March 5, 2004, 12:00 AM

Three easy pieces

As online retailing continues to evolve, merchants continue to find ways to boost sales. Some improve search, others find new cross-selling opportunities and still others adopt new marketing strategies.

As online retailing continues to evolve—it is, after all, an industry that is only 9 years old—merchants continue to find ways to boost sales. Some improve search, others find new cross-selling opportunities and still others adopt new marketing strategies.

Charging up search

At, the search function is probably more complex than at other retail sites. Consumers usually don’t know exactly what they’re looking for or how to describe it for a search engine. “Our product line is so vast, it’s hard for customers to search for batteries,” says Eric Tobias, vice president of sales and marketing. Three former search engines, including two built in-house, failed to help shoppers sort through the many options for finding the right battery for their electronics device.

Because batteries are multi-dimensional in how they can be searched, Tobias adds, customers may search by any one of 8-10 attributes such as battery number, the type of device they operate or voltage, he says. The former engines were unable to take a single term and lead a shopper to the correct battery. “It seemed impossible to build a search engine that would let them type in one term to find what they wanted,” Tobias adds.

Working with Endeca Technologies Inc., finally came up with a technology that helps customers sort through the options to find what they need. “Now, when someone enters, say, ‘camcorder battery’ in the search function, the system prompts further search by characteristics like manufacturer, battery number and voltage, to help the customer search on important criteria,” Tobias says. The new engine led to a 30% year-over-year increase in its sales conversion rate for the full holiday shopping season, Tobias says.

Finding products hasn’t been difficult for shoppers on But a new cross-selling function, combined with a redesigned home page that offers more promotions, recipes and new items like gift cards, helped increase its basket size to an average of $130 last year, up 18% from $114 in 2002, a spokesman says.

When customers search for Rice Krispies, for instance, the results page shows the cereal in several box sizes as well as product variations, like snack bars. Now Safeway is planning to run ads and recipes to further drive sales. The ads could be placed by the manufacturer of the searched-for product or by Safeway itself, the spokesman says.

Hearing the customer

At, getting a closer look at customers’ shopping concerns has helped the web site produce an increase in sales while store sales remain flat, says Kevin Ertell, senior vice president of direct-to-consumer operations. The site has been routinely surveying customer satisfaction levels with the CS Site Manager tool from ForeSee Results Inc., which gathers customer feedback through pop-up survey forms, producing a response rate of about 8%, Ertell says.

Among the improvements Tower has made in response to customer feedback is a streamlined checkout section, Ertell says. “Order processing went way up,” he says. After improving the checkout process, he adds, subsequent surveys revealed that customers were recommending Tower more to other shoppers.

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