December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Sole Man

(Page 2 of 3)

Nordstrom can tap relation-ships with existing suppliers and manufacturers for an e-commerce offering few can match, Gurley contends. Like other retailers with dot-com subsidiaries, the setup allows Nordstrom to break through the bureaucracy that can inhibit companies from moving fast enough on the Web.

Nordstrom.com has its own board and executive team, along with the power to make decisions without the parent company’s say-so. On top of that, the compensation structure includes equity and other features typical of Web companies to attract top-notch talent.

Fitness training

As for what attracts customers, most make their shoe selections based on appearance and fit, two experiences difficult to create online. “Every shoe and every foot is different,” says Lori Arendt, who owns two designer-shoe outlets based in Chicago and also sells shoes online. “There are problems with sizing when people can’t actually try shoes on.” Arendt solved the problem on her Web site by selling only sandals and other open-toed footwear with more sizing flexibility.

Nordstrom, with 30 million pairs of shoes ranging from pumps to work boots, is setting no such limits. Along with a wide selection, Dan Nordstrom and his team wanted to boost the shoe site’s content and entertainment value-the key to drawing younger, fashion-conscious shoppers. So they worked with technology vendors to come up with Web applications designed to replicate the in-store experience.

A first step involved migrating Web operations to the Microsoft platform (the bricks-and-mortar side continues to work with IBM). “We were looking for the kind of technology that is really going to bring the store experience into play,” says Chris Dressler, Nordstrom.com’s senior program director. “The idea was that the customer experience should be just as good online as it is in the store. It shouldn’t be Nordstrom lite.”

Along with giving the site more scalability, the switch to Microsoft opened the door to developing applications to make online shoe-buying a friendlier experience. Some highlights:

- The Sole’s Desire Quiz acts as digital salesperson by generating customer-specific recommendations. A five-question quiz solicits information that classifies shoppers into one of several categories. Once it has pegged the shopper’s type, the site suggests additional merchandise.

- The Fit Advisor is an attempt at sizing shoes of various styles. Nordstrom has crunched data from suppliers that compares fits typical of various vendors. If a shopper wears a size 6 in a casual shoe from Nine West, for instance, her so-called true size is larger for a more narrowly built Ferragamo.

- The online Brannock replicates the metal gauge that shoe stores use to measure feet. If shoppers want to check their foot length and width, they can print out the Brannock surface from the site.

To pull these features together, a dedicated Internet team of Web developers, designers and merchandisers worked with Microsoft to develop many of the site’s new applications from scratch.

The stakes involved in pioneering virtual bells and whistles are high, and anything less than flawless execution can put customers off a site. Several Web shoppers reported mixed experience with Nordstrom shoes, including problems in accessing various features, slow loading, and inability to retrieve some images. Viewing the Brannock device required a cumbersome download of Adobe Acrobat reader, and some shoppers found the site confusing and difficult to browse.

“If Nordstrom does not simplify site navigation, consumers will conclude that buying shoes online is just as much of a hassle as they’d suspected,” says Evie Black Dykema, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Time to shape up-fast.”

Nordstrom himself views the shoe site as a work in progress: “We think we’ve made a good start, but we have a lot of ground to cover.” Adds Benchmark’s Gurley: “The learning here is incremental. Like any innovators we’ll listen to the customer base. If something doesn’t work, we’ll search for an alternative solution, but I’d still rather be the guy pushing the envelope.”

If setting the standard works both ways, every glitch represents an opportunity for competitors. In October, Zappos.com of Emeryville, Calif., launched an expanded online shoe store with 100 brands and several features missing at Nordstromshoes.com: free shipping, live chat customer service, and even free socks with every purchase. Zappos.com is only one of the retailers featured in Shoe Mall 2000, an online hub sponsored by ShoesontheNet.com. And Shoe Mall 2000 also is among several online shoe malls now vying for Internet shoppers’ attention.

Nordstrom.com won’t disclose sales to date or even projections for Nordstromshoes.com, so any official read on the site’s performance will have to wait until the close of the first quarter, when the company will release selected financials. Whatever the early results show, many observers say just creating the site moves the company in the right direction. “Nordstrom is known as a pretty conservative organization, but they took a non-conservative stance,” says Cutler. “Plunging into the unknown is infinitely better than ignoring the writing on the wall.

All shoes, all the time

From stocking millions of styles to standing behind them, Nordstrom’s shoes-only site is aiming high. Here’s how it’s setting the bar for its competitors:

- 30 manufacturers, ranging from Kenneth Cole to Stride Rite.

- A $15 million advertising blitz to launch the site. The six-week television and print campaign got consumers’ attention with a tongue-in-cheek “Make room for shoes” theme that cut through the holiday clutter.

- Portal deals with AOL, iVillage and Yahoo!

- Integration among channels: Like goods sold at nordstrom.com, shoes purchased on the Web site can be returned at any Nordstrom store. What’s more, the company’s catalogs refer shoppers to the Web.

- What one analyst calls “a brain-dead simple” solution to minimize the inconvenience of returns for consumers: a pre-addressed, postage-paid envelope shipped with every order.

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