November 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Housewares/Home Furnishings

Few retailers face more challenges in setting up web sites than those selling housewares and home furnishings. Savvy online retailers in this category tackle the problem by trying to recreate the look and feel of an in-store visit. And they’re doing it with a combination of state-of-the-art merchandising technology and an eye for visual appeal.

Internet Retailer Best of the Web 2007

Chiasso.com
Cooking.com
LumberLiquidators.com
WSHome.com

Few retailers face more challenges in setting up web sites than those selling housewares and home furnishings. That’s because most shoppers find it hard to picture how a certain sofa or floor covering will look in a room without seeing the actual item. And considering the high prices of much of the merchandise, it’s critical that customers see value.

Savvy online retailers in this category tackle the problem by trying to recreate the look and feel of an in-store visit. And they’re doing it with a combination of state-of-the-art merchandising technology and an eye for visual appeal.

At Chiasso.com, a sofa is shown not only as a stand-alone piece of furniture but also in a room setting. Customers also have access to multiple views of a product-in some cases from the front, rear and sides-rather than a single static image. The site also enables shoppers to get a view of a product right down to the color and fabric.

At LumberLiquidators.com, the in-store feel comes in the form of its Floor Finder feature, which provides online shoppers the ability to decide what’s best for their project and budget by asking questions about installation type, color and price range. That can be a major draw for shoppers struggling to sift through myriad options. Should they go with solid hardwood, engineered or laminate? Should it be pre-finished, unfinished or hand-scraped?

Sometimes online technology enables retailers to provide a wider assortment of products than can be found in stores. That’s the case at Williams-Sonoma Inc., which launched a site dedicated to its premium home furnishings brand. The expanded selection also has more than 100 designer fabrics and 30 unique silhouettes.

The Williams-Sonoma Home site also features a comprehensive furniture preview tool and visual images, including up to 24 image views on some products pages, ranging from room settings to product detail. The site also features a furniture preview tool that lets shoppers try out upholstery options on different furniture frames.

To be sure, there always will be consumers who prefer the in-store shopping experience when buying housewares and home furnishings. But retailers that know how to recreate that experience online will surely find a ready audience.


Chiasso.com
Finally, causing a sensation

When it launched in 1999, home décor retailer Chiasso’s site didn’t quite reflect its name, the Italian word for “causing a sensation.” That came in fall 2005, when Chiasso did a top-to-bottom redesign. Now the site is not only a place for buying housewares and furnishings, it also serves as a showroom and a forum for exchanging ideas.

After the redesign, customers have access to multiple views of a product-in some cases from the front, rear and sides-rather than a single static image. And they can view a sofa in a room setting and as a stand-alone product. The site also enables shoppers to get a close-up view of a product, right down to the fabric.

“The site we had before was sort of patched together,” says Jerry Bergquist, information technology manager. “We’d make an improvement here, make an improvement there. This redesign was to try to get a whole new look and feel for the site.”

Chiasso.com also has features designed to draw customers back to the site, including product reviews and design contests. The site recently posted photos of winning room designs submitted by customers to its “Show Us Your Chiasso” contest.

“That’s pretty cool,” says Shari Altman, president of Altman Dedicated Direct. “It makes it real for the customer to see how the items were used in a real person’s home.” Chiasso further takes advantage of the contest by creating links to the items featured in the photos, she says.

“In general, the home page is very clean and clear and makes it easy to figure out where you want to go,” Altman says. But Chiasso could do a better job of playing up the “Sale of the Day” on the home page, she says, noting that there was no information or photo of the item. “It’s just a mystery item at a mystery price.”

But adding further to the improvements, Chiasso recently implemented a new hosted site search solution. “Basically,” Bergquist says, “we’re trying to make the whole shopping experience easier for the customer so they can find what they need and have an easy checkout process.”


Cooking.com
Winning recipe

Online cookware shoppers are a passionate and picky lot. In the kitchen they prefer their work space and ingredients to be just right and the same holds true for the e-commerce sites they frequent.

Over the years, Cooking.com, an online retailer since 1998, has developed a loyal following by building and maintaining an e-commerce site that gives shoppers precisely the merchandise and content they’re looking for. Cooking.com offers web shoppers a cleanly organized web site and a wide assortment of merchandise that includes 50,000 SKUs. But what gives Cooking.com staying power in a very competitive shopping niche is the site’s innovative use of customer service technology and the ability to gather customer feedback that results in better content, desirable merchandise and more sales.

Throughout its product pages, Cooking.com prominently displays feedback boxes that customers can fill out to submit their comments, questions and complaints. Each month Cooking.com receives about 4,000 submissions which the company uses to plan site improvements and add shopping categories. Taking to heart what customers want pays off. In the past two years the conversion rate on coffee makers has increased by 90% because Cooking.com studied customer comments and then added more than 40 new styles and colors. “Our shoppers are very specific about what they want in the feedback we get from them,” says Cooking.com founder and president Tracy Randall.

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