December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Town folks` wisdom

When cruising the super highway for electronic goods, consumers are well advised to not blow past the exit marked “eTown.”

The site that was started in 1995 by five consumer electronics’ journalists has evolved into one of the best spots on the Internet. From the minute you pull into eTown’s home page, it’s obvious this site is different. The page is divided into content and shopping. Running vertically down the middle splitting the two is a series of advice buttons. And the home page is consistent with what is inside: content and shopping intimately woven together.

The product listings carry customer reviews and elaborate reviews by the staff. The staff also provides a numeric rating system for six categories within each product category. In addition to product-specific information, the staff also provides exclusive news items, such as the unavailability of the new Play Station 2 game units, and instructional text on the categories. For example, there is a section dedicated to the ins-and-outs of DTV and HDTV and how the new technology will affect consumers with standard televisions. When reading editors’ recommendations, users can jump to similar products and conduct side-by-side comparisons. When more help is needed, eTown has a link to its live help and its toll-free number is on every page. The site also uses IDA (interactive decision assistant), a program similar to Ask Jeeves that helps shoppers narrow their purchase choices by answering a series of usage questions. eTown also has a version of the town hall meeting, where visitors jump into online chats with experts. However, analysts say the site needs to improve its organization. Will Ander, a partner with McMillan|Doolittle calls the site’s navigation awkward and its ordering process too confusing.

The site has not gone unnoticed by industry experts. Gomez Advisors ranked it No. 2 overall in its fall scorecard. eTown did not rank less than third in any category.

San Francisco, Calif.

Monthly visitors: 1.2 million

Sales: N/A

Went live: January 1995

Design by: In-house &
Organic Online

OS: Vignette

E-C Software: In-house

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