November 30, 2005, 12:00 AM

The Age of Innovation

Online retailing has reached the point today where it’s the little things that count. The sites that stand at the top of the heap are those that know their customers and what they want and that make it easy for shoppers to find what they’re looking for and check out quickly and to shop online and buy offline. The leading sites have the basics down pat. Now the refinements and innovations are taking the spotlight.

Online retailing has reached the point today where it`s the little things that count. The sites that stand at the top of the heap are those that know their customers and what they want and that make it easy for shoppers to find what they`re looking for and check out quickly and to shop online and buy offline.

The leading sites have the basics down pat--they know how to deliver pages to consumers quickly, how to position merchandise to entice shoppers to become buyers and how to efficiently manage fulfillment and distribution. Now the refinements and innovations are taking the spotlight. Refinements like listening to customers and implementing their suggestions for what will make shopping easier. That`s what plus-size apparel retailer Junonia.com did when it introduced a tool that allows customers to shop by size. "That was on our customers` wish lists for a long time," says president Anne Kelly.

And innovations like Amazon.com`s deal with CoinStar Inc. that gives customers Amazon gift certificates when they cash in their spare change and dollars at supermarkets. Or one of its latest offerings that lets customers buy only portions of books.

And then there are innovations like the one that the technicians at Musicnotes.com developed themselves. It`s software with the definite Wow! factor that displays a page of music, then plays the piece being shown while a cursor indicates which notes are playing. Musicnotes.com also offers online guitar lessons. "By enhancing the shopping trip with a unique digital experience, we can sell a customer a sheet music print out, a download and a music lesson all in one simple purchase," says chairman and CFO Tim Reiland.

In addition to innovating in ways that are unique to the web, today`s successful sites are taking a page from offline retailer`s playbooks and making the shopping experience entertaining. For instance, Illuminations.com deployed Flash applications last Halloween to show shoppers a variety of products and how they could work together. "It`s entertaining," says Clay Lingo, vice president, direct-to-consumer sales.

Or they`ve learned to re-create exotic locales online, as Anthropologie.com has done. "Our customers would like to go to different places in the world and pick out things and find the story behind them, but they don`t have the time, so we do it for them," says Ranjana Sharma, manager of e-commerce. And it presents the products in suitably exotic settings.

Then there are improvements in such basics as order delivery. Peapod.com, one of the granddaddies of online retailers, dating its history to 1990, is equipping its delivery fleet with GPS navigation devices. Customers will soon get updates on delivery times, with an e-mail, text message or phone call when the truck is 10 minutes away. "That last-mile strategy is what people have been working on," says Neil Stern, senior partner with retail consultants McMillan/Doolittle. "It`s all part of making their business model more efficient and ultimately more profitable."

Many of the Best of the Web sites also excel in cross-channel strategies. Apparel retailer The Talbots Inc., for instance, recently implemented a feature at Talbots.com that allows shoppers to search by style, then reserve the resulting product at a Talbots store. "It`s amazing," says Lauren Freedman, president of Chicago-based consultants The E-Tailing Group Inc. "The ability to drive online customers into the store is very powerful."

In another example of a well-thought-out cross-channel strategy, BestBuy.com offers a kitchen and laundry planner that allows shoppers to create online plans of their rooms, then populate them with appliances. They can e-mail the resulting plans to friends, family or builders and print them out to take to the store when they buy the appliances. "Best Buy has a history of being first to market with a lot of online shopping applications and they continue to provide the tools to better segment the customer shopping experience," says Geoff Wissman, vice president of consultants Retail Forward Inc.

Not to be left behind, Circuit City Stores Inc. guarantees that items bought online will be ready to pick up in the local store in 24 minutes. "It`s a play on the 24/7 shopping capabilities of the Internet," says Fiona Dias, chief marketing officer. "We wanted to come up with a time frame that grabbed people`s attention but which we knew we could manage and would make our online shopping experience simpler."

As the Musicnotes experience shows, you don`t have to be big to create a stellar online shopping experience. The Top 50 is populated with small retailers who excel, such as CDBaby.com, which sells music of independent artists. Its basic design, simple navigation and goofy logo work for its audience, to the tune of $12 million a year.

The Top 50 set the standards. Let the rest of the industry follow.

Profiles of the Top 50 were written by Mark Brohan, Paul Demery, Linda Punch, Mary Wagner, Lauri Giesen and Peter Lucas.

 

Specialty/Apparel & Accessories Food/Drug/Beauty
Anthropologie.com AllenBrothers.com
EddieBauer.com CVS.com
Junonia.com Peapod.com
LandsEnd.com Sephora.com
Macys.com SimonDelivers.com
Talbots.com TheFruitCompany.com
Timberland.com Walgreens.com
Tommy.com  
  Housewares/Home Furnishings
Computers/Electronics/CDs/DVDs Furniture.com
BestBuy.com Waterford.com/WedgwoodUSA.com
CDBaby.com Wisteria.com
CircuitCity.com  
Crutchfield.com Mass Merchants/Department Stores
Headsets.com Amazon.com
HPShopping.com eBay.com
iTunes.com JCPenney.com
Netflix.com OfficeDepot.com
Newegg.com Staples.com
SonyStyle.com  
ThinkGeek.com Specialty/Non-Apparel
  Backcountry.com
Flowers/Gifts/Jewelry BassProShops.com
1-800-Flowers.com Biblio.com
AmericanGreetings.com eToys.com
BlueNile.com LillianVernon.com
GiftBaskets.com MEC.ca
Goldspeed.com Musicnotes.com
Illuminations.com Powells.com
PersonalCreations.com  
VermonTeddyBear.com  

 

 

 

Click Here for the Internet Retailer Guide to Vendors of the Top 50 Retail Web Sites

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