November 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Computers/Electronics Figuring out needs and moving on

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In remembering who its customers are, Apple has created a hip site design through the use of vibrant images. "Products just pop off the page," says Lanae Paaverud, a board member of the Internet Merchants Association, a Wellington, Fla.-based non-profit trade association for e-commerce companies.

Organization by product type makes navigation easy and user friendly. Recommended products are showcased under the heading of "Staff Picks," a merchandising technique that speaks to the shopper on a more personal level. Customer reviews and product ratings further aid the buying decision. "It is a personable site with a lot of information and a clean design," adds Paaverud.

By communicating to its customer base in the manner they desire, differentiates itself from competitors. "E-commerce is now a huge part of every manufacturer`s business model and their web site needs to be a sales outlet more than a source of information," Baker says. "Apple is more oriented along this line than other manufacturers." Back to Top

Plugged in
When it changed its name to Dell Inc. a few years ago from Dell Computer Corp., Dell told the world it was no longer just a computer company but a provider of a broader range of computer systems and integrated electronics products.

And true to its tradition as a web-centric company, it has redesigned its web site to reflect its new market strategy in a big way. At Red Rock, Texas-based, the precedent-setting configurators for building a customized desktop or laptop computer, for instance, are old hat.

The company has forged ahead to engage shoppers with new, easy-to-browse and image-heavy demonstrations that show how to get involved in the latest trends like starting and maintaining a web log, editing and posting online videos, and building and sharing online photo scrapbooks.

"The world of home electronics has brought about a necessarily sleeker site design," says Steve Rowen, an analyst with research and advisory firm RSR Research. "The extended range of products has forced Dell to bring about more excitement for all its products."

Dell has taken some hits to revenue in recent years related to substandard customer service and it admits that it must do a better job of catering to customers. "There`s a whole transformation going on in our consumer business, and we`re very much in the business of helping consumers achieve what they want to do," a spokesman says.`s consumer-oriented Home and Home Office site now features several special sections designed to get consumers directly involved in new forms of communication and entertainment. In Dell Lounge, music lovers can mash up video and digital music, and players of online video games can learn about the latest gaming technology and participate in online competition.

The StudioDell section instructs visitors how to work with digital photos and videos, and lets them upload their own videos showing how they use Dell technology and e-mail their videos to friends. "We want customers to be part of a conversation to make for a better and more meaningful experience," the spokesman says. Back to Top

Beyond the basics

If HP ever wanted to open retail stores, it could take lessons in accommodating customers from its HP Shopping online store. "It`s clear HP spent time figuring out how customers want to buy and designed its retail web site to accommodate them," says Nikki Baird, managing partner at research and advisory firm RSR Research.

For shoppers looking for the mix of computer and home entertainment products Hewlett-Packard Co. offers, it`s tough to find a more helpful retail environment than HP Shopping, also known as the HP Home and Home Office Store.

HP has expanded its retail site`s functionality to zero in on shoppers` specific interests, displaying pertinent products in an informative and entertaining way that better reveals the broad scope of what HP has to offer.

"We have focused on these areas to continue to improve our customer experience for our custom-built products, services and solution bundles," says Michael Ritter, vice president of merchandising for HP Shopping.

HP Shopping has upgraded its product configurator with multiple views to help shoppers visualize the build-to-order process, and it has integrated customer reviews and ratings and injected them into product comparisons. Shoppers can compare dozens of items of a particular type of product, check on the experience of other customers, and compare things like shipping and promotional offers as well as product details. For some details that may need extra explanation, such as "resolution" and "zoom" in digital cameras, shoppers can mouse over the terms to generate pop-up windows with extra information.

In a "Learn, Use, Create" section accessible from every page, HP shows shoppers how to do things like take, print and share better digital photographs and videos as well as how to get more efficient use of computers.

The whole idea is to show more than just the basics, Ritter says. "Not all shoppers want to research a product by just its features and functions," he says. "They may want to research how a product fits their lifestyle or figure out exactly what they want a product to do." Back to Top

Helping them explore

Demonstrating the interactivity of a hand-held mobile device on the web is difficult using static pages that show a photo and list product features. Mindful of this, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Palm Inc. has integrated interactive video and rich media throughout its site to enable shoppers to explore its products and quickly drill down to their desired level of detail.

"Manufacturers of innovative products that have a web store, like Palm, need interactive video to convey that innovation to the online shopper, who cannot touch the product," says Stephen Baker, vice president, industry analysis for NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y.-based market research firm. "Online shoppers expect the ability to dive deeply and quickly into the level of product detail they want."

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