April 30, 2009, 12:00 AM

Anything can happen

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“We’re coming up with messaging to really encourage people to work with us through chat,” Topkins explains. “We don’t want shoppers to feel like a chat offer is trying to address a problem, like you’ve been here 45 seconds and haven’t done anything, is something wrong? We want to say things like, ‘You’re looking at this style of shoes, is there anything we can assist you with,’ or, ‘What size are you?’ We want to use chat in a way where we approach people more like a personal shopper.”

Optimizing the site

Jewelry Television also is focusing sharply on boosting conversion, creating a site optimization team charged with increasing conversion at JTV.com during the challenging holiday season and beyond.

“In this economy, for every qualified customer we get to the site, regardless of how they get to us, we have to focus on conversion,” says James Thome, senior vice president of e-commerce at Jewelry Television. “We have been running a conversion rate between 3% and 5%, a little north of the industry standard. But industry standards are not acceptable performance levels in today’s economy.”

Thome says the biggest challenge has been improving conversion during the checkout phase and in the shopping cart. And it’s been because of a unique obstacle: These pages are under the control of the retailer’s software engineering team, not e-commerce. Changes have to go through a long process from prioritization through quality assurance. So the retailer has decided to switch to an outsourced e-commerce platform from a vendor it cannot yet disclose. This change will bring all pages under e-commerce, giving the department full control.

“With that new control, a lot of testing and a sharp focus on conversion,” Thome says, “we expect to have a very effective online retail vehicle for the holidays.”

The more the merrier

While some retailers are focusing on conversion, others are focusing on adding products and categories to the mix to boost holiday sales.

ShoeMall.com just launched a Kids category and a deal center. It sees Kids as rounding out its offerings for the entire family, and the deal center appealing to today’s cost-conscious consumer. It’s trying them out now to see how they might work best for the holiday season.

Buy.com also sees adding products and categories as a winning strategy this year. Further, it will be adding more retailers to its marketplace.

“We just added jewelry and watches, perfumes, apparel and shoes, and home and outdoors. That added more than one million products we didn’t have before,” Grover says. “In the next few months we’ll be launching more categories, including automotive and health and beauty, and adding more sellers. We want to make sure when the consumer comes to our site they can quickly and easily find the best product and the best price.”

JTV.com is planning a major addition for the holidays, and likely will be facilitating it through drop shipping. Thome says Jewelry Television sells more than $100 million in loose gemstones a year, but has offered only a limited variety of castings and settings. So it is exploring relationships with companies that specialize in castings and settings to expand these offerings, and it can do so now more easily because of a change in I.T. infrastructure.

“We have not drop shipped because of the old, complex, inflexible, hard-coded systems we have in place,” he explains. “But with the new e-commerce platform, we’ll have the ability to easily link partners into our system and drop ship and thus broaden our selection. We are hoping to have this in place for the holidays. We’re looking at new verticals and new inventory strategies to have the right product for the right person on a highly converting site. The web is driving a lot of change in our enterprise overall.”

Trying something new

While Jewelry Television is working with a conventional technology, Scentiments is studying a new technology as a possible tactic for the holiday season.

“We’re testing with a company called Monetate. It is a software-as-a-service way where we can personalize in-house banners and overlays without all the programming that would be involved,” Wyner says. “For instance, the system can create a geotracking-generated banner that says, ‘Chicago loves our prices and service-click here for an additional 5% off.’ Or it can key in on where you came from online: ‘Hey Google shoppers: Get 5% off your order today.’ And we can target people who have purchased Dolce & Gabbana, for example, serving up an overlay on top of an image that says, ‘Save 50% if you buy another Dolce & Gabbana fragrance.’ It’s all about calls to action.”

If the test shows increases in conversion rates and average order values, Scentiments may deploy the system in advance of the holidays. So far, the new system is creating a 6% lift in conversion, Wyner reports.

“We could do 100 of these customized campaigns on all kinds of products as opposed to an unfocused e-mail blast trying to hit them all,” Wyner says. “And these campaigns are targeted at customers right at the time they need them, like when they’re doing a search. This would help us during the holiday season by enabling us to swiftly and easily offer any kind of offers we think are necessary.”

So retailers are placing their bets today on strategies and technologies, even though they can’t be sure what this holiday season will bring. However the season turns out, the e-retailers best prepared to deliver a great online shopping experience are more likely to have the happiest holidays possible.

bill@verticalwebmedia.com

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