July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Selling Widgets

The single-purpose applications called widgets are sprouting tiny shops and mini-affiliates across the web.

By Bill Siwicki

Personalized apparel and gifts e-retailer Zazzle.com Inc. is encouraging some customers to take their custom goods and sell them somewhere else.

No, Zazzle.com hasn’t lost its marbles. It’s found a widget, a tiny application that is enabling bands creating and selling merchandise on Zazzle.com to launch a miniature version of a Zazzle.com store on their MySpace pages.

A band can download the widget from Zazzle.com’s MySpace Music page to its page and use an interface with Zazzle’s data feed to select its own merchandise and create a product gallery within the widget. There, the band’s fans who have MySpace accounts can browse the merchandise, select a product, hit Complete Purchase, and be automatically sent from the widget store to Zazzle.com, which handles payment and order fulfillment and tracks commissions for customers creating products.

The idea is to let customers set up shop in an environment where fans already congregate and interact with the bands, a setting where bands have their entertainment and promotional web content.

“We’re giving customers the ability to sell their goods online in a place contextually relevant to them,” says James Heckman, chief strategy officer at Zazzle.com. “The bands want to keep people interacting on their MySpace page, so they have this dynamic shopping subsection.”

This is the primary direction widgets are taking in e-commerce: personalizing the Internet retailing experience. While web page widgets can be used for myriad purposes throughout all industries on the Internet, in online retailing they’re letting customers become sellers.

Widgets are small applications designed to enable a specific function or set of functions in a contained visual space. They can be placed on a web page or downloaded to a desktop (for story on desktop widgets, see Internet Retailer, September 2007, p. 26). E-retailers, application development companies and individual Internet users create widgets using programming languages such as HTML and Flash.

Widgets are designed to be self-contained and portable so web site operators or Internet users can place them anywhere they like on any HTML page. They also can be developed using the application programming interface of a particular web site-social network MySpace, for example-to integrate functionalities unique to that site.

A shopping blogger might create a widget that searches the blogger’s favorite merchant’s e-commerce site, reaching out to engage the merchant’s site search functionality and displaying some results within a box residing on the blog. A widget development firm might create a news widget that takes the RSS feeds of major news organizations and displays by user-selected categories headlines and brief story descriptions within a box that can be placed on any web site.

An e-retailer might create a widget that entertains or informs shoppers on a subject related to products they sell, placing the widget on the home page or a product category page, or offering it to shoppers for the shoppers to place on their own pages. These widgets are designed to engage shoppers with brands, not turn shoppers into sellers.

For example, makeup and skin care products retailer Clinique offers Sun Buddy, a widget that delivers to a shopper her local weather forecast, UV index rating, sun tips, recommended SPF products and special offers. After downloading the widget from Clinique.com, the shopper can place it on her web site or social networking page so she can keep track of weather conditions, provided by the e-retailer through a link with a national weather forecasting service. This way, the information she desires exists on her page and she does not have to go elsewhere to retrieve it.

Meaningful communication

Widgets drive a brand’s reach and are important because they expand the options for maintaining meaningful communication between a brand and its customers, says Steven Plous, CEO of Direct Message Lab, which builds widgets as well as applications for social networks and m-commerce. The company developed Clinique’s Sun Buddy.

“Now brands can engage the user in places that the user selects and where the user spends time online,” Plous says. “The ability to move the same branding between diverse environments such as an e-commerce site and a social network profile and a blog with just a few clicks makes widgets unique. This flexibility enables widgets to be shared virally and drive exponential growth in the user base.”

While use of web page widgets to deliver content, as Clinique delivers sun-related information, is just beginning to blossom, widgets used specifically to sell products, like Zazzle.com’s widget, are starting to take off. These widgets essentially are mini-affiliates that showcase products offered by e-retailers, enable Internet users to shop, and typically link shoppers to an e-retailer’s site or the widget’s host site to complete a purchase.

Zazzle.com decided to first roll out its new widget to bands with MySpace pages because its customer base includes a great many musicians and because MySpace has a young demographic and is a hub for musicians and music lovers. The e-retailer’s in-house programmers took four weeks to create the tiny shopping widget and incorporate MySpace functionality.

“Anyone can build a widget,” says Zazzle.com’s Heckman, adding that widgets are a quick and inexpensive way to extend a brand’s reach and increase sales. “The investment is very low. It’s not like you have to build a whole new web site. And your return is almost immediate.”

The Zazzle.com widget is new, and Heckman declines to report total revenue created by the widget. However, more than 15,000 bands are operating widget stores. This is in large part due to the e-retailer signing agreements with MySpace and some record producers. As part of the MySpace agreement, for example, the social network’s founder, Tom Anderson, sent a bulletin to all bands with MySpace pages informing them of the Zazzle.com widget store functionality. Zazzle also ran an ad campaign on MySpace.

Customers selling the goods

The bigger picture for shopping widgets, though, comes from third parties aligning with retailers. Three shopping widgets have emerged in the last 18 months as the early leaders. They include Lemonade Inc.’s Lemonade Stand, bSocial Networks Inc.’s MarketLodge and Shopit.com’s Shopit Store.

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