December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

A contender in price and selection, Reel.com sweeps the content category

Reel.com showcases deals as well as any Internet video store, hawking national bestsellers at 30% off. The site’s epic selection is an equally big draw for movie fans. But unlike competing Web video merchants, Reel is a destination, not just a place to give your credit card a workout. The site’s wealth of content entices movie buffs and works to turn them into buyers.

Considering Reel.com’s roots, the strategy makes sense. The site was launched in early 1997 as a hub for information about movies and only later started selling them. “Reel.com has more content than similar sites,” says Martin DeBono, an analyst with Gomez Advisors, Lincoln, Mass. “By providing all that information to consumers, they prevent defections to other movie sites.”

The site offers visitors a range of movie material, including news, reviews, interviews, previews and film clips. And that’s launched a number of look-alikes. “They are a market leader,” says DeBono, “but they can’t patent their unique features and ideas.”

Competitors have tried to copy Reel’s formula but Reel stands out with various video finders. Its “movie matches” feature helps visitors select new flicks by recommending similar titles to films. Fans of the quirky comedy Rushmore, for example, are pointed toward other offbeat comedies, such as Harold and Maude.

The “movie anatomy” tool dis-sects each movie based on elements, such as sex, violence, action, humor, family appeal, romance, suspense, cinematography, special effects, soundtrack, character development, and drama depth, then issues a rating for each category from 1 to 10.

The indecisive can peruse the “reviews and awards” section of any film in Reel’s extensive database. Included are critiques from influent-ial reviewers such as Janet Maslin of the New York Times, with snippets and quotes culled from the original reviews.

Search with speed

For customers who already have a movie in mind, finding it on Reel.com is a snap. The powerful and fast search engine, accessible from every page in the site, allows visitors to scour the database by title, actor or director. Choosing the advanced search allows you to search by other variables, such as ratings, price, and format (DVD, laserdisc, or VHS). You also can browse the site’s data-base of movies by genre, such as action, animation, classics or comedy.

Navigation is logical and con-sistent throughout the site. With so much content, that’s especially im-portant. Top and side navigation bars on every page keep visitors from getting lost.

The site’s top navigation bar is more directly focused on selling, with sections for DVDs, videos, kiddie flicks, sale items and promos, sound-tracks, and gifts. The side navigation bar directs viewers to a seemingly endless supply of movie content.

Completing a transaction is fast and easy. Repeat customers will speed up future purchases if they register with the site, which gives them the option of turning on “express shopping.” This feature is similar to Amazon.com’s one-click buying. When express shopping is turned on and customers click the “buy” button, the item is automatically loaded into their shopping cart, and the order is processed immediately, with no more forms to fill out.

Service stumbles

If only the shelves were as well stocked. My test run of the site found many items unavailable. To be fair, I was shopping right after Christmas, when supplies for many e-retailers were depleted by last season’s holiday rush. But the site could do a better job of handling back-orders. Though Reel tells customers when videos are out of stock, it doesn’t give an accurate idea how long it will take before the item is again available and will be delivered.

On top of that, the site may have grown too quickly to serve its burgeoning buying public: Several times during the checkout process I received a “server too busy” message, forcing me to reload the page.

Gomez Advisors, which lauded the site for its resources, express shopping and other features, also dinged Reel for only offering live customer service during the week. Buyers also have no way to track their shipments on the site-they must call for a tracking number and trace their package themselves. Customer comments about Reel.com on the Gomez site contained more negative than positive feedback, with most snipes claiming the site’s customer service was less than stellar.

Forrester Research included Reel in its “power ranking” for books, music and videos, praising its low prices but criticizing the company for its spotty customer service. “Reel wins in cost,” according to Forrester, “but its cust-omer service will leave you waiting.”

Standing room only

Undeterred by its detractors, Reel is convinced it has a hit on its hands. “We believe that the combination of our great commerce functions-including selection, fast delivery and customer service-along with our movie expertise and proprietary content make us the movie capital of the Internet,” says Rosie Ruley-Atkins, executive producer for Reel.com.

The site has built a loyal follow-ing, with more than 1.4 million visitors stopping by in December 1999. Even before the Christmas rush, Reel.com was packing them in, with just under that number of visitors coming to the site in September, according to Media Metrix.

Although Reel won’t divulge exactly how many of those browsers become buyers, the site earned $9.7 million in the third quarter of last year. Yahoo Internet Life magazine has cited Reel.com as the best place to buy videos and DVDs for two years running, and the site made Internet Retailer’s Top 25 list for 1999.

DVDs are the site’s biggest draw, according to Ruley-Atkins, and buyers are mostly men between 25 and 35. But Reel isn’t content just to be a leading seller of DVDs. The company is convinced that the future is beaming movies directly into peoples’ homes, allowing viewers to pick from a huge database instead of being restricted to what’s stocked on the local video store’s shelves or what’s broadcast on cable movie channels. Reel’s proprietary movie content “will be a useful decision-making tool in this new video-on-demand environment,” says Ruley-Atkins.

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