Today, far too much of what is called e-commerce simply represents an additional channel for buying the same things at the same price. In too many cases, no price differential exists, despite the fact that e-commerce supposedly represents a more efficient distribution mechanism. The primary value-added offered by e-commerce merchants is often represented by a combination of better information, greater selection and increased convenience. There is no question that these are all important attributes when making a purchasing decision. But is this the big revolution that we have all been waiting for? Hardly.

Amazon has clearly taken things one step further, offering incredible discovery, selection and convenience, while acting as a low-cost provider at the same time. Not only can I, the consumer, leverage collective intelligence to find books and CDs likely to interest me, but I can purchase them at a significant discount. But this too isn't the revolution we've anticipated.

Indeed, fellow consumer, you ain't seen nothing yet. What has happened to date will be considered trite and boring when compared to what is coming. The future of how you buy products and services and how vendors market them to you will radically change over the next decade. Well-entrenched beliefs about direct marketing and branding, taught by the best of the business schools today, will be thrown out the window, and completely new techniques will be created. The best part is that the consumer, by collaborating with other consumers, will set the rules of the game, and finally gain the respect his or her purchasing dollars deserve.

Consumers will soon influence the market in unimaginable ways. Starting today, each consumer should be asking what a merchant or vendor is doing to further advance his or her own personal goals. Are they saving you money or time, or giving to a charity you support? Granted, consumers have been asking those questions for centuries, but now they will actually be able to heavily influence the answer.

Remember, the Internet makes many new things possible. For example, the dynamic and collaborative aspects of the Web enable on-the-fly meetings between individuals with common interests. Spontaneous communication has occurred for some time now in chat rooms formed by investors, techno-geeks and moms alike.

So why shouldn't these affinity groups start aggregating their buying power? They will. The true consumer e-commerce revolution centers around aggregation and collaboration. Consumers will take advantage of the basic fundamentals of the Internet, capitalism and supply and demand curves to drive efficiencies and, in some cases, create better outcomes for society. Church groups will aggregate demand to influence charitable giving. New moms will bind together to save money on car seats. And these same moms will be able to make good purchasing decisions based upon the readily available knowledge of more experienced moms.

In most cases, buying cooperatives will be facilitated by trusted infomediaries, who will help organize consumers, represent them and match them with interested vendors. These infomediaries will have solid technology engines that facilitate complex transactions and aggregate massive amounts of data. Successful infomediaries will always respect the privacy of individual consumers but will leverage data collected from them to represent their interests collectively. Several companies are laying the groundwork for this upcoming revolution and taking very different approaches.

Aggregate Philanthropy

Charitableway is a philanthropic infomediary. The company's first charter is to facilitate workplace giving by reducing friction and providing great access to information on various charities. In essence, the company is creating a marketplace for giving.

The opportunity to extend this marketplace to both on-line and off-line commerce is quite exciting. Imagine the power of consumers banding with other consumers who share their philanthropic interests. People within a church could aggregate buying power and instantly leverage it to drive donations for those left homeless after an earthquake or flood. Local communities could employ virtual marketing to recruit friends and family into a buying circle in exchange for even more dollars. Why not recruit grandparents into a buying circle designed to put art programs back into schools?

Not sure to whom you want to give money? Simply create a charity committee to leverage the independent research found on the Charitableway Web site, make a decision and place an offer for Charitableway to shop to multiple potential vendor sponsors. The concept is rather like trading stocks. Are you interested in a long-term charity program focused on the environment but not sure of which charity to pick? Purchase an environmental mutual fund. The portfolio will be managed for you, and contribute quarterly based upon your group's collective purchasing transactions. Boy, will the holidays be good for the ozone layer! Maybe Christmas will stay white!

Over the past several years, the most successful Internet companies have leveraged public relations to become more influential and create buzz. Soon, consumers will collaborate and leverage PR to influence them. By aggregating purchasing power and leveraging PR, consumers will fundamentally change the way vendors think about and manage their businesses and their brands.

As an example, consider that vendors have the opportunity to create more meaningful customer relationships based upon mutual benefit. This concept fits into the emotional and collaborative aspects of successful branding today, which Agnieska Winkler champions in her book Warp Speed Branding: The Impact of Technology on Marketing. In this book, Winkler convincingly argues that enterprises are better off branding the company than individual product lines, while also highlighting the success of collaborative branding enjoyed by such companies as Intel and Dell. Charity is 100 percent about branding the company, not the product. By championing a charity that is important to the customer, the company creates a mutual goal that can lay the groundwork for a long-term relationship with the consumer, one that outlives multiple product cycles. With respect to collaborative branding, co-branding with charities could be raised to new heights.

Second, merchants and vendors will increasingly leverage charitable giving to reduce customer acquisition and retention costs. Consider it a direct reallocation from sales and marketing expenditures to charitable giving. Consumers see far too many advertising impressions each day. They are being bombarded. This past holiday season, the radio ads hyping the latest "dot com" became almost unbearable. Even the radio announcers got into the game, promoting their favorite Web site within the context of the show.

It's no wonder consumers are becoming numb and cynical, or that they are increasingly turning to one another to find "authenticity." Merchants and manufacturers will increasingly recognize that the money currently spent on advertising could be more effectively spent by giving something back to the consumer, in exchange for both their own purchases and the recruitment of friends and family. Who doesn't want a new customer? Who doesn't want to attract repeat purchases? Sales and marketing dollars will likely be reallocated not only from e-commerce merchants but also from big brands. Some $75 billion is spent on consumer advertising in this country. And $175 billion is donated each year in charitable contributions. Even a small reallocation of advertising dollars could have a meaningful affect on total charitable giving. From the consumer vantage, can you think of anything better than reducing the level of ad noise, while contributing to something you care about

Collective Buying Power

Looking to save money? Want to make better purchasing decisions without expending a whole lot of effort? Collaboration will also play a critical role in achieving these worthwhile goals. BizRate, for instance, harnesses the collective experience of millions of consumers to create a powerful shopping engine. This device enables consumers to buy with confidence, while pocketing rebates. Their message to the consumer is simple: "Don't Get E-Screwed!"

The site offers an unbiased rating guide, built by and for millions of on-line buyers. Merchant ratings are compiled using continuous feedback, which is solicited from millions of consumers as they make actual purchases and after fulfillment at more than a thousand of the Web's leading stores. Consumers are invited to fill out a survey regarding their purchasing experience at the point of sale. BizRate's members then rate each e-merchant, allowing positive experiences by brave, early adopters to pave the way for the rest of us. Just as important, consumers can instantly learn to avoid certain merchants, based on bad reviews. Moreover, BizRate combines this aggregated data with engine technology to direct individuals to the best store, based on specific preferences.

By cleverly consolidating e-merchant affiliate programs, BizRate also saves consumers real money. Affiliate programs are customer-acquisition vehicles, championed by key merchants. They work as follows: E-merchants pay a percentage of a transaction to on-line partners who refer customers to their site. The on-line partner becomes an affiliate of the merchant and receives a rebate on each sale. BizRate is an affiliate of hundreds of merchants and passes the entire rebate amount back to the consumer. All the consumer has to do is use a BizRate e-mail address when conducting a transaction. BizRate posts on its site the names of e-merchants who offer the highest rebates. Moreover, BizRate members can request that BizRate direct them to e-merchants based on the most compelling prices. It is that simple.

Once again, this is only the beginning. A recent strategic co-publishing deal between Consumer Reports and BizRate is clearly a precursor of what is to come. Ultimately, this concept can be drilled down to the product level. Consumers will get product recommendations not only from unbiased experts but also from a Consumers Union before they aggregate their buying power.

So why do e-merchants participate? Sellers who have nothing to hide gain the opportunity to advertise great customer service at the point of purchase. Moreover, e-merchants have the opportunity to leverage existing customers to attract new customers, reducing the cost of customer acquisition--a key metric by which Wall Street measures e-commerce companies. Finally, sellers have the opportunity to receive impromptu marketing research in an aggregated form, which enables them to adapt their product mix and services to customer needs more rapidly than before. This sort of competitive advantage will become increasingly important over time.

Hence, BizRate, with the help of its constituency, acts as a consumer advocate, while helping e-merchants (and ultimately manufacturers) run their businesses. The end result is that the transaction becomes more efficient.

Supply and Demand "in the Moment"

The more people that want to buy something, the lower the price. This is the basis of the Mercata PowerBuy. You canvass your e-mail list, looking for people who might want to buy what you want to buy. Suppose it's a big-screen TV; check them out at the store and then type the model you want into your Palm Pilot. Maybe you can get a volume discount via a PowerBuy. Mercata provides consumers with the opportunity to leverage the buying power of thousands of others who are interested in the same product at the same time. Supply and demand curves meet in the moment to create the ultimate, efficient transaction.

The beauty of this buying experience is that rather than competing with other consumers who are bidding prices up (an auction environment), consumers are working together to bring prices down. In essence, the more people who join together to buy, the lower the price goes for everyone. Key to this sort of transaction is a flexible pricing system called the PowerBuy. PowerBuys are limited-time buying opportunities during which consumers directly influence pricing. As more consumers decide to purchase a specific item, the efficiency increases and the price decreases. Consumers have the flexibility to accept the current offer at market price or place a limit order. Once again, it is sort of like the stock market. Consumer affinity groups--whether a baseball league, a mom's group or a senior citizen's club--can pool their buying power and bring prices down!

So why will manufacturers participate? Well, in part, because they will ultimately have to in order to preserve market share. But there are additional benefits. Mercata captures demand curves. Aggregation of information is very useful to sellers as well as buyers. Such information creates efficiencies with respect to production schedules and inventory management--all of which takes cost out of the system and enables better pricing for consumers.

Want a Personal Shopper?

Are you looking for an antique Art Deco lamp that you saw in Architectural Digest last month that you can't find anywhere? Interested in going river rafting in Costa Rica for vacation but don't have the hours to spend doing the legwork? Let Respond.com shop for you. Submit a request in plain English and receive e-mail responses from numerous category-specific sellers around the country via Respond.com. You remain anonymous. With Respond.com, you fill out one request form and they e-mail it to all relevant sellers, who present their merchandise without knowing your identity. You can compare all seller responses, and find the deals that suit you.

The best part is that you, the consumer, pay nothing. Sellers pay to receive your request. They are paying, in essence, for you to have a personal shopper who represents your interests and does the work for you. Once again, advertising dollars are being redeployed away from the major networks, radio stations and news publishers so that you can have a better, faster shopping experience.

Gift giving too will become easier. For all of us who are tired of trying to figure out what friends and family want as gifts, Della & James is creating a service that put multiple merchants on one site, focused entirely on gift registries and virtual wish lists. Their first application deals with weddings. Brides and grooms register on Della & James and then their guests can shop for a gift there. The registry includes merchandise from premier merchants, including Williams Sonoma, Crate and Barrel and Gump's, who will ship your purchase directly to the bride's home. So next year you can create a universal family wish list for the Christmas holidays and everyone will get exactly what they want.

This article presents you with just a few of the many infomediaries now delivering power to the consumer. To conclude, I will offer a few predictions of macro-oriented derivative effects. For one thing, deflationary trends will intensify, and disintermediation will continue. Indeed, travel agents and automobile salespeople will be a thing of the past, but customer service will continue in new and different forms. Also, the current spate of junk mail and dot com advertising will dissipate because such ads will become increasingly ineffective. And when consumers like a new service or product, they will spread the word to thousands of others within seconds. As soon as consumers recognize their power, they will seize the moment and collaborate--leading the e-commerce revolution.