September 25, 2009, 12:00 AM

FootSmart hires a vendor to get smart about selling on Amazon.com

The retailer turned to a vendor to tune up its product data feed for the Amazon marketplace and learn how to change in a rapid and automated way its offerings based on how competitors were selling. Today, sales through Amazon are up 400%.

Selling in Amazon.com Inc.’s marketplace is something of a battle. Retailers who agree to give Amazon a cut of everything they sell to get their products listed on the e-retailing giant are pit against one another to vie for placement and sales of the same or similar products.

FootSmart, a brand of Benchmark Brands Inc., No. 175 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, was having some difficulties handling the product data feed it had to continuously send to Amazon. So the retailer turned to Mercent Corp. to boost performance. Between the outside assistance and internal efforts in such areas as shipping and customer service, sales through the Amazon marketplace during the third quarter grew 400% compared with Q3 2008.

“You need to find a company that’s an expert with marketplaces so you can focus on your core competencies. And I doubt anyone at a retailer has a core competency of feed processing,” says Eric Heller, director of Internet marketing programs at FootSmart. “But there’s so much that is important in that feed processing. Mercent delivers regular feeds exactly how Amazon wants to see them and that has been a strong part of our success.”

Mercent, an online marketing firm that specializes in, among other things, online marketplaces, initially ensured that all of FootSmart’s products were being displayed on Amazon.com. In its first work with the data feed, it discovered a huge chunk of the retailer’s goods were not even getting through.

“The single biggest thing that has driven sales has been Mercent’s ability to help us get our selection up. On Amazon, a lot of times selection is king,” Heller says. “The difficulty of the Amazon interface posed a problem for us, and we were making poor usage of our own data through the interface.”

Getting all product data in sync with Amazon requirements and thus able to be displayed online was key to sales success, Heller explains. “It may not be the sexiest thing,” he says, “but it’s the sexiest part of our growth story.”

Product data in a feed has to match Amazon parameters in order for a product to be displayed. So, for example, FootSmart lists sock sizes numerically, such as 10-12.5. But in some cases, Amazon lists them as small, medium or large. Using the Mercent interface that funnels data from FootSmart to Amazon, Heller or a colleague can enter a rule that says for this brand of this particular product, change 10-12.5 to large, and the change is made instantly throughout the product feed.

“Every time Mercent sends my products to Amazon, they send it in a way Amazon will match it correctly,” Heller says. “For me to change that information any other way would involve me maybe waiting four weeks to get on an engineer’s schedule. Now I can see in reports any areas that aren’t right by Amazon and make any changes through the easy interface myself.”

Real-time analytics in the Mercent system show the retailer detailed aspects of how other marketplace retailers are selling; for example, by price, by inventory, by shipping options, by feedback and more.

“We pull competitive information in order to show our customers what works and what doesn’t, then incorporate changes decided on by customers into the data feeds in a rapid, cyclical process,” says Eric Best, CEO of Mercent. “For instance, a retailer can see that free shipping is big and then instantly change shipping method to free across certain brands.”

In the end, when a retailer has all of its inventory available, as opposed to just some due to problems with a feed, having data correctly matched, like a sock sized large, not 10-12.5, and having competitive prices and offers, such as free shipping where needed, it can find itself winning the most coveted spot on an Amazon.com product page. That is what Amazon calls the “buy box,” essentially the Add To Cart button being placed next to one retailer as opposed to another. FootSmart says it achieved these goals, won the buy boxes for many products and won 400% more in sales in a year’s time.

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