November 25, 2002, 12:00 AM

Just another sales channel?

Take a close look at the web sites featured in Internet Retailer’s fourth annual Best of the Web profiles of the Top 50 Internet merchants. It reveals that Internet retailing is ruled by diversity and imagination, not by convention.

I have always thought the phrase “conventional wisdom,” when applied to business strategies, was an oxymoron. Following convention in response to ever changing markets is anything but wise. This is particularly true for retailing on the Internet, a market and technology still in an adolescent stage.

Yet, this has been an arena rife with conventional wisdom. Things are said about this new medium because they sound right and there is not yet a developed a body of knowledge to refute them. Remember when everyone said “content is king” in web merchandising, until we realized that some of the most successful sites are those that stress simplicity and product over editorial? Remember when everyone thought that the “first movers” in this market had the advantage, and so they spent like drunken sailors on Super Bowl commercials to create a national brand overnight-money, it turns out, that would have been better spent on methodical development of infrastructure? These days some people tell me that the Internet “is just another sales channel” in a multi-channel retailer’s arsenal. The implication is that it’s not uniquely different from the other channels and doesn’t require new sales techniques or marketing strategies.

Before that becomes conventional wisdom, take a close look at the web sites featured in Internet Retailer’s fourth annual Best of the Web profiles of the Top 50 Internet merchants. It reveals that Internet retailing is ruled by diversity and imagination, not by convention. In fact, we had to double the number of top retail web sites this year because there are so many different and creative practices emerging in this industry.

It seems no two sites share the same winning formula. We see Buy.com starting a cable TV talk program to showcase its products and drive customers to its web site. We see auto accessories cataloger J.C. Whitney segmenting its web site into boutiques that cater to different types of car buyers, something it could not afford to do with its catalog. And there’s Drugstore.com, which introduced a highly successful line of pet products when it realized that customers registering at its site often employed pet names in the password fields. Similarly, Omaha Steaks, upon discovering that its web site draws a younger, more adventuresome clientele than its catalog’s customer base, is beefing up (sorry) its online product assortment by adding lobster and frozen gourmet meals.

Store-based merchants are also learning that the web adds an entirely new dimension to the art of retailing. Radio Shack is boosting store sales by installing terminals in all stores with broadband access to its Internet site. Best Buy is learning that its web site is a better place to market leading edge consumer technologies and is using clickstream analysis to capitalize on that advantage by personalizing cross-selling techniques. And Starbucks is finding new ways on the web to market its addictive products. Visitors to its web site can reload their prepaid Starbucks cards online or view videos to learn how to operate its espresso machines.

Then there are the perennial leaders of this business-Amazon, Lands’ End and eBay-who pioneer by flouting convention. Amazon continues to amaze with its successful expansion into new product areas. Lands’ End is building its web volume with innovations such as custom-fitting apparel. And as for eBay, well it’s only redefining its original mission.

So, is the web “just another sales channel?” Sure, about as much as a 120,000-square-foot warehouse outlet is just another store.

Jack@verticalwebmedia.com

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