Volume 7, Number 2, 1998

Creating an Internet mega mall

Years from now, Colin Murphy, AS '93, will be able to look back and say he was part of a revolution.

As site manager for Spree.com Corp., a new "shopping center" on the World Wide Web, Murphy is at the forefront of the virtual revolution that is transforming the lives of the millions who have become wired.

For Murphy, an English education major who originally intended to become a teacher, timing has been everything in his online explorations. Before he joined Spree.com last year, he learned the cyber ropes as a member of a then start-up called America Online, which since has set the industry standard as the country's largest commercial online service.

Based in Thornton, Pa., just south of West Chester, Murphy's corner of the virtual world was founded in 1996 as a site that would be a web-based superstore for a select group of product types. Currently, books, flowers, coffee, tea and music are sold through the site, with video and electronics among the product lines to be added later this year.

"We want to be the mega-mall of the Internet," Murphy says. "Currently, there are a lot of Internet malls that have hundreds or thousands of product categories, but with only a few products in each. We have fewer product categories that strive to be as complete as possible. Our role model is to go out and build a category killer with every new store we add. For example, our bookstore has millions of titles. Our music store has nearly 200,000 titles, and our flower site is the largest on the web."

With a billboard advertising campaign suggesting its users can "Shop Naked," the company is doubling sales and membership each month, Murphy says. The work force has tripled over the past year, and will double again in the next few months, he predicts.

"Millions of people are buying on the web, but it's still a small market, compared to traditional retail. It's our job to capture the market share that is out there for the taking, as more and more people find the convenience of shopping on the web."

The site is more than a virtual mall. It offers users the chance to share in the profits with its own spin on the traditional, multi-tiered marketing concept. Dubbed the Spree.com Independent Partners program, S-I-P is unlike many other multi-tiered marketing programs: There is no need to front any money, and partners earn a share of the profits by referring other users to the site.

Murphy explains: "If you have a web site, slap a banner on it. We give it all to you for free. If that's the most you do, fine. If you want to make a greater effort, you can really set it up as your business or as an additional revenue source for an existing business. If it doesn't work out for you, you didn't lose anything except your time."

Beyond the commercial aspects of the site, Spree.com was looking to create an environment where folks with similar interests could meet. And, that's where Murphy's experience with America Online played a crucial role. "I was intrigued by the interactive environment," Murphy says. "The whole notion that people all over the world can go to one place, interact and get their needs met."

Among the popular features are author chats, a free e-mail reminder service and one that helps members set up their web sites. Spree.com has already had chats with best-selling authors like Sidney Sheldon and Richard Carlson and plans on expanding these virtual events to include musicians as well as business and self-help specialists. In addition, a feature where members can host their own weekly chat groups is in the works.

"We set up these features and find that, when you build it, they will come," Murphy says. "It's exciting to see a feature you've created be populated by real people who are taking it to levels you never expected."

Of course, this isn't the first time Murphy has participated in the building of a new technology company. Murphy started at America Online as a sales representative in 1993 when the online giant was in its early stages.

"It was a time where I could dive in and become very familiar with interactive services," he says. "Being exposed to that company at that stage was just a phenomenal experience."

After a year at America Online, Murphy moved to the production side, where he began working in music, education and kids' programming; he also learned the ins and outs of interacting with such corporate partners as ABC and Nickelodeon. Murphy supplemented his on-the-job training with classes in multimedia design and computer graphics at George Washington University.

"It was a great learning experience, a great way to get ahead of the game," Murphy says. In late 1996, a friend recruited him to join Spree.com. When Murphy started last January, he was one of 12 employees, and the site was in its infancy. The past year has been a whirlwind of long days and late nights for Murphy and the staff as they developed the concept for the site from scratch and brought it online.

"This has been an absolutely incredible rush-to go into work every day and know the work you're doing is having an impact on the growth of a company and an entire industry," he says. "I'm thrilled to be doing this."

-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88