November 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Computers / Electronics / CDs / DVDs: Staying ahead in a high-tech market

Succeeding as an online retailer is difficult enough, but when you`re in the market of selling high-tech electronics products and media services, the winners are the ones who continue to evolve with both the technology they`re selling and the systems they use to serve customers.

Internet Retailer`s Best of the Web 2005

BestBuy.com
Blockbuster.com
CircuitCity.com
Crutchfield.com
Dell.com
FirstStreetOnline.com
Napster.com
Netflix.com

Succeeding as an online retailer is difficult enough, but when you`re in the market of selling high-tech electronics products and media services, the job gets even tougher. The winners are the ones who continue to evolve with technology - both the technology they`re selling and the systems they use to serve customers.

Take FirstStreetOnline.com. Recently relaunched from the former TechnoScout.com, FirstStreetOnline has evolved with both its e-commerce platform and its merchandising strategy to appear in this year`s Top 50 online retailers along with market leaders BestBuy.com, Dell.com and CircuitCity.com. Selling high-tech gadgets ranging from TV watches to a laser-beam device that shows how far to pull a car into a garage, FirstStreet extends its expertise in high-tech to the way it serves customers on its web site. Spend a few moments gazing at displays of its innovative products, for instance, and a smiling image of a live chat agent will float across the page offering instant assistance.

"The floating live chat is a cool feature, it`s unique," says Neil Stern, senior partner with retail consultants McMillan/Doolittle, adding that FirstStreetOnline`s product line needs the support of thorough descriptions and responsive customer service. "They do a good job of promoting live chat to help explain products."

The other leaders in this category are also forging ahead with both products and services. Dell.com, which pioneered the use of online configurators for custom-ordering computers, is expanding that service to its new offerings in digital media products. The idea is to give online shoppers the same comfort level that they might receive in a store, says Michael Farello, vice president of marketing and e-business for Dell`s U.S. consumer business. "We`ve launched new product categories like TVs and MP3 players that more often are shopped at retail, so we are seeking to attract that customer as well," he says.

The recently redesigned CircuitCity.com makes it easier for online customers to find and compare products. "Circuit City`s new web site is a big improvement over its prior site, especially when it comes to product comparisons and information," says Geoff Wissman, vice president with consultants Retail Forward Inc. "They have made a move in the right direction."

Crutchfield.com published more than 100 new articles this year in its Crutchfield Advisor, which operates as a separate content site linked to the e-commerce site. The Advisor goes beyond the usual how-to-buy information to include system installation videos and articles on how to use and enjoy consumer electronics. The articles link contextually to relevant products on the core e-commerce site.

In the digital music world, Napster.com continues to lead with innovation. This fall it launched Napster to Go, the first subscription service that lets customers buy songs and play them on a portable device. What`s more, it introduced with AT&T; and Audiovox the first service that lets subscribers carry their music around on a cell phone.

And in the hot market of online rentals of DVDs, Netflix continues to set a pace for others. By analyzing subscriber activity and improving the way it fulfills orders, it is now able to send its subscribers their top DVD choice 95% of the time, says CEO Reed Hastings. That has helped reduce subscriber churn, as the number of subscribers has tripled this year to over 2 million.


BestBuy.com
Making shoppping fun

If recreating the in-store shopping experience is essential to success as an Internet retailer, then BestBuy.com takes top awards. The retailer has created a web site with all the sparkle and energy of its stores through crisp graphics and an eye-popping layout that is easy to follow and navigate.

"Visitors to the site get the feeling of having fun, just like they do when walking into a Best Buy store," says Geoff Wissman, vice president of consultants Retail Forward Inc. "It is a well laid out site for shopping and information gathering."

That fact became evident to the rest of the Internet retailing community in early October when BestBuy.com supplanted long time ratings champ eBay as the consumer electronics site capturing the most unique visitors for the week ending Oct. 10, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Best Buy attracted 1.71 million unique visitors to eBay`s 1.54 million. The victory was a coup for Best Buy, since it trailed eBay considerably in the previous Nielsen/NetRatings report for the week of Sept. 5. In that report, eBay ranked number one with 1.79 million unique visitors, compared to Best Buy`s 1.48 million.

A recent addition is the ability for shoppers to download, crop and enhance the quality of digital photos. Shoppers can order prints for home delivery or pickup, and even create photo albums. Photos can be imaged onto greeting cards and calendars and users have the ability to select the size and finish of their photos. Users can also receive technical information and assistance from a service representative.

The service was developed in conjunction with imageLab, which offers similar services at Best Buy stores. The inclusion of the digital photo feature is part of a multi-pronged strategy by Best Buy to cater to consumers who purchase and use digital cameras. Shoppers, who are required to register with their postal and e-mail addresses before using the feature, are provided links to pages detailing BestBuy.com`s inventory of digital cameras.

"Best Buy does a much better job than many of its competitors when it comes to evolving its web site," Wissman says. "From a purely e-commerce standpoint their site works extremely well."

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