December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

How information---not just shopping---boosts sales and keeps consumers coming back

When it decided three years ago to extend its catalog business to the Internet, TravelSmith Outfitters Inc. was surprised to find this new-age business environment confining. “We always presented our products in the catalog with as much detail as possible, but the web limits us,” says Daniel P. Reardon, e-commerce director for TravelSmith Outfitters, a Novato, Calif., company that sells clothing and accessories for business and leisure travelers. “In the catalog, you can present products with big spreads and lots of background photos. But if you do that on the web, the page takes too long to download.”

TravelSmith also found that people don’t spend as much time browsing web sites as they do catalogs. That fact caused TravelSmith to alter its practice of placing feature articles offering interesting tidbits of information-such as the history of various fabrics-alongside products. “We don’t do that online because it is too easy for people to jump to an interesting link and never come back to the product,” Reardon explains.

TravelSmith was forced to compartmentalize the information it provides online, creating separate sections for product- and non-product-related content. Industry experts are advising all Internet retailers to begin mastering such content-management techniques as their markets become more competitive.

No one has hard numbers to support their claims, but retailers and industry analysts are convinced that content-when deployed properly-can ignite commerce. In a recent survey by Forrester Research, online retail executives identified content as the most effective selling technique. That sentiment undoubtedly contributes to another fact uncovered by Forrester: the average online retailer budgets $1.7 million a year for content.

Forrester defines content as any form of text, pictures, sound or video that either describes or enhances a consumer’s impression of a product. Some industry analysts, and most retailers, say content also includes non-product-related information such as feature articles, newsletters and interactive tools that can help an online retailer build relationships with consumers.

Under these definitions, virtually every business that sells goods or services online has some form of content. But most industry analysts agree that the majority of Internet retailers have not yet learned to use content as an effective selling tool.

In general, analysts advise Internet retailers to design their sites to make it easy for consumers to find content when they need it, without inhibiting them from initiating a purchase once they have decided to do so. Charles L. Gerlach, vice president with Mainspring Communications, an Internet strategy consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass., believes content should target specific groups of customers, and that it should always be directly related to products or services. “Most web site content is too general,” Gerlach says. “We see sites with fluffy articles that don’t even mention products. I don’t see that as being effective at all.”

Content supports commerce

Retailers experienced in using content say the right type of content-which means high-quality content updated regularly-can boost a company’s overall image as well as revenues. They also contend that merchants cannot create the right type of content without an in-house content department. “You need content to support commerce,” says Jennifer C. Lind, an associate with REI.com, the Internet business unit of Recreational Equipment Inc., a Seattle-based co-op with a worldwide chain of stores that offers clothing and equipment for outdoor enthusiasts. “It provides value above and beyond what you can offer in a traditional retail store.” REI’s Internet business unit operates three web sites.

REI.com recorded $41 million in sales in fiscal year 1999, a 237% increase over the previous year. Lind says those numbers make REI.com the leading online seller of outdoor gear. She also argues that the 45,000 pages of content that REI.com has generated since its launch in September 1996 has helped in achieving that status. “We see content as a customer service,” Lind says. “It is part of helping our customers get both the products and information they need to enjoy the outdoors.

Keep ‘em coming back

Like REI, Garden.com cites the integration of content and commerce as a major contributor to the continuing growth in both site traffic and repeat orders. Garden.com racked up 165.4 million page views in fiscal 1999, 61% more than 1998. The company also says that repeat customers accounted for 41% of orders in the fourth quarter of 1999.

“We have completely integrated content and commerce,” says Lisa W. Sharples, Garden.com chief marketing officer and co-founder. Visitors to the site can go directly to a shopping area, where most of the content consists of product descriptions, or to a separate area that holds an online version of Garden.com’s quarterly Garden Escape magazine.

Although the magazine is primarily an information-sharing tool, Sharples says, “Commerce is integrated into all of our articles.” A recent article on decorating garden entryways contained links to lists of a variety of products-including doorknockers, doorbells, wreaths and birdseed bouquets. Each product description has two additional links inviting customers to purchase that item or seek additional information.

Garden.com also has incorporated Gerlach’s suggestion of targeting content at specific customer groups. “We narrow cast the best varieties of plants based on where people live,” Sharples says. That feature is embedded in a section of the site in which users can design their own dream garden. They also can stop at any time during the design process to purchase any of the items they have selected.

“Our content is creating a relationship with customers that is pulling them back,” Sharples declares. “We change the articles on the site every week, but we can’t change the products every week. So it must be the content that keeps people coming back.”

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