May 27, 2010, 3:27 PM

Pure Play

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The result is a site that is as easy—and in some cases easier—to navigate than those of the Big Three, says Betsy Emery, CEO of Tellus, a web site design and consulting firm. For instance, Shoplet makes shopping for printer toner convenient by returning a search result for HP toner with useful information, such as the yield a consumer can expect to receive. "That surpasses the ease of use of its larger competitors," Emery says.

Instant ordering
For repeat customers, like Schonfeld Securities' Gebhardt, who know exactly what they need, Shoplet added a quick-order feature that allows a shopper to log in to her account and type in a product's six- or nine-digit SKU. Those unique product identifiers are listed in Shoplet's 96-page annual catalog that it sends to more than 100,000 customers. The site also recognizes Shoplet's competitors' SKUs.

The quick-order feature streamlines the ordering process, says Scharf, since it eliminates the need to search for each item, add it to the cart and then search and add the next item. Instead, customers can enter all their items' SKUs on a single page.

The retailer's home page also highlights its free eProcurement tool that allows business customers to manage their purchasing. The program allows companies to set budgets, create preapproved shopping lists by location, department or user, view their purchasing history, and set up automated reorders of frequently purchased items. "It shows they know their audience and speak to them," says Emery.

Indeed, Gebhardt says the system's lists of preapproved items help her company's various office locations keep their office supplies ordering in check. "It means that one office can't just order a $5 pen without getting it approved," she says.

Name recognition
Those features may appeal to office supply buyers that find Shoplet.com. But Ellison acknowledges that his big challenge is attracting new customers to his site.

That's a common problem for online-only retailers that don't have thousands of stores across the country acting as bricks-and-mortar billboards. "While stores are expensive to operate, in addition to revenue they also provide a source of brand recognition," says RSR's Rosenblum.

The discrepancy in brand recognition shows up in data from Compete Inc., which tracks web traffic. The paid search terms that produced the most traffic to the e-commerce sites of Staples, Office Depot and OfficeMax in March were all variants of those retailers' names. But for Shoplet, three of the five top terms were for specific products, such as a particular variety of Scotch packaging tape.

Besides showing that Shoplet is not as well known as Staples, that also reflects Shoplet's strategy of bidding for ads on less expensive long-tail keywords, such as "discount office supplies" and "ink pencil" and on specific brand name products. "Our big competitors have deeper pockets than us so we have to be conscientious about where we're spending our money," Ellison says. As a result, only 26% of clicks from search engines to Shoplet.com were from paid ads, whereas the three big chains get 28-35% of their search traffic from ads, Compete says.

Shoplet tries to make up for what it can't spend on paid search by doing everything it can to show up high in natural search results, especially for the 10% of the 6 million keywords it monitors that drive about 90% of sales, Ellison says. "We make sure that everything throughout the site promotes those keywords," he says.

Common search terms
That includes tagging products with all the terms people commonly type into search engines. For instance, Hammermill Fore MP Multipurpose Paper is tagged "Hammermill Paper," "White A4 Paper," "Hammermill Colored/Design Paper," "Hammer-mill Laser Paper" and with several other phrases. It also means using that nomenclature in product names, descriptions and the product page's "Also Consider" recommendation section.

The result is a shopper using almost any common term to search for Hammermill multipurpose paper is likely to come across Shoplet on the first page of Google or Bing search results.

Shoplet uses a similar approach with products that shoppers don't normally search for by brand name, such as dividers for looseleaf notebooks. Shoplet is the first natural search result for "subject divider" on Google because the retailer figured out that customers searching for multiple-subject notebooks and those searching for tab dividers are both likely to use the search term "subject dividers."

Clicking on the Shoplet link on the Google search results page leads to Shoplet.com's "Subject Dividers" subcategory page that features 189 products that have either subject or divider in their product descriptions. Those products include tab dividers, index dividers and multiple-subject notebooks.

To ensure the products come up when a shopper searches "subject dividers," the products have "subject divider" as one of their tags and the recommended products on the page include other similar dividers, reinforcing for search engine spiders the link between those pages and the search term "subject divider."

Search engine optimization is an ongoing process, and just one of the ways Shoplet seeks to use its web expertise to compete against much bigger companies. Ellison knows that taking on the Big Three is an uphill battle. "We just need to keep working to show the purchasing community we're the better option," he says. Shoplet's growth suggests the web-only retailer is more than holding its own.

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