December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

It`s easy to get lost in Kmart.com, but after a while, it all makes sense

Clicking onto Kmart.com for the first time is like muddling your way through the first day of high school. You’re never quite sure where you’re at, and even though big signs point you in the right direction, it’s hard to shake the confusion. But after spending a little time there, you start to find your way around. Even the hallways begin to make sense.

Troy, Mich.-based Kmart Corp. has been rolling out its e-commerce Web site piece by piece since last September, with Kmart.com serving as the entry point for several different niche Web operations. Categories include a wellness section; a home center; a well-stocked music store; a gift shop that features toys, jewelry and novelty items; and a software section divided up into areas including kids, home and office.

Each category has its own Web sites, such as familyandfitness.com and softwareselections.com. But here’s the confusing part: Some of these sections are part of Kmart, with Kmart processing the orders through a single shopping cart program, while others are separate entities. For example, if a shopper picks up Mega 2000 Multi Vitamins and a Mattel’s Blustery Day Pooh Plush, they can buy both at the same time.

But to add the latest Ricky Martin CD from musicfavorites.com, they must work their way through a completely different checkout process-and it’s easy to lose track of the items in the first shopping cart.

For its online music store, Kmart partners with another firm that fills the orders, which explains the separate shopping cart, explains Marisha K. Geraghty, Kmart’s divisional vice president of electronic commerce. That’s true for the Software Selections category as well.

Geraghty concedes that the shopping cart mix-up is a problem, but one that the company has time to fix. Most people shopping today check out with one item in their cart, she adds, with an average purchase price of $25.

Kmart even seems willing to let customers wander off the site altogether. Clicking on “Greeting Cards,” for example, takes shoppers to the American Greetings Web site.

Different strokes

Internet shoppers browse by interests, and Kmart has arranged its site accordingly, serving as a portal to popular shopping categories. Customers in stores are limited to shopping by department or by brand, but on the Internet they are able to shop differently. “We believe that by establishing mini-sites that are focused on interests, activities or particular customer segments that we can appeal to customers’ needs better,” Geraghty says. “The Internet is very much a niche-based media.”

Kmart may have put up too many walls that prevent shoppers from browsing through the entire store, suggests Noel Franus, an information architect with Carbon IQ, an information strategy and online development firm in San Francisco. “If I wander inside the online music store, I can look for CDs of my favorite artists,” he says. “One CD purchase might inspire another. But that’s as far as it goes. Why isn’t anyone pushing boom boxes to me? It’s a ripe opportunity for suggestive selling. Why do these related electronics surround the CDs inside Kmart the offline store but not Kmart the online store?”

On the plus side, Franus says, Kmart offers a front-page look at all product groupings and their relationship to one another.

A full day’s vitamins

Several of Kmart’s mini-sites, indeed, are well-stocked and informative. Family and Fitness, Kmart’s first e-commerce venture, features a great assortment of vitamins and herbs.

This section is easy to browse through. Once you find the herb that you’re looking for, you can click on a list of products that contain dong quai root, for instance. When the product appears on the screen, it’s accompanied by a brief, helpful explanation of common uses for the vitamin or herb.

By contrast, the Finally Home section, launched by Kmart last October, looks promising on the surface but is sparse once you get inside. Click on “Make it Pretty,” for example, and all you find are ceiling fans (19 of ’em). Kmart plans to beef up this section, Geraghty says, and the retailer is working to get its popular Martha Stewart line of home products on the Web.

Like its traditional retail counterpart, Kmart is relying on celebrities and well-known brands to build an online identity. Supermodel Kathy Ireland serves as executive editor of Family and Fitness, where she appears regularly for chat sessions. Kmart also is leveraging its exclusive licensing agreement with the Children’s Television Workshop, creators of “Sesame Street,” with a Web site aimed at new moms, called babyofmine.com. The site features content from CTW as it sells baby products and “Sesame Street” clothes.

First-time Web shoppers are more likely to buy something if they know what they are getting, which is what makes familiar names a big draw for the Internet, Geraghty says.

Kmart.com is especially conscious of consumers who may be new to online shopping. Each section’s home page offers how-to tutorials on e-commerce. And for the price-conscious consumer-which fits the prototypical Kmart shopper-coolsavings.com provides an online link to printable ads and coupons.

But for those customers who expect to leave the store with a full shopping cart-those who try to send flowers to their mom at the same time they pick up a new software program-things can get a little hairy. For them, and the rest of us, Kmart is overhauling its site for an August relaunch. With a streamlined design and a retooled technology, the new Kmart.com may also eliminate some of those extra shopping carts.

Kmart has never been one to shy away from self-improvement. In recent years, the retailer has updated its logo, revamped its traditional stores and launched a line of Super Kmarts. It should be fun to watch its Web site evolve as well. •

MargaretAnn Cross is a business writer in Allentown, Pa.

www.kmart.com

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