November 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Specialty/Non-Apparel For niche e-retailers, content is king

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It offers a learning center with videos, definitions, and how-to guides. The home page invites customers to comparison shop so they not only can learn what product they might need but also compare brands and prices.

There`s also a live chat feature that lets shoppers ask questions and discuss products. When a customer shows signs of confusion, such as going back and forth between pages repeatedly, specialists in such areas as water heaters and lighting will reach out by popping up a window inviting the customer to ask a question.

And if they`re still befuddled, customers can click in their phone numbers and ask to have a customer service rep call them--without having to wait in a telephone queue.

The learning center "helps you understand the product and how to use it," says Gene Alvarez, vice president of the Stamford, Conn.-based technology research and consulting firm Gartner Inc. "That`s the kind of information you`d typically get from an associate in a store. They`ve put that help online."

Another helpful tool, he says, is a peek-ahead preview pad that provides information on a product without the visitor having to navigate to another page. PlumberSurplus.com recently added product reviews, which "generate a lot of trust in the site," says Timothy Jackson, one of the owners and managing partners of the Riverside, Calif.-based e-retailer.

"The true shopper at the top of the purchasing funnel doesn`t always know what they`re looking for," says Brian Chelette, the other partner. "They can come to our site and utilize it not only as a place to make a final purchase," Jackson chimes in, "but as a place to learn." Back to Top


Power play
With $400 in winnings from a lucky night on a riverboat casino five years ago, Jon Hoch stepped into e-commerce with the purchase of several web addresses. But a lot more than luck supports his booming online business in selling bulky items like power generators and snowblowers.

Hoch had already started to forge his own path when, as a public relations manager for a manufacturer of power generators, he volunteered to redesign its information-only web site, realized the potential for e-commerce sales and set out to prove it to a skeptical industry. "At first manufacturers just rolled their eyes," Hoch says. "They didn`t understand the potential of the Internet."

In 2002, Hoch founded Power Equipment Direct Inc. and a string of sites, ElectricGeneratorsDirect.com, PowerWashersDirect.com, AirCompressorsDirect.com and, this fall, SnowBlowersDirect.com.

Hoch`s staff of 19 constantly monitors national weather reports for communities in the line of severe weather like hurricanes and snowstorms. Then they search the web for local radio stations and newspapers and e-mail them audio clips and print ads that advertise Bolingbrook, Ill.-based Power Equipment Direct`s web addresses. The strategy has helped drive overall sales to $15 million in 2006, up from $9 million in 2005.

Through a combination of drop-shipping and fulfilling orders from its own warehouse, the e-retailer will guarantee next-day shipping and delivery times from two to 10 days. Shoppers on its web sites can click on a map that shows how long it takes to ship to their region.

For the many shoppers who know little about generators or even the differences among snowblowers, Hoch`s sites offer plenty of how-to manuals, product demonstration videos and advice designed to ease the purchase process.

"The `Good, Better, Best` shopping advice is a fantastic concept for making it easy for someone who needs a household air compressor but would not even know where to start," says David Schofman, an e-commerce consultant and founder and former CEO of Callaway Golf Interactive. "These niche plays that understand their products and their consumers will always have a place in e-commerce." Back to Top


Tuning in to film buffs
When "The War" debuted on PBS recently, the Ken Burns film on the people and times of World War II was a hit not only on public television. It also flooded ShopPBS.com with shoppers looking for the related sets of DVDs, CDs and books.

Thanks to a redesigned web site, those shoppers more easily found those products in the exact mix they wanted. They can enter "war" in the site search window to see the wide range of products about the Burns film as well as other war-related productions, then click one of several links--format, price range, production date, and the date a program aired on TV--to automatically narrow and re-sort the search results.

"ShopPBS.com has done a good job with the user interface given the complexity and massive amount of information and products they have to work with," says David Schofman, an e-commerce consultant and founder and former CEO of Callaway Golf Interactive.

That wasn`t always the case, admits Andrea Downing, vice president of home entertainment and partnerships for PBS and head of e-commerce. "We have so many TV programs that it was hard for shoppers to find what they were looking for," she says. It often took the site`s core group of customers--affluent consumers 55 and older--too long to find the right product to complete a purchase, she adds.

The new ShopPBS.com is now an example of a retailer that understands how its customers shop its web site and has taken the necessary steps to connect customers with a complex product base.

As part of its improved navigation, the site eases the shopping experience by displaying nine shopping categories--from the general "shopping by interests" to the more specific "science and nature"--in a navigation bar across the top of every page. Mousing over each category drops down menus for further shopping options.

The result, Downing says, is that shoppers are finding what they want faster and completing more purchases. "Conversions have gone up, while page views have gone down," she says. Back to Top


Picture perfect
Shutterfly.com, the web-only photo and publishing service, is always looking for new ways to preserve memories of family and friends. Long known for being innovative, Shutterfly.com uses technologies such as Flash, Ajax, and Java to make the site easy, intuitive and fun for people to be creative, says Jeffrey Housenbold, Shutterfly CEO.
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