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'Harry Potter' Brings Magic to E-commerce Muggles

Magic is something most often thought of in fictional terms. Though, for the publishers and book sellers, selling the latest Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the book itself has been magical in terms of demand, pre-sales and the e-commerce technology used to bring it all together.

As of July 15th, Amazon.com's Harry Potter Meter reported that over 900,000 copies of the latest Harry Potter tome had been pre-sold through the site. According to an Amazon press release, over 1.4 million copies had been ordered worldwide over its global sites from the beginning of the week.

The sales rank the book as Amazon's largest new product release ever. The previous Amazon record was held by the "Half-Blood Prince" predecessor, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," which had more than 1.3 million pre-orders for its June 21st, 2003 release.

Perhaps even more impressive are the figures from Potter's American publishers, Scholastic Inc., which announced earlier this month that it was shipping 10.8 million copies of the book.

IBM is claiming a piece of the magic too, via its WebSphere applications, helping to meet the publisher's need to ramp up for the launch of the latest in the Harry Potter series.

"It was probably around one year to a year and a half ago that Scholastic actually came to us and decided to put up a new site on our software and migrate from the existing software that they had," said Craig Stevenson, manager of strategy and planning for e-commerce and multi-channel retailing at IBM. "I can't comment on what was the imperative for them to do that, but it definitely was something where they did migrate from a competitive software product to our product."

The current hyper-demand for the Harry Potter books, and the increasing numbers of consumers who pre-order books online, have led retailers to rethink their online requirements in order to meet expectations.

Stevenson explained that in the past a book distributor like Scholastic would have just put up a Website. That was about it.

"I would assume that in the past they didn't assume that they'd be getting thousands and thousands of hits on their Website for pre-orders of Harry Potter," Stevenson said. "Books such as Harry Potter have made retailers like Scholastic basically say they should put up a site that is robust and scalable."

Stevenson explained that the intense demand created by thousands of pre-orders, all at the same time, means that retailers must have the necessary infrastructure in order to scale up fast. Enter WebSphere's Commerce and Applications Server combination, built with scaling in mind.

IBM's Websphere Commerce is actually built on top of IBM's Websphere application server, the engine that runs the Website. Websphere Application Server is among the leading Java application servers in the market today.

Among the other challenges cited by Stevenson for modern ecommerce retailers is the need for customers to be able to quickly navigate to what they want and be able to quickly buy what they want. The ability to actually find the retailer online through Search Engine Optimization (SEO) was also noted as a challenge, which is something IBM is planning to help users within the next version of WebSphere Commerce, set to be released in the coming weeks.

Although Harry Potter's U.S. publisher is an IBM WebSphere customer, the largest online bookstore, Amazon.com, is not. Amazon has its own proprietary system that recently won a patent for how it shows customers contextual information.

US Patent 6,917,922, "Contextual presentation of information about related orders during browsing of an electronic catalog," was awarded to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos on July 12th.

"An online store system, which may be implemented as a Web site or another type of interactive system, presents context-sensitive information to customers about their prior orders during browsing of an electronic catalog of products," the USPTO abstract states. "In one embodiment, when a customer accesses a detail page for a particular product, the detail page is supplemented with information, such as status information, about a related order placed by the customer."

Stevenson is not worried about Amazon's patent.

"From a competitive point of view, Amazon does things in a certain way that are beneficial, but not necessarily beneficial for other retailers," Stevenson said. He added that within Websphere Commerce IBM has patents that apply to the way that IBM does things.

In Stevenson's view, IBM's Websphere customers don't want or need Amazon's type of contextual system.

"They have a contextual engine that recommends books based on affinity groups," Stevenson explained. The contextual engine works such that it recommends products based on what others with similar searches have bought.

"It doesn't really bother us too much as most of our customers don't really use that type of technology," Stevenson said. "Most of our online retailers want to provide a cross sell or an up sell based on a specific business role such as product availability or promotions."

By Sean Michael Kerner