November 21, 2009, 12:00 AM

Necessity breeds innovation

Internet Retailer’s annual celebration of the most innovative online retailing sites. Web merchants responded to the recession with a burst of creativity. Here are 10 ways this year’s Hot 100 online retailers kept sales flowing during the downturn.

 

 As the economy spiraled downward early this year, Staples Inc. added new product categories to its web site and beefed up site-to-store features. The goal was simple, says Pete Howard, senior vice president of Staples Business Delivery.

“We want to emerge from this recession with a healthier customer list,” says Howard, who manages Staples’ e-commerce business.

With the economy beginning to pull out of the deepest downturn in generations, this is a good time to highlight those online and multichannel retailers that used their web sites in novel ways to make customers more loyal, even, as Howard observed, if they were spending less. This year’s Internet Retailer Hot 100 list is full of such examples.

As described in the pages that follow, each of these e-retailers came up with new ideas in the past year that offer valuable lessons for other web merchants.

Many focused on engaging customers, through enhancements to ratings and reviews features, more informative blogs and question-and-answer features on their web sites, and by aggressively communicating through such social networks as Facebook and Twitter. Some made site navigation more intuitive, while others generated excitement through members-only offers and daily deals.

And a surprising number jumped into the emerging arena of mobile commerce, showing that consumers will indeed buy from their increasingly sophisticated mobile phones. For the first time, this year’s Hot 100 issue features a dedicated m-commerce section that highlights the achievements of five pioneers in this new retail channel.

There are astute strategies to be found in each of the profiles in this issue. Here are 10 lessons that all e-retailers can take away from the innovations of this year’s Hot 100 online retailers.

1. Connect with customers

If there’s one trend that stands out on the pages that follow it’s how much consumers’ penchant for communicating online has become part of web retailing.

“Social networking is ingrained in our corporate culture because it is ingrained in the lives of our customers,” says Eric McCoy, founder and CEO of shoe e-retailer Heels.com, which maintains a presence on all the major social networks.

Hot 100 retailers don’t just have Facebook and Twitter pages, they make them exciting destinations. Teen apparel retailer Forever21 has attracted more than 450,000 fans by using Facebook to introduce new styles that devotees can vote on and share. It also offers up fun contests, lots of photos and lively discussions. Cosmetics retailer Sephora has 227,000 fans of its Facebook page that offers exclusive deals, videos and polls. Sephora used Facebook this year to introduce a new product line.

On-site social features also keep growing more sophisticated. Backcountry.com awards points to reviewers based on the usefulness of their comments-and for using their real names. Question-and-answer features are increasingly common and useful. At Walmart.com, shoppers rate answers on their helpfulness and can find out more about those who post responses.

2. Go mobile

Despite the recession, 2009 turned out to be the year that online retailers moved decisively to selling to consumers through their mobile phones. More than 100 e-retailers now offer mobile commerce, and the numbers grew rapidly in the second half of the year. EBay alone expects $500 million in mobile sales this year.

A special section starting on page 16 highlights the groundbreaking efforts of five of the most advanced mobile retailers. Those profiles illustrate how these retailers quickly learned how to adapt retailing to the demands of the small mobile phone screen. For instance, a consumer visiting the mobile site of 1-800-Flowers.com immediately sees the online florist’s best-selling items, enabling the shopper to buy with just a few taps on the phone’s screen or keyboard.

These retailers are also taking advantage of features unique to the mobile phone. For instance, Sears’ mobile app takes advantage of the geo-location feature of mobile phones to target offers based on where the consumer is. Many phones have cameras, and Amazon lets a consumer in a store snap a photo of a product, then offers that item for purchase through the phone.

3. Be an expert source

Back when there were neighborhood shoe, clothing and hardware stores, their owners or longtime employees served as a source of expert advice. Now that it’s rare to encounter that sort of expertise in a store, smart online retailers are using their web sites to fill the gap.

VanDykes.com, for instance, has a Boring Search tool that lets consumers search for replacement cabinet handles based on the distance between the screw holes bored in the cabinet. At women’s sports apparel retailer Title Nine, testers rate sports bras based on how much support they offer, giving each item one to five barbells; the web site lists those ratings next to each product.

Employees at fashion apparel retailer Net-A-Porter.com try on every piece of clothing sold on the site so that product pages can provide exact guidance on everything from the width of a headband to how tight the leg opening is in a pair of jeans. Giggle.com evaluates the children’s products it sells on 10 criteria, such as their safety and any allergy issues.

That kind of expertise can set a web retailer apart.

4. Make navigation more useful

There’s more information than ever in the site navigation bars at Hot 100 e-commerce sites. Take Shopping.HP.com where the tab for computers distinguishes between PCs for everyday use and for high performance, and displays an image of each type. At SunGlassHut.com, the Color tab unfolds a palette of colors along with text descriptions, and the Shape tab displays outlines of popular sunglasses styles.

Navigation bars at apparel retailer BodenUSA.com show how much stock remains for each item, and the wait time for items not currently available. At ToysRUs.com, shoppers can sort by the personality of the child to receive the gift, such as creative versus sporty.

Retailers that operate more than one site are tying them together via the navigation bar. For instance, Hayneedle, which operates 225 highly specialized sites, groups the product offerings of those sites under navigation tabs such as Patio/Garden, Baby&Kids; and Home/Accessories.

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