November 29, 2006, 12:00 AM


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This year Blue Nile fine-tuned an already powerful diamond search tool, creating a template that collects live feedback while customers are actively engaged in the selection process. It has rolled the lessons learned from that effort out to collect feedback on other key site applications. That’s just one more way Blue Nile has been able to grow sales, generate repeat business and keep customer satisfaction high.

Chad Doiron, strategist in the Internet practice of retail consultants Kurt Salmon Associates, gives Blue Nile high marks for a quality of experience that matches the price of the ticket. “The site projects a luxury feel,” he says. “They were the ones who proved that you could sell luxury items online.”
Bears go global

Like its retail stores, is built for fun as well as commerce. Sure, a kid or adult can custom-design a teddy bear from the fur up. But they also can come to the site just to play games, design e-cards, download pictures or participate in a book club. And they can do it in English, French, German, Swedish, Russian, Japanese and a variety of other languages.

“They support 12 localized web sites for markets around the world,” says John Yunker, president of Byte Level Research. “That’s just remarkable as retailers go.”

While the site layout is consistent from market to market-most carry the same features as the U.S. site-Build-A-Bear also offers localized content to address cultural differences between countries, Yunker adds.

One potential downside to the Build-A-Bear site, however, stems from the many interactive features it offers, Yunker contends. It’s bandwidth intensive. “On a dial-up connection, it’s not a user-friendly web site,” he says. “As they continue to go global, they’re going to have to take that into account in markets that may not have widespread broadband penetration.”

But the site’s interactive features are what make this bear roar. A page listing the schedule for a Build-A-Bear Workshop on Tour, for example, enables visitors to click on the paw of an animated bear driving a bus down a highway to honk the horn or take a sip from a soft drink. A shopper also can listen to various sounds and phrases before selecting one for her customized talking bear.

Further, visitors are invited to participate in no-purchase-required sweepstakes, sign up for an e-newsletter, watch a Build-A-Bear party via online video technology, and schedule a party at a nearby store.

The home page highlights new bears with tie-ins to newly released movies or ongoing sporting events. In early November, for instance, the site featured a “Make-Your-Own Mumble Weekend,” spotlighting a limited edition stuffed version of Mumble, the star of the animated feature film “Happy Feet.” For Build-A-Bear, it’s this kind of interactivity for customers that truly is a happy feat.
Shining on all fronts continues to forge ahead with ways to make the online shopping experience as close as possible to that of walking into a fine jewelry store.

Earlier this year acquired deal that expanded its market reach into loose diamonds. But rather than just capitalize on Diamond’s presence in the loose diamond market, it developed new ways to sell its products and engage customers.’s new loose-diamond ring configurator, for instance, is designed to replicate an in-store shopping experience.

“Diamond configurators normally start with choosing a diamond,” explains Pinny Gniwisch, co-founder and executive vice president of marketing. “Ours offers three ways to buy a diamond ring: You can choose a ring band first, choose a diamond first or choose to browse. It’s similar to the way you might speak to a diamond dealer in person. It’s less technical, more user friendly.”

Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president at consultants Retail Forward, says also excels at addressing other needs of online jewelry shoppers. It reminds them on every page why online buying is safe, for example, and “it also lets you shop by category, product type, price and brand,” she says. “Other jewelry sites don’t always let you shop as easily.”

Ice also has been polishing its site with Ajax technology to make pages with multiple product images load faster.

And on the marketing front, it’s reaching out to new customers in innovative ways. By creating blogs such as and intended as informational sites for existing customers-it has driven more traffic to and boosted its natural search rankings.

Now it’s moving into social networking sites, such as and, offering free jewelry to participants who upload and judge videos featuring’s products along with its logo.

With its combination of merchandising, marketing and customer service, Ice is on course this year to boost sales by nearly 50% over 2005-a natural outgrowth of providing a site that people want to visit, Gniwisch contends. “The issue isn’t whether a visitor buys or not,” he says, “it’s whether she has a great shopping experience.”
Dazzling site has the advanced look and feel of a web site that spawned from a doctoral student’s computer science thesis at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In reality the company’s roots are closer to Stanford University. The founders, CEO Robert Beaver and his sons, Jeff and Robert, are all former Stanford economics majors who started Zazzle in the family’s pool house.

Today, backed with $16 million from investors such as Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which made early investments in and, Zazzle is refining an e-commerce business strategy that marries online merchandising with digital content. On, users can personalize and purchase T-shirts, coffee mugs, bags, postcards and buttons. Through a relationship Zazzle has with the U.S. Postal Service, shoppers can also personalize stamps.

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