December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

SmarterKids gives toy-buyers an education. But will kids love puzzles as much as Pokemon?

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If either strategy is in the works, Noyes isn’t saying. He did offer a peek at the site’s blueprint for expansion, including fee-based online tutoring and distance learning features. The site now caters mostly to parents, but another goal is to target schools and teachers. The company has no plans to open physical stores anytime soon, according to Noyes, though he wouldn’t rule out such a move.

Whether the site wins or loses is tied into how many toys and related products it sells. And the best way to get toys off the warehouse shelves is to differentiate itself from the mass-market competition by carefully honing its product line. “Everything we carry has to have an educational or developmental purpose,” says Noyes.

That begs the question of whether selling kids on educational toys is the equivalent of coaxing them to eat their spinach. Gomez analyst Leonard is convinced that there “absolutely is a need” for toys that promote learning-as well as toy stores that sell them. An educational toy “doesn’t have to be stiff and boring,” she adds. That means parents who buy their children toys, games, books and software from SmarterKids can feel good about their purchase. And their kids will be having so much fun they won’t even notice they’re learning.

Janet Kalbhen is a freelance writer and Web developer based in Chicago.

www.smarterkids.com

- Time to load home page: 18 seconds (56Kbps connection)

- Time to move between pages: 10 seconds (56K connection)

- Total clicks to merchandise: 2

- Notable site features: The specialty centers for special needs kids and gifted and talented kids aren’t duplicated on other toy sites. The parents center includes numerous articles, activities and other learning aids, all features that make this site an education-oriented destination rather than just a toy store.

- Ease of contacting company: The firm’s toll-free number and customer service hours are posted in tiny type on the bottom of the home page and all subsequent pages, as are its mailing address. An e-mail link summons a form to send comments, suggestions or questions.

- Ease of ordering and paying for merchandise: Registering and setting up your express settings makes checking out a snap.

- Are privacy/payment policies clearly posted and explained? Posted at the bottom of each page is a link to SmarterKids’ privacy and secure shopping policy.

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