Target and Toys R Us posted overall sales declines during the holidays.
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But merchandising this forever-changing inventory, some of which arrives in small runs, has been a challenge for the Redwood City, Calif.-based merchant. "The last thing we want to do is have a rare wine for sale on our web site, have someone order it, and then have to contact them and say, `Thanks, but somebody just bought the last bottle in one of our stores,`" Zucker says.
K&L; has addressed the challenge with a customized database that updates inventory on its KLWines.com in real time as soon as new shipments arrive and as soon as a bottle is sold online or in one of its three stores.
Many of K&L;`s long-time customers are wine experts who come to its web site knowing what they want. But a recent site redesign makes shopping easier for a broader range of shoppers. A new navigation system lets shoppers sort wine selections by variety, country, sub-region, price range, critics` scores, and special designations like organic or top picks. Clicking each category narrows the selections.
"The most impressive aspect of KLWines.com is the amount of education and detail provided for each product," says Steve Rowen, analyst with research and advisory firm RSR Research. "It`s clear that K&L; values a customer-centric experience."
Customers are responding by spending more time shopping, Zucker says. "The average time on our site is up 14%," he says. "16% of shoppers now spend 10 to 30 minutes per session, and the longer they`re on, the more likely they are to convert." Back to Top
Situated in the lakeside community of Burlington, Vt., Lake Champlain Chocolates is the result of a dare made by a restaurateur to his chef to make the best chocolate desserts. One taste convinced Jim Lampman to sell the restaurant and become a full-time chocolatier.
The original plan was to sell chocolates to retailers, and 25 years ago the fledgling company started fulfilling wholesale orders through a back alley door. But word spread fast through the streets of Burlington, and a constant stream of walk-up customers flooded the alley door. "We couldn`t keep people away," says Chris Middings, director of marketing and communications.
Lake Champlain Chocolates emerged as a combined wholesaler/retailer, with three shops in northern Vermont and more than 1,000 client retailer locations throughout the U.S. But since launching LakeChamplainChocolates.com in 1998, Internet shoppers searching for gourmet chocolates have made the web the company`s fastest-growing channel.
The site has cultivated its online market by catering to the primary needs of shoppers, most of whom want to buy the best chocolate available to give as gifts, Middings says. They also demand speed in shopping. As a result, the site`s search and navigation provide a fast interface for finding individual or packaged chocolates.
The retailer takes extra steps to ensure site speed, such as using minimal Java code to support images and developing software that routinely rids outdated clickstream data that can bog down network servers. It also monitors clickstreams to present packaged chocolates the way customers prefer to buy them.
"LakeChamplainChocolates.com is a very professional site that is not at odds with the company`s small-town feel," says Nikki Baird, managing partner with research and consulting firm RSR Research. "And not only are visuals great, they load fast."
Indeed, the site, which features high-end, mouth-watering photography throughout, hasn`t forgotten its roots and engages chocolate lovers with the personal touch of the chef. A Chocolate Connoisseur section, for instance, offers an inside look at the delectable dessert and lets visitors e-mail the chef for chocolate-making and -serving tips that only a chef could reveal. Back to Top
Looking beyond beauty
It might seem counterintuitive for a beauty products marketer to peruse web sites of film rental, automobile and grocery companies to learn how to improve its e-commerce operations. Yet that`s exactly what Lancome-USA.com, a division of L`Oreal, did in preparing the redesign of its web site this spring.
"We specifically wanted to go way out of the box," says Sara Williams, Lancome`s vice president of e-commerce and customer relationships.
The objective was to study sites with a consumer`s eye. "We believed what was missing in the luxury industry was a focus on service," Williams says.
The goal was to give customers the same help in searching for beauty products they might receive from clerks at a store.
Digital Pulp, a New York-based web development firm that helped Lancome relaunch its site, spent hours at cosmetics counters in stores to understand what customers want.
"They`re trying to simulate the store experience, where somebody will tell you what goes with your skin color," says Sucharita Mulpuru, principal analyst at Boston-based Forrester Research Inc. "They`re trying to do it online."
The site enables customers to personalize their shopping for cosmetics, skin care products and other items by selecting from drop-down menus their skin tone, eye color and hair color and then seeing products that match those features. A "compare all" function was added--Lancome took that from the auto industry--so shoppers can compare styles, prices and brands.
Clicking on a category such as mascara in the navigation column on the left displays all products in that category. When the consumer clicks on one product the rest remain visible so she can skip around without using the back button.
New York-based Lancome also added a "discontinued item" tool so customers can find upgraded products similar to old favorites no longer available.
Lancome is working on a second redesign phase that will, among other things, let customers compare notes on products and exchange beauty tips.
The company`s web strategy is based on two principles, says Williams: The site is never finished, and the customer always comes first. Back to Top
Although it has become somewhat common for retailers to use the web to facilitate product customization, few Internet retailers have taken this to the same level as MyMMs.com Taking a commodity product that just about everybody knows well, McLean, Va.-based Mars USA enables visitors at the site to create their own M&Ms.;