December 2, 2003, 12:00 AM

But only a few are chosen

Industries move forward when the innovations of a few are recognized by the market. It is the reason we devote our entire last issue of every year to recognizing the innovations and market-leading operations of some of the nation’s best web stores, which comprise our annual selection of the Top 50 retail web sites.

Industries move forward when the innovations of a few are recognized by the market, which rewards the innovators with financial and market share growth and causes competitors to emulate the breakthroughs of the market leaders. This progressive cycle is the great virtue of unrestricted competition, and it is clearly visible throughout the developing online retailing business.

It is the reason we devote our entire last issue of every year to recognizing the innovations and market-leading operations of some of the nation’s best web stores, which comprise our annual selection of the Top 50 retail web sites. I stress the word “some.” While our Top 50 picks are the result of careful analysis of hundreds of sites by our editors, editorial advisers and expert industry sources, we acknowledge that many retail web sites deserve “best of breed” designation, and winnowing that list down to only 50 is a difficult and fundamentally subjective exercise.

Nonetheless it is an exercise worth doing, and we take it very seriously. While some of those left off the list can cite good reasons for being included, those on the list can rightfully take pride for being included. The 50 profiles of this year’s list of top retail web sites highlights the best practices that set them above the market and create a standard of excellence for others to follow. Taken together, they also reveal just how fast Internet retailing has matured from the overly hyped market of the late 1990s to the performance-driven culture that distinguishes the industry leaders today.

Several themes emerge from a study of these profiles. All of the sites in this year’s Top 50 are designed with the customer in mind. They are simple to use and easy to navigate and shop. They have greatly advanced the art of product presentation on the web. They provide useful information about inventories of desired merchandise and expected delivery times. They provide excellent tools for finding the product that is sought as well as comparative product information that helps shoppers choose the right item to meet a desired goal. And many increasingly provide excellent information about how to get the most from the products being purchased.

Perhaps most of all, they fit seamlessly into a multi-channel shopping experience. The brand presentation, merchandising messages and promotional offers on the web mesh with those in the store, catalog, newspaper ads or TV infomercials. Merchandise purchased at the site can be picked up or returned to the store. And increasingly, web sites provide real-time inventory levels at every store in a chain-which greatly helps the shopper at the site or at the store. Through just such innovations, the Top 50 sites profiled here give us a glimpse of the future of retailing that can only be achieved using the Internet.

I wish to congratulate all those web merchants chosen for this year’s Top 50-and thank our editors for another job well done in producing what is always the most difficult and gratifying issue of the year. Congratulations are in order, too, for our editorial team, who recently captured the 2003 Folio Magazine Silver Award for editorial excellence among retail business-to-business publications. This issue is a fine example of the excellent work our editors perform year round. Only 105 publications out of more than 2,000 entrants are selected for Folio’s Gold and Silver awards for editorial excellence in magazine publishing (the so-called Eddies), and like the Top 50 web merchants featured in this issue, their efforts raise the performance bar in their respective industries.

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