May 31, 2006, 12:00 AM

The New Merchandising

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“The challenge within this space is how we get the information from our vendors and how we deliver that to our customers as quickly as possible,” he says. “Product lifecycles are diminishing, so the faster I can deliver content on my site, the higher the chances I will sell that product.”

B&H; staff spends a lot of time and resources on producing content for the web site, including marketing, source guides and catalogs, Sherlock says. And the task is complicated by the increasing number of vendors and product features. “A number of years ago there were 20 or 30 product attributes,” he says. “Today you’re seeing hundreds of attributes associated with a product.”

And with the push to use rich media in merchandising, developing content is more expensive and time consuming, Sherlock says. That’s why New York-based B&H; has started using Tentoe Inc.’s Virtual Sales Rep-a package of product descriptions, features, specification and images supplied by the manufacturer.

Retailers access Tentoe content either through setting up a feed or installing a piece of JavaScript code on their product pages. “Once retailers are connected to the data, it’s completely hands-free for them,” says Tom Fristoe, Tentoe CEO.

Content is delivered to shoppers when they click on a link on a product page at the retailer’s site. “What’s great is just to see how quickly the vendors deliver the rich media content through the Tentoe tool,” Sherlock says.

The virtual sales rep is used by about 80 retailers and 100 manufacturers in the U.S., including Best Buy Co. Inc., CompUSA Inc., Circuit City Stores Inc., and

Since connecting to Tentoe, B&H; is experiencing thousands of opens a day on VCRs and hundreds of hours of viewing, Sherlock says.

The Tentoe system also allows both manufacturers and retailers to monitor how content is performing on their sites. “I can go into the reports and see what we’ve done in the last day, the last month, the last quarter,” Sherlock says. “Month over month I’m seeing more use of the tool.”

B&H; also can customize the tool to the site’s look and feel, Sherlock says. “If I want to change the wrapper tomorrow, I can do it,” he says.

Personalization based on tons of data

For off-price retailer, getting the right product in front of the right consumer as quickly as possible is key, says CEO Ben Fischman. “That for us is really rocket science,” he says.

SmartBargains turned to ChoiceStream Inc.’s personalization service, which determines which products to market to a consumer based on a database of product information that includes everything from product descriptions to customer reviews.

“When you purchase a product, that tells us a bunch of things about your preferences,” says Steve Johnson, ChoiceStream CEO. “It doesn’t just tell us that you like that product, it tells us something about your preferences for the characteristics of the products. That helps us do a much better job of learning quickly about the kinds of things you like.”

SmartBargains set up a product feed to ChoiceStream, enabling ChoiceStream to monitor customers’ purchases. “We send them historical transactional information and they apply their logic,” Fischman says. “They have an incredible amount of historical data on different products.” has experienced a 15% to 30% increase in conversions on some products since implementing the personalization tool from ChoiceStream, Fischman says.

“In this online world where web sites believe the more products you show at one time to as many customers as possible is a win, we believe making the shopping experience easier for the customer is the way to really breed loyalty,” Fischman says.

The search continues

There’s no doubt that retailers will continue to search for ways to engage customers and improve the customer experience. And not every tool will be right for every retailer. In a recent study of online merchandising efforts, Forrester Research notes that it found retailers integrating technology simply because other retailers who were considered leaders had the tool on their sites. “Often the efforts of even perceived leaders, while well-intentioned, may be misguided,” Forrester said.

It’s one further indication of the distance the online market must travel before e-merchandising has developed best practices.

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