Doran Robinson previously worked for healthcare information technology vendor athenahealth.
If it’s numbers you need, then forecasts that Internet retailing is headed for a $20 billion year should convince all but the most hardened skeptics that consumers can and will shop online with gusto. True, that’s less than 1% of all retail sales. But if today’s trends continue, e-commerce should represent 7% of retail sales by 2004, according to Forrester Research.
All this means it’s getting much tougher to run a Web store that stands out-a far cry from the prehistoric days of last year, when you could make headlines simply by setting up shop online. That’s why Internet Retailer’s Top 25 is based on what drives the numbers: merchandising, navigation, site design, personalization and customer service. These are the crucial levers that move sales and traffic. Some retailers made our list with all-around high marks, though many have set themselves apart in a particular area.
We talked to dozens of analysts, consultants, Web designers and retail executives to identify top sites, analyze what makes them so and track down statistics. PC Data Online supplied September traffic figures for all but a few sites. What you won’t find among our Top 25 are portals, auction-only sites, e-malls, buying parties or gift registries. We’ve focused on how individual merchants approach the art of selling online. Because size and tenure don’t carry the clout on the Internet that they do in the offline world, we studied smaller newcomers as well as established players.
Not surprisingly, the sites to watch are constantly shuffling. Web pioneers tried to create category killers, says Pricewater-houseCoopers consultant Karl Haller. Price, selection, and convenience are hallmarks of these megasites. But now, specialty stores are headed for the Web in huge numbers, targeting demographics and lifestyles.
Strategies come and go. “There’s been a shift from technology to merchandising and profitability,” says Duif Calvin, senior retail consultant at IXL, an Internet strategies and services firm in Atlanta. “We’ve gone from brochure-ware information sites to e-commerce to true online retailing.”
Calvin considers retail-friendly sites that encourage multiple purchases most likely to succeed. “A user-friendly site is easy to use,” she points out, “but not necessarily easy to buy from.” Retail-friendly sites make checkout simpler-by putting price in plain sight, making sure the buy button is always handy, and dropping design features that slow down or confuse shoppers. Calvin, who comes from four generations of retailers, quotes an uncle’s advice: “When someone wants to give you the money, take it.”
The Top 25
Other Notable Sites
Barnes & Noble brings a physical store feel to the Web-there’s even a cafe selling Starbuck’s coffee beans. Its file-folder design makes browsing simple. Some room for improvement: integration between channels. Bn.com doesn’t allow online merchandise to be returned to its stores.
Labels for less
Bluefly offers serious deals for the clotheshorse on a budget. Prices for designer apparel and accessories are slashed 30-70% off retail. A personalization tool, “My Catalog,” allows shoppers to gather goods by size or designer. Yet the download speed doesn’t exactly buzz.
Despite a home page as busy as an advertising circular, Drugstore.com remains relatively easy to navigate. One-click ordering, toll-free round-the-clock customer service and personal accounts enhance accessibility. But if you’re looking for MotherNature’s comforting touch, you’re out of luck.
Whether it’s diaper bags or duffles you’re after, eBags packs information into its product presentation. Along with these details, the Web store offers comparison prices, consumer ratings and testimonials. Personalization and customer service are also strong.
Apparel and home
More than an online catalog EddieBauer.com leverages the power of the Internet by offering wish lists, a reminder service and a virtual dressing room. Product presentation is less sharp-images and descriptions are static. Still, it racks up points for customer service since online purchases can be returned to bricks-and-mortar stores.
Eve.com sets out to be a one-stop beauty resource, offering skin care, fragrance and cosmetics to time-impoverished shoppers. Celebrity makeovers and “test drivers” (where the same make-up is used on different skin tones and coloring) make the site entertaining. Yet many department store brands are missing from the mix.
Furniture.com recently underwent a refinishing that builds in better aesthetics and functionality. Shoppers can browse by room, manufacturer or item and a room-planning tool allows shoppers to envision merchandise in their homes. Yet whether furniture will become a viable online category remains to be seen.
At GeraldStevens.com, the flowers you see are likely the flowers you’ll get. The company, which operates more than 200 florists and plans to have 1,000 by 2005, handles its own fulfillment. Though the site scores high for aesthetics, it forces shoppers to meander a bit.
Whether your game is baseball or bocce ball, Justballs has the all-important orb. It backs up a deep product selection with lot of interesting content, such as an official rules section and a sports encyclopedia. The site does go beyond balls with related sports merchandise, but that’s not clear from its name or home page, and the search is unwieldy.
L.L. Bean’s quiet relaunch gets three cheers from analysts. Vast improvements have been made to navigation, and personal accounts are easier to set up. More content helps shoppers decide what to buy and where to find it. L.L. Bean’s stellar customer service will be beefed up even more via live online help-but not until after the holidays.