January 4, 2006, 12:00 AM

Striking up the Broadband

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“In the book, movie and music world, expectations for interesting and compelling experiences are really high, and we have to be out in front,” says Rich Fahle, associate director of creative services for Borders, who played a leading role in developing the gift finder with Firstborn Multimedia. The gift finder was designed to be both highly useful and entertaining, he says. “Season of Surprises is a useful shopping tool, what customers need, but it also helps separate us from others, because it says who we are-spirited, engaging, the things that separate us from everyone else. It says who we are as a brand.”

As confirmation of the gift finder’s success, it continues to help drive up customer activity, he adds. “We’re on track to greatly exceed last year’s traffic numbers, and we were excited about our growth last year,” Fahle said in the middle of the 2005 holiday shopping season.

An effective application like the Season of Surprises gift finder can also generate unexpected benefits, he adds. “We’re getting new traffic from all over, because when you break through the clutter with a unique application, people will share it with their friends.”

Indeed, Tam notes that the popularity of BordersGifts.com and the gift finder have resulted in unsolicited positive feedback as well as a positive impact on traffic from consumers in places as far away as Japan and Russia, where Borders has no stores but can fulfill online orders through Amazon.

In addition to new web page technology and designs, broadband is also ushering in new consumer behaviors in online shopping and in using the Internet as a research and communications tool. In the recent holiday shopping season, there was much ado about how online shopping hit most of its peaks on “Cyber Mondays,” as consumers took advantage of the speed and ease of shopping through the broadband connecting their workspace computers to the web.

Just another Monday

But the spread of broadband access from the home is spreading out those peaks, as consumers are increasing their shopping from home computers. “Cyber Monday is just another busy Monday for us,” says REI’s Duff. Like other retailers, REI is working on ways to engage customers over broader periods to capitalize on the broader online shopping window. “We want to have 60 peak days in the holiday season, not just a few,” Duff says.

Borders began a new e-mail marketing strategy last fall that will extend the interactive rich media presentations of BordersGifts.com throughout the year, Tam says. It’s e-mailing to its regular customers a Borders Short List of updates on the latest books, DVDs and music CDs, based on a customer’s known preferences, and letting them click in the e-mail message to link to online samples of book text, or activate a video or sound clip. “We’re more than trying to hawk things,” Tam says. “Our customers are hungry for information, and we’re giving them the ability to try things that are relevant to their interests.”

Broadband also has its downsides, and it can lead unprepared retailers into situations where their sites can’t handle all the heavy draws from broadband users. The more rich media attracts broadband users, the greater the stress on a site’s servers. “It’s like more thick straws taking from the same bowl of soup,” Fry says. “But it’s a solvable problem that’s totally manageable. Retailers just have to be prepared.”

That can mean more backup server capacity from providers like Akamai Technologies Inc., and access to the networks of fiber optic cables that telecom companies overproduced during the early boom days of the Internet.

No directions

In addition, retailers have to know their customers. “Most shoppers still think you have to click and wait,” Fry says. “It seems slow and bland, but it’s the way people are used to shopping online. So there has to be a paradigm shift, and there could be problems in bringing people along too rapidly. A retailer has to make sure their customers want to shop in a new way.”

A lot has to do with a retailer’s targeted audience. When Reebok launched its shoe configurator in mid-November to kick off the 2005 holiday shopping season, it discussed with its developers whether or not to present textual instructions that would guide users through the various steps of customizing running shoes.

“I raised the question, Shouldn’t we explain to people what to do?” says Andy Lloyd, vice president of marketing for Fluid Inc., the site developer that built Reebok’s new configurator. “But we did a lot of testing, and found out that Reebok’s customers didn’t need instructions.”

In fact, he adds, Reebok and Fluid figured that adding instructions would distract from the intended brand experience-something sleek and fast. “People don’t do a good job of reading instructions, and they have a superior experience figuring out on their own how to use the configurator.”

Not that RBKcustom.com is difficult to use. The beauty of new online merchandising technology is that simply moving a mouse over an image can produce additional details or alter an image, replacing older systems that would require the user to click and wait.

Cutting edge

Broadband-supported technologies are ushering in a new level of excitement that some experts say hasn’t been seen since the early days of online retailing, when sites like Boo.com pushed the envelope of technology and consumer shopping experience. Although pushing the limits can put retail sites at risk of crashing or confusing customers, it also motivates developers and site operators to continue raising the bar of performance. “It brings back the excitement, which makes it fun,” says REI’s Duff. “Can we really predict how many people will come to view our new product presentations and keep the site up and running? It’s strategizing at a new level of complexity.”

But unlike Boo.com, today’s innovative retailers expect to be in for the long term and say they’ll continue to find new and interesting ways to serve and entice customers.

Borders, for one, will continue to build on the interactive technology on BordersGifts.com to strengthen relationships with customers, says Tam. “We’re just in the foothills of what we can do,” he says, adding that next year’s gift finder will offer a whole new set of features.

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