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SYSTEM AND METHOD FOR SINGLE-ACTION RETURNS OF REMOTELY PURCHASED MERCHANDISE
RELATED PATENT APPLICATION
 This application claims the benefit of U.S. Provisional Application No. 60/191,811, filed Mar. 24, 2000, and entitled "System And Method For Single-Action Returns Of Remotely Purchased Merchandise".
 The present invention relates in general to electronic commerce transactions and, more particularly, to a method and system for performing single-action returns of remotely purchased items.
 The Internet or World Wide Web is especially conducive to conducting electronic commerce. Many Web servers have been developed through which vendors can advertise and sell product. The products can include items (e.g., music) that are delivered electronically to the user over the Internet and items (e.g., books) that are delivered through conventional distribution channels (e.g., a shipping agent). A server computer system may provide an electronic version of a catalog that lists the items that are available. A user may browse through the catalog using a browser and select various items to purchase. When the user has completed selecting items to be purchased, the server computer system then prompts the user for information to complete the ordering of the items. This user-preference profile may include the user's name, the user's credit card number, a shipping address for the order as well as other information. The server computer system then typically confirms the order by sending a confirming web page to the client computer system.
 In addition to security concerns, purchasing items over the Internet has forced many changes in habit for customary brick and mortar shoppers. Internet shoppers are not only no longer able to pick up, try on or otherwise interact with merchandise available for purchase, Internet shoppers are subject to significant changes in the procedures necessary to return an item purchased on-line.
 The ability to simply carry a purchased item back to the retail counter from which it was purchased to request a refund does not typically exist for Internet shoppers. While some brick and mortar stores with Internet counterparts accept the return of merchandise purchased from their Internet counterparts, this is certainly the exception rather than the rule. Therefore, many Internet shoppers are faced with the logistical nightmare of having to return remotely purchased merchandise to a warehouse or returns facility operated by the Internet retailer.
 There exists a myriad of issues with which an Internet customer must contend to return this remotely purchased merchandise. For example, is the item returnable, how will the refund be paid, what shipping agent should be used, how efficient is the long distance returns process, what happens if the package is lost or damaged in transit. These and many other issues are currently contributing to the limited acceptance that Internet commerce has experienced.
 In accordance with teachings of the present disclosure, a system and method are described for single-action returns of remotely purchased merchandise.
 In one aspect of the present invention, a method for processing merchandise returns is provided. The method preferably includes identifying a user, gathering a transaction history associated with the identified user and displaying the transaction history associated with the identified user. The method may further include initiating a returns process in response to selection, by the user, of a transaction displayed in the transaction history.
 In another aspect of the present invention, a method for processing merchandise returns is provided. The method is preferably operable to display, on a client system, a transaction listing containing transactions associated with a user, the transaction listing preferably including at least one individual transaction indicative of merchandise purchased by the user from a retailer. The method is preferably further operable to initiate a returns process in response to selection of at least one individual transaction by the user.
 In yet another aspect of the present invention, a system for processing merchandise returns is provided. The system preferably includes at least one server communicatively coupled to a network wherein the server is operable to receive single-action requests from the network. Also preferably included in the system is at least one transaction database and at least one customer database communicatively coupled to the server. A program of instructions, executable by the server, is also preferably included. The program of instructions is preferably operable to access a client identifier included in the return request, identify a customer in the customer database based upon the client identifier and create at least one transaction listing from transactions included in the transaction database associated with the identified customer.
 The present invention provides a method and system for single-action returns of remotely purchased merchandise in a client/server environment. The single-action returns capability of the present invention reduces the number of user interactions needed to return an item and reduces the amount of sensitive information that is transmitted between a client system and a server system.
 In one embodiment, the server system preferably assigns a unique client identifier to each client system. The server system may also store user-specific return information to enable the processing of merchandise return transactions by the user. The user-specific information may have been collected from a previous return by the user or by some other method. The server system preferably maps each client identifier to a user that may use that client system to return an item of merchandise. The server system may map the client identifiers to the user who last returned an item using that client system. When a user wants to return an item of merchandise, the user preferably uses a client system to send a return request along with their client identifier to a server system. The server system then preferably determines whether the client identifier for that client system is mapped to a user. If so mapped, the server system determines whether single-action returns is enabled for that user at that client system. If enabled, the requested information is sent
(e.g., via a web page) to the client computer system along with an indication of the single action to be performed which will begin the process of returning an item of merchandise.
 When single-action returns are enabled, the user need only perform a single action (e.g., click a mouse button) to process the return of selected item(s). When the user performs that single action, the client system notifies the server system. The server system then preferably completes the merchandise return by adding the user-specific return information for the user that is mapped to that client identifier to the item return information (e.g., product identifier, retailer, credit account, etc.). Also, since the client identifier identifies a user-preference profile preferably stored at the server system, there is no need for sensitive information to be transmitted via the Internet or other communications medium.
 The present invention provides a method and system for returning a remotely purchased item using a client system. The client system is provided with an identifier that identifies a customer. The client system preferably displays information that identifies a user's transaction history and displays an indication of an action (e.g., a single action such as clicking a mouse button) that a user is to perform to return an undesired item of merchandise. In response to the indicated action being performed, the client system preferably sends to a server system the provided identifier and a request to return the identified item or items of merchandise. The server system uses the identifier to identify any additional information needed to process the return of selected item(s) and then completes the return process including managing the shipping of the merchandise and the crediting of a consumer account.
 A server system is preferably employed which receives and stores the additional information for customers using various computer systems so that the server system can process such returns. The server system preferably stores the received additional information associated with an identifier of the customer and provides the identifier to the client system. When requested by the client system, the server system preferably provides information describing the item(s) to the requesting client system. When the server system receives a return request from a client system, the server system combines the additional information stored in association with the identifier included in the return request to effect the return of the item(s).
BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS  A more complete understanding of the present embodiments and advantages thereof may be acquired by referring to the following description taken in conjunction with the accompanying drawings, in which like reference numbers indicate like features, and wherein:
 FIGS. 1A-1B illustrate web pages incorporating teachings of the present invention;
 FIG. 2 is a block diagram illustrating a system incorporating teachings of the present invention;
 FIG. 3 is a flow diagram of a routine capable of enabling single-action returns according to one embodiment of the present invention;
 FIG. 4 is a flow diagram capable of generating a web page in which single-action returns is enabled according to one embodiment of the present invention;
 FIG. 5 is a flow diagram of a routine capable of processing a single-action return according to one embodiment of the present invention;
 FIGS. 6A-6B illustrate flow diagrams capable of completing the processing of a return request incorporating teachings of the present invention; and
 FIGS. 7A-7C illustrate a user preference profile hierarchical data entry mechanism according to one embodiment of the present invention.
 The preferred embodiments of the present invention and its advantages are best understood by referring to the FIGS. 1-7C of the drawings, like numerals being used for like and corresponding parts of the various drawings.
 FIGS. 1A-1B illustrate web pages incorporating teachings of the present invention. Specifically, FIG. 1A illustrates a web browser displaying a web page containing transaction history 101 which includes individual transactions indicative of merchandise purchased by a user logged on to a client system. This example web page was preferably sent from a server system to the client system when the user logged on to the client system and requested to process a merchandise return. This example web page contains transaction listing 101, returns summary section 102, singleaction returns section 103, detailed item description section 104, user identification section 107, and returns information section 108. One skilled in the art can appreciate that these various sections may be omitted, rearranged or adapted in various ways without departing from the spirit and scope of the present invention. In general, the user is preferably made aware of the item or items to be returned by the single action and of the single action needed to begin the returns process.
 Transaction listing 101 and detailed item description section 104 preferably provide information that identifies and describes the item(s) selected by the user and which may be returned. The server system adds transaction listing 101 and detailed item description 104 to each web page for the item(s) the user has purchased from various retailers. The server system, however, preferably adds single-action returns section 103 when single-action ordering is enabled for the user logged onto the client system. One skilled in the art would appreciate that a single web page on the server system may contain all these sections but single-action returns section 103 may be selectively included or excluded before sending the web page to the client system.
 Single-action returns section 103 allows the user to specify, with a single action such as a single click of a mouse button, to return items of merchandise selected from individual transactions contained in transactions listing 101. Once the user has performed the preferred single action, the returns process for the selected item(s) is initiated. Singleaction returns section 103 preferably contains single-action return button 103a, user identification subsection 103fc, and single-action return information subsections 103c and 103d.
 User identification subsection 103fc preferably displays enough information such that the logged on user can be assured that the server system has correctly recognized them. To reduce the chances of sensitive information being intercepted, the server system preferably sends only enough information to the client system so that the user is confident
that the server system has correctly identified the user, yet not enough information to be useful to an unscrupulous interceptor.
 Single-action returns information subsections 103c and 103d allow the user to view or edit various settings in their user preference profile for single-action returns or to obtain more information related to the single-action returns functionality. If the user wants to verify accounts to be credited, or other user-specific information, the user can select the "Verify One-Click Settings" link 103c to view and/or edit their user preference profile. In response to selection of "Verify One-Click Settings" link 103c, the server system may require the user to perform a "server login" so that the identity of the user can be verified before any confidential information is viewed or modified. The server system then sends a web page to the client system for display and possible modification of the user specific information contained in the user preference profile. In this way, the transmission of sensitive information can be minimized or avoided unless requested by the verified user.
 When the user selects single-action returns button 103a, the client system sends a return request to the server system indicating the user's desire that the merchandise items associated with transactions selected in transaction listing 101 be returned. After the server system receives the return request, the server system provides the client system with a new web page confirming the receipt of the return request. The processing of the client system and the server system will be discussed in greater detail below.
 FIG. IB illustrates the display of a web page confirming server system receipt of a single-action return request. The confirmation web page preferably contains essentially the same information as the web page containing transactions listing 101 (i.e., FIG. 1A) except that return request confirmation section 105 is displayed at the top of the web page. Return request confirmation section 105 confirms that the single-action return request has been received and the return request is being processed. The return request confirmation web page also provides link 106 to allow the user to review and change the single-action returns in returns listing 110. In an alternate embodiment, the return request confirmation web page can be identical to the web page containing transaction listing 101, as illustrated in FIG. 1A, except that single-action returns button 103a is replaced with a message confirming the return request (not expressly illustrated).
 If single-action returns is not currently enabled for the client system but could be enabled, the server system preferably generates a web page similar to that illustrated in FIG. 1A, except that single-action returns button 103a is replaced by a single-action returns enable button (not expressly illustrated). Such a button preferably contains text instructing the user to click on the button to enable singleaction returns. When the user clicks on the button, the server system preferably sends the web page of FIG. 1A to the client system for display. Single-action returns can be enabled whenever the server system has stored sufficient user-specific information in a user preference profile for that user or client system to complete a single-action return. If the server system does not have sufficient information, when the user selects single-action returns button 103a, or an enable single-action returns button (not expressly shown)
the server system preferably provides a web page to collect any additional information necessary. The server system may require the user to "login" so that the identity of the user can be verified before the single-action returns capability is enabled or confidential information is shared.
 FIG. 2 is a block diagram illustrating a system incorporating teachings of the present invention. System 200 preferably supports single-action returns over the Internet using the World Wide Web. Server system 210 includes server engine 211, client identifier/customer table 212, various web page templates 213, customer database 214, transaction database 215, and retailer database 216. Server engine 211 preferably receives HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) requests to access web pages identified by URLs (Universal Resource Locator) and provides the web pages to the various client systems 220. Such an HTTP request may indicate that the user has performed the single action necessary to effect single-action returns.
 Customer database 214 preferably contains customer information for various users or potential users. Customer information may include user-specific return information such as the name of the customer, credit information, and shipping information in a user preference profile. Transaction database 215 preferably contains entries indicative of transactions associated with registered users, preferably transactions which were performed at singleaction returns participating retailers. Retailer database 216 contains a listing of the various retailers that participate in a local returns of remotely purchased merchandise program. Client identifier/customer table 212 contains a mapping from each client identifier, which is a globally unique identifier that uniquely identifies a client system, to the customer last associated with that client system.
 Client system 220 preferably contains browser 221 and assigned client identifier 222. The client identifier 222 is preferably stored in a file as a "cookie." In one embodiment, server system 210 assigns and sends client identifier 222 to client system 220 when client system 220 first interacts with server system 210. From then on, client system 220 includes its own client system identifier 222 with all messages sent to server system 210 so that server system 210 can identify the source of a communication or return request. Server system 210 and client system 220 interact by exchanging information via communications link 230, which preferably includes transmission over the Internet. Server system 210 may also retrieve transaction information from various retailer databases remotely located, as may be indicated in retailer database 216, with respect to server system 210 via communications link 230.
 One skilled in the art can appreciate that the single-action returns teachings of the present invention can be used in various environments other than the Internet. For example, various communication channels may be used such as a local area network, a wide area network, or a point-to-point dial up connection. Also, server system 210 may comprise any combination of hardware or software capable of processing returns in response to the single action teachings of the present invention. Client system 220 may comprise any combination of hardware or software that can interact with server system 210. Systems 210 and 220 may include television-based systems or various other consumer products capable of electronic commerce transactions.