November 29, 2006, 12:00 AM

Housewares/Home Furnishings

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Based on specific customer feedback, which expects to generate about $50 million in sales in 2006, has added several merchandising categories, including cookbooks and home organization products. The company is using customer feedback to test live chat, add more videos to its recipe section and position customer product reviews in a way that ranks the most authoritative reviews first. “We feature the customer as the ultimate authority,” Randall says.

Featuring authoritative product reviews and collecting ongoing customer feedback in a way that’s meaningful to shoppers helps stand out, says Manivone Phommahaxay, senior user experience specialist at Molecular Inc. “Customer ratings on product pages gives shoppers a level of trust,” she says. “ uses a simple but intuitive approach to its design and clearly labeled product information and promotions.”
Don’t know wood?

Solid hardwood, engineered, laminate? Oak, bamboo, maple or cork? Glue-down or nail-down? Prefinished, unfinished, or, for that colonial look, hand-scraped?

The choices in flooring are myriad and baffling to the novice. Hand it to Lumber Liquidators for simplifying things. With upwards of $300 million in annual flooring sales, the company’s mission is straightforward; its more than 80 nationwide locations are warehouse-like stores in relatively low-rent neighborhoods, crammed to the rafters with floor materials at bargain prices. And its redesigned web site, live since April, captures that simplicity, despite the increasing complexity of the product.

“We try to balance information with the transaction because most people don’t know everything there is to know about flooring,” says Marco Pescara, senior vice president of direct marketing and advertising. The company’s old web site was adequate for contractors and do-it-yourselfers who know their way around a lumberyard, but it scared away homeowners.

No more. The Floor Finder feature provides online shoppers the ability to decide what’s best for their project and budget by posing simple questions about installation type, color and price range. Customers are guided to the products that best fit their needs. “Flooring 101,” a searchable FAQ area, covers installation, floor care and product warranties with a mix of online answers and PDFs to print out for use at a work site. And then there’s Bob, the company’s in-house installer, who’s available by e-mail or 800-number for questions not covered by the FAQs.

Especially for those whose involvement with flooring is occasional rather than professional, the web site and the stores together make a powerful combination, Pescara contends. “It’s much easier for customers to buy from us online knowing that we have stores,” he says. “We can ship directly from our warehouse using FedEx, or they get a list of locations where the product can be picked up.”

Another feature helpful to online shoppers is the “before and after” pictures submitted by customers, says retail consultant Jim Okamura, senior partner at J.C. Williams Group, Chicago. “Our consumer research shows how much consumers respect the input of their peers, and this is a really good way to show it.”
Hello gorgeous

Few retailers are as adept as Williams-Sonoma at enticing consumers with gorgeous visual merchandising. And its brands have frequently been listed in the Internet Retailer Top 50 Best of the Web. So it’s little surprise that the company’s new online launch, Williams-Sonoma Home, is following the same stylish and winning path. debuted in August as a fully interactive furniture and home décor web site after a year online in catalog form. The company took that year to implement imaging capacity up to the task it would be asked to do-given the high price point of the merchandise, it was critical shoppers see not just the cost but the value of the products. But as the brand has few stores as of yet, it’s less likely the shopper would be able to visit a Williams-Sonoma Home store to make a personal inspection. That leaves it up to the product imagery to try to replicate as closely as possible online the visual experience customers would have in a store.

The new site delivers on that charge, with the ability to show up to 24 additional images on product pages, images ranging from room settings to product detail. A furniture preview tool lets shoppers try out upholstery options on different furniture frames. Seasonal Style, a dynamic editorial guide that highlights selected looks, brings life to the season’s trends.

“The primary focus for us was around the depth of our product imagery, particularly with the price point of the items we were selling,” says Chrissy Ginieczki, director of e-commerce operations for Williams-Sonoma Home. “We really wanted to get across the quality and craftsmanship of what we were offering the customers. We wanted to make sure the customer could almost touch and feel the products online.”

“Williams-Sonoma is a company that we always cite as one that does a great job of extending their brand image through a web site,” says Chad Doiron, strategist in the Internet practice of retail consultants Kurt Salmon Associates. “The quality of the photos, the look and the feel, the focus they take-from a store perspective to an online perspective, the customer feels it’s the same.”

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