November 29, 2006, 12:00 AM


Flowers, gifts and jewelry all revolve around very personal matters. As a result, shoppers have very specific needs that require a rather personal touch. The five outstanding retailers in this category all understand this extraordinarily well.

Internet Retailer Best of the Web 2007

Flowers, gifts and jewelry all revolve around very personal matters. Be it for Mother’s Day, a friend’s birthday, an engagement or an “I’m really sorry about what I said last night” apology, these items all are purchased for very specific reasons. As a result, shoppers have very specific needs that require a rather personal touch. So merchants selling flowers, gifts and jewelry must know their customers thoroughly to best communicate with them as well as meet those needs.

The five outstanding retailers in this category all understand this extraordinarily well. And they base their product offerings, site design, and product creation and ordering processes on this key fundamental that makes some e-retailers in this category truly shine.

When it comes to knowing exactly what customers want, for example, literally has a unique product for every single shopper at the site. It sells merchandise that shoppers customize as they see fit. T-shirts with their own madcap slogans, posters that can include the official art of popular cartoon characters or TV shows, greeting cards with the family name and picture, customized versions of actual U.S. postage stamps, and much more. What makes this site stand out is the easy and fun process by which customers use numerous simple web tools to whip up their very own creations.

Having products that fit a customer’s wishes is great; but if a merchant cannot get that message across it may not be able to win the customer over.

This is an area where Build-A-Bear Workshop Inc. is far ahead of many competitors. The principle is the same as Zazzle’s except the personalization is confined to teddy bears and their accessories. Not only do the web tools that enable product personalization foster an entertaining experience, the site also offers numerous interactive games and other content. And Build-A-Bear is pushing the online envelope with its smart use of online video. To help shoppers better understand what the bear-building parties it offers in local stores entail, the e-retailer shows online customers an actual party via web-based video.

It is these kinds of personal touches that are grabbing shoppers who need to make a truly personal decision.
The days of wine and roses

Sometimes flowers are just not enough. That’s why is pouring it on with teddy bears, chocolate, cookies, wine and popcorn. And even hard goods like Swarovski crystal butterflies or a Lenox porcelain birthday cake., a pioneer in e-commerce as well as one of the most adroit marketers of the 800-number, has been branching out in a big way. But its signature ease of use and customer service are still in place.

1-800-Flowers started out in 1976 as one flower store, then added 13, then a phone service, and finally a web site. This year the company stoked its growing gift-basket business with the purchase of confectioner Fannie May. While swanky candy is already represented in its product line by Godiva and Joseph Schwartz, Fannie May appeals to more middlebrow palates and pocketbooks. A box of 25 Fannie May truffles, for example, sets a customer back only $22.99 compared with $34 to $64 for the upscale brands.

This acquisition joins the company’s previous diversification plays such as Plow & Hearth (gifts for home, hearth, yard and garden), HearthSong and Magic Cabin (toys, games and other kids’ gifts), The Popcorn Factory, and

Not that the flowers are being neglected. The company recently touted its signing of floral-designer-to-the-stars Nico de Swert to the team that supplies the Designer Flowers section of the site.

Despite the potential confusion of these proliferating offerings, the web site remains a model of clarity. Pull-down menus let customers narrow their search by 11 different criteria, including occasion, price and product type. If they’re pressed or lacking imagination, the “find a gift fast” option further streamlines the process. And at every turn, customers can see what’s available for same-day delivery. And for those in doubt about the propriety of their choices, there’s a “Gift Etiquette” tutorial section provided by the one and only Emily Post. also plays the multi-channel game very well. Its Bloomnet franchise network of local florist partners now numbers 9,000, up from 6,000 earlier this year. That kind of presence enables same-day delivery in hundreds of markets, vital for a business whose lifeblood is the impulse purchase. This growing network will give traditional industry leader FTD a run for its money.
Polished to perfection

If there’s such a thing as a flawless online order experience, has it in its sights. The pure-play jeweler is admittedly obsessed with the concept of the perfect order-from the industry-leading diamond search tool it built internally to guide the buyers of diamond engagement rings through some 50,000 stones to the 99.96% on-time order delivery rate that it keeps trying to push toward 100% to the phone calls it answers at its customer contact center within 15 seconds.

Blue Nile even unpacks some of the orders it’s packed up before they leave the house to see whether the bubble wrap is placed correctly around the wrapped gift and the tape is placed in exactly the right location on the Fed-Ex box. If not, the retailer tracks down why and makes sure it won’t happen again.

Admittedly, the outer wrappings seem a small issue compared with everything else that goes into the purchase of a significant piece of jewelry online, but it shows how the jeweler leaves no stone unturned in its quest to “over-deliver” on customer expectations. “We do the same kind of thing in every area of our business, whether it’s marketing, customer service or merchandising,” says Darrell Cavens, senior vice president of marketing. “Everything that goes out our door gets the same level of quality, service and experience, whether it’s a $50 item or a $50,000 one.”

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