years of age, married with 3 children, used a PC at work, and had an income that was somewhat close to $65,000. According to the Gartner Group, I would be considered the average American Internet user.

Levy (2001) states (page 1) "He does represent various consumer segments in our society, sociologically and psychologically, so that his experience is of general interest." Dobscha suggests in her astrological analysis that I exhibit the characteristics of a cross section of astrological sign types (e.g., Leo, Virgo, Capricorn). When members of the audience were asked to guess my "sign," other signs mentioned were Gemini and Taurus. My sign, however, is Aquarius.

I do not believe that my experiences are representative of the entire population, however, I do believe that my background and passions (e.g., computer science, computer mediated environments, marketing, shopping, consumer advocate, consultant, blue collar, white collar) gave me significant command in the online hopping domain and the ability to experience and evaluate the environment with depth from diverse perspectives. I believe that my experiences as a computer scientist and as a consumer advocate (as well as other experiences) enabled me to consider the circumstances and consequences of online shopping from not only my own perspective, but also that of others.

Social Dynamics

Many consumers that I have interviewed about shopping mention the social element of the experience (e.g., "shopping is social," "it is something that one does with friends"). Many of these same consumers mention the relative dearth of socialness in the online shopping experience. How can the effect (i.e., utility) of social dynamics be realized in the online shopping experience. What technologies could enable more of a social feeling to online consumer behavior? Will cobrowsing (i.e., the ability for more than one person to interact with the same website simultaneously) partially do this?


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