February 2, 2001, 12:00 AM

How the smarter marketers at SmarterKids.com get inside customers` heads

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Noyes says most toys in the database have up to 15 attributes that best describe their uses. Attributes include such things as which subject the toy teaches (math, science, reading); whether it is suited for travel; whether it will help a child who is, for instance, a musical learner; and what grade levels the toys are suited for. The evaluators also rank the effectiveness of how a toy teaches a subject. For example, a toy may help with math, be geared towards a musical learner and be ranked 4 out of 10 for effectiveness. The evaluators assess fun level, ease of use, approach (such as drill and practice), instruction, and exploration and discovery, as well as the reviewer’s opinion of the product.

Eliminating the guesswork

SmarterKids.com’s proprietary SmartPicks program combines the information from the parents’ questionnaires and the toy evaluators to match the right toys for each customer. The toys that consumers see on the web site first are the ones that most closely match the information they requested during each visit or are based on the home page parameters. The toys are updated each time a customer opens the home page. And shoppers can change the parameters of the home page at any time, which then brings up a new set of toys for the child based on the new needs.

Clearly, the value of SmartPicks is that it bases its toy suggestions on what the shoppers say they are looking for. “We don’t base our suggestions on what people have bought in the past,” Noyes says. “We use the data consumers provide to us. We don’t infer anything. We’re trying to take the guesswork out of buying educational toys in order to accomplish our mission of helping kids learn.”

With such customized technology behind the database-driven site, SmarterKids.com is able to offer interesting content along with personalization. A major feature is its My Kid’s Store, in which parents can create a home page based on their child’s interests and style of learning. The survey to build a home page gives parents options on styles of learning (musical, interpersonal), learning goals (developmental, social-emotional abilities), favorite school subjects (math, reading and writing), skills tests and access to state standardized tests to allow parents to evaluate their child’s educational level.

With such parameters, the page will use the Smart Picks program to put out suggestions, such as Friendship Bracelet sets or books dealing with emotional subjects.

The Lessons

SmarterKids also relies on a variety of customer feedback to determine how its web selling is going. The company tracks what it calls attitudinal feedback. It generates that feedback by tracking where a customer moves around the site before buying and by surveying customers via BizRate services after they’ve bought.

And the company actually talks to up to 30 customers per month. “We track about 100 hot spots to see where people are clicking and what kind of blockades they face when shopping on the site,” Noyes says.

No matter how well retailers think they know their customers, they’ll always surprise them, and that’s the benefit of closely watching what customers are doing. “Amazingly enough, people were more likely to click on school supplies than on gift ideas,” Noyes says, “and in October people cared more about finding activities to do with pumpkins than in getting a free pumpkin-carving kit.” When shoppers don’t behave as the marketers expected them to, change comes right away. “If people are not clicking on site features, we either change the wording to make it more compelling or we don’t run it,” Noyes says.

So far, critics favor SmarterKids.com’s target marketing strategy. After a major shakeout in the toy industry in 2000, the company succeeded not only in maintaining its educational niche, but also in holding its ground against bigger competitors, such as Amazon.com and Toysrus.com. And even though those two giants have combined, SmarterKids.com still ranks among the top general toy retailers based on its level of user-friendliness, customer service and especially personalization.

Forrester PowerRankings continue to praise SmarterKids.com, most recently ranking them No. 2 behind Amazon.com, while Gomez Advisors ScoreCard ranks SmarterKids.com as the top educational toy retailer and the third top toy site overall, behind eToys and Amazon.com. Gomez says key benefits of the site include the personalized home pages, a Family Resource Center with suggested activities, teacher chats, news articles, and a live customer service chat feature.

One-way ticket

Barrett LaMothe Ladd, senior retail analyst at Gomez, says the site’s level of personalization is paying off, as 25% of consumers have created home pages for kids. “It has a very low product return rate (less than 1%) due to the type of products they sell and the extensive information they provide,” says Ladd.

In 2001, SmarterKids.com plans to keep digging for more information and possibly new markets. “We’ll improve our focus as we learn more about our customers,” Noyes says. “After the holiday season we can make hard decisions on what customers care about and focus on areas in which we can get a reaction. Also, we will figure out how to apply this functionality to other markets, such as elementary schools.”

Many teachers already use the web site on their own. “We want to develop a program that increases our exposure to schools,” Noyes says. “That might mean marketing to educators or partnering with someone who is in the education business.”

If history is any guide, SmaterKids will quickly learn what teachers want.

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