August 29, 2007, 12:00 AM

Strengthening the customer/e-retailer bond

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SHOP.COMpanion (left), which cost a couple thousand dollars to create in house over the course of one weekend, has received tens of thousand of downloads from the e-commerce site as well as from aggregator Yahoo Widgets, the company reports. The e-retailer promotes the widget in the footer of all its web pages but is not yet making a big push, instead waiting to see how initial use fares.

Constant link

Through its constant link with the e-commerce site, the Shop.com desktop widget enables shoppers to search for products without having to go to the site. The widget displays the top 10 search results accompanied by product descriptions, images and prices. Once a shopper finds an item she wishes to purchase, a click on the product takes her to the site. The e-retailer plans to add functionality to the widget, including wish list and gift registry.

Without enticements, SHOP.COMpanion’s downloads in the tens of thousands show significant interest by consumers. The result has been a small boost in traffic and conversion. “It’s an easy way to search through millions of products, and a bigger boost is coming,” predicts Vince Hunt, vice president of engineering at Shop.com.

Shop.com, Due Maternity, Moosejaw Mountaineering and J.C. Penney report thousands of widget downloads to date. Countless more widgets have been downloaded from all kinds of web sites that span industries and interests. Widgets are without doubt a novelty of great interest to a great many Internet users. The big questions are: What happens when the newness wears off? And what will Internet retailers have to do to ensure customers keep widgets on their desktops and continue to use them?

“It’s one thing to get a customer to download our widget and play with it for a few days. It’s a very different thing to convince them to adopt the Moosejaw widget as a part of their daily routine,” Wolfe says.

One way Moosejaw attempts to keep customers widgeting is through bribery, including advance notice on deals. “We give our customers extra Moosejaw Rewards points,” Wolfe says. “Moosejaw’s customers are always glad to accept a good bribe.”

Moosejaw also believes a significant chunk of desktop widget users will stay on board because the very nature of a widget is something potential users consider to begin with.

“Our customers do not download the widget because it’s a novelty. It’s too annoying to have on your desktop if you don’t truly care about the content,” Wolfe says. “Moosejaw has a cult-like customer base and they want Moosejaw to be part of their daily routine. That’s why they download the tool. And we will always keep the widget content fresh and exciting. We expect retention to be the area where we are most successful.”

First to know

J.C. Penney is using a similar strategy to keep customers using its desktop widget for the long term. For some new products, sales and promotions, widget users get the word first, and it is keeping content ever-changing and fresh, Owen says. “It’s about being the first to know,” he adds. “You can get the information without having to open an e-mail, which is very convenient.”

The retail chain is planning to survey widget users this month to gauge customer satisfaction with the widget and discover what it can do to ensure continued use.

Due Maternity is following a parallel path to Moosejaw and J.C. Penney. “The proposition is download the widget to easily keep track of your due date, but also for special savings,” DiPadova says. “It’s really the special savings that we hope entices customers to download and retain the clock.”

The popularity of widgets has grown exponentially over the past couple years because people want easy access to information and many do not want to dig through search engines, he adds. “We’re looking for ways to use widgets to improve the fun, entertaining aspects of our site,” he says. “Widgets are a way for us to stay entertaining and relevant, which will keep customers coming back for more.”

Gartner’s Valdes, however, says retaining desktop widget users will be a bigger challenge than some may think. “The novelty definitely will wear off, so it’s more tactical not strategic,” he contends. “There is a short-term effect here that retailers can take advantage of. After the novelty wears off, it’s all about how much value there is in that particular widget, how much help it provides a user. For a retailer to get longer term value, they still can exploit the novelty effect but there has to be something of pragmatic value.”

To get and maintain mass adoption will be a challenge; widgets must have a truly compelling value proposition, or an e-retailer must really tap into its most valuable customers, analyst Mulpuru says. “But given that it is not that expensive,” she adds, “if you can get a few thousand customers to download it, and those few thousand make purchases, it can be a good investment.”

Being there

Desktop widgets’ strength, experts say, lies in tapping into the psyche of valuable customers and fostering stronger ties. And e-retailers pioneering widgets hope that stronger ties translate into stronger business.

Getting more consumers to Shop.com and engendering loyalty is the bottom line, says Shop.com’s Hunt. “You need to be where people are,” he says. “Anyplace where people are connected to the Internet, like the desktop, we need to be. And that will drive more traffic and more sales.”

bill@verticalwebmedia.com

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