February 15, 2013, 2:25 PM

‘Candy’ jewelry—and Twitter—play big roles online for Valentine’s Day

Some e-retailers, though, report less-than-stellar average order values.

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Jewelry that looks like candy and customer service via Twitter emerged as online winners this Valentine’s Day, according to e-commerce experts.

While there was no solid tally today of how much lovers, spouses, crushes or repentant boyfriends spent online for this year’s romantic holiday, which fell on Thursday, Adobe Systems Inc. estimated earlier in the week that online shoppers would spend $500 million online on jewelry and gifts in the two weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day.  Half of the spending would take place within four days of the holiday, Adobe adds—even if such purchases would often require the consumer paying more for expedited shipping.

At GemAffair.com, No. 760 in the Internet Retailer Second 500 sales this Valentine’s Day were flat compared with last year, and average order volume decreased because of the sour economy, says president Michael Jansma. “Our average order value has been dropping steadily for five years, but so has the average cost of inventory,” he says. But Valentine’s Day volume increased 6.5% this year compared with 2012. He says the e-retailer’s addition of sports and fashion watches helped to spark sales this year.

As for GemAffair’s bestselling items, those included a $99.99 sterling silver necklace that displayed a replica of a Hershey’s Kiss candy, along with necklaces from which hung colorful imitations of Sweethearts candy—the pasty, sugary treat that schoolchildren often give to each other, with sayings stamped across the front.

Web-only flower and gift retailer Organic Bouquet Inc., which is No. 932 in the Internet Retailer Second 500 Guide, noticed that consumers this year—eager to get more for their money—seemed more interested in larger bunches of flowers than in the past, says CEO Robert McLaughlin. “But the average spend remained the same so the value was higher for the consumer,” he says.

Year over year, he says, his web sales in 2013 increased 5% for the Valentine’s Day season. Among the most popular products this season were a $49.95 collection of two dozen roses—long stemmed eco-friendly  Valentine roses, to be exact—and, for the same price, a dozen “Crown Majesty” roses.

McLaughlin said the gains came about even though the retailer has pulled back on paid search marketing. “We've chosen to pull back on [pay per click] where we face overwhelming odds against our larger competitors with massive marketing budgets, and we've focused on our mission-based strengths and telling our story with PR and media,” he says.

The retailer focuses on eco-friendly and organic gifts, and recently promoted itself on NBC’s “The Today Show,” and has won useful coverage in such publications as AdWeek, The Huffington Post and Market Watch. “Our company has to educate consumers on why sustainable floriculture is important—you can't do that with a [pay-per-click] ad,”  McLaughlin  says. “So we focus on non-paid media exposure, and offering a compelling story with regard to our business model.”

Meanwhile, some e-retailers on retainer to Cupid upped their game as lovelorn consumers—or, perhaps, procrastinating and equivocating courters—went online for gifts as Valentine’s Day approached, according to mobile and web performance management firm Keynote Systems Inc. For instance, the web site for 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. “delivered a 100% success rate on Wednesday,” the day before the big day, with a slight uptick in “total user time between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Pacific standard time, likely as last minute suitors were desperate to place orders,” Keynote says. And the site on Monday between 10 am and noon Pacific had a response time of 6.8 seconds, up from the three-day average of 5.9 seconds. Keynote is ranked No. 2 among web performance monitoring firms in Internet Retailer’s Leading Vendors to the Top 1000 E-Retailers guide.

This year’s Valentine’s Day shopping season also showed that consumers heading online for gifts were better off seeking customer service through social media than through phones, at least according to StellaService.  On Thursday during traditional working hours the mystery shopping company monitored the customer service responses of nine online florists. The effort included placing three separate calls to customer services lines, with the phones hung up if wait time exceed 20 minutes. The company also made customer service requests via Twitter.

StellaService says that 1-800-Flowers.com produced the top response to interactions via Twitter, with average response time of just one minute—compared with an average response time of 22 minutes for all the retailers. “We’ve found that customer service has moved social,” says Chris McCann, the e-retailer’s president. “It’s great, it’s out there and transparent. Everyone sees all the negatives, but that’s OK. We find it’s much more personalized and productive than the other channels.”

Phone requests promised higher levels of frustration for consumers, StellaService says. Just four retailers—CalyxFlowers.com, Flowershop.com, FromYouFlowers.com and ProFlowers.com—connected a consumer with a live agent within 20 minutes.  CalyxFlowers is part of Hibernation Holding Co. Inc., which also owns Vermont Teddy Bear and is No. 255 in the Internet Retailer Top 500; ProFlowers is part of Liberty Interactive Corp., No. 7 in the Top 500; Flowershop is No. 977 in the Internet Retailer Second 500.

1-800-Flowers.com, which is No. 51 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, commands 38% of web sales in the flowers and gift product category, according to the most recent edition of those rankings. FTD Group Inc. stands in second place, with 25%. In all, 2011 sales in the product category reached exceeded $1.27 billion, up approximately 6% from the previous year.

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