November 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Food/Drug These retailers know how to sort things out

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First they get to select two out of 22 colors for their customized candy. Then they are allowed to select two short words to appear on half of the M&Ms; in their order and two more words to appear on the other half. Finally, they choose from a selection of gift containers. And in the end, visitors can review exactly what their personalized M&Ms; will look like before ordering.

"This is a great novelty item," says Sucharita Mulpuru, principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. "They`re doing a great job of leveraging the web to allow customers to personalize the product. I suppose customers could call in and order customized M&Ms;, but this is better because it allows them to see their M&Ms; right on the screen."

Mulpuru views as a leader because it challenges other retailers to think of more creative ways to customize their products. "There are so many opportunities for retailers to use the web to create product customization--they`ve only just scratched the surface. M&Ms; is a good example of how retailers can take the next step. For virtually every product you can think of, there is room for some customization." also is shrewd when it comes to keeping visitors on the site, offering a variety of entertainments, including music, games and M&Ms; online video. There is even a page where visitors can create their own M&Ms; TV commercial character by choosing facial features, hairstyles, clothing and accessories.

And Mars isn`t skimping on getting the word out about its niche e-commerce site. Promotions include extensive advertising on TV as well as online banner ads on popular web sites. "They`ve obviously put a lot of media dollars into advertising this new feature," Mulpuru says. "They`re not afraid to show customers this is a unique and special web site that customers might not otherwise know about." Back to Top

Handmade fame
In a candy kitchen in Miami, Alejandra Bigai and her crew of 10 employees make by hand truffles and assorted other delights fashioned from chocolate. Not just any chocolate, Bigai says, but only the richest without added ingredients like butter and sugar, and often embellished with spices and freshly made fruit puree. "All of our chocolates are handmade just as my grandmother used to do it in Venezuela," she says.

Bigai is the founder of Romanicos Chocolate, a brand whose reputation for rare delicacies has been catapulted by the Internet far beyond the confines of its Miami kitchen and single, adjacent store.

"Upon first visit to, who would ever guess this chocolatier is a one-store retailer?" says Steve Rowen, an analyst with research and advisory firm RSR Research. "The site`s appearance is far more appetizing than that of many top chefs` high-budget cookbooks. The photography is first-rate. And the look and feel is exactly what is required for the world`s best known candy-makers to inspire impulse buys."

Bigai launched her brand two years ago by exhibiting at the industry Chocolate Show in New York. That led to exposure in national media, which led to the Academy Awards presenting her chocolates as gifts to Oscar winners.

And when the Food Network was looking for something unusual from Miami to feature on TV, it searched the web and found Romanicos Chocolate. The network has featured the chocolatier on its Road Tasters and Sugar Rush programs; videos of the programs run on YouTube as well as on the Romanicos site.

But Bigai hasn`t let the fast publicity change her personal style. Having noticed how her store customers like to select their own combination of chocolates in boxed assortments, she designed a feature that lets online shoppers do the same.

To address a problem with abandoned shopping carts, Bigai adjusted her site`s system for figuring the shipping weight of multiple-product orders. Shoppers now get an accurate preview of their shipping costs, resulting in fewer abandoned carts.

And she still sends out personal thank you cards with each order. Back to Top

Searching and learning

As most wine lovers know, picking out a good wine is a valuable mix of art and science—but one that requires a skill that often overwhelms all but the savviest of connoisseurs.

“It’s intimidating, and the names are hard to remember,” says Rich Bergsund, CEO of “Our industry’s unmet need is making people feel confident picking that next bottle. The more you know about wine, the more you’ll enjoy it.”

Making both the casual wine buyer as well as the connoisseur feel at home searching for the ideal wine is San Francisco-based’s mission, he says.

“ makes it easy to shop for a large quantity of domestic and imported wine, and it has unusual home page mouse-over features that show current deals and how to get 1-cent shipping,” says David Schofman, an e-commerce consultant and the founder and former CEO of Callaway Golf Interactive.

Because some shoppers want to quickly buy a gift while others want to browse and dive into details about wines,’s home page greets visitors with large headings of “Shop for wine,” “Send a gift” and “Learn about wine,” along with enticing details on a featured winery and special offers on multiple wine varieties. Clicking on “Send a gift” displays for shoppers a broad selection of options arranged by price, gift baskets and certificates, and selections from particular wine-making regions.

Shoppers who select “Learn about wine” can search or navigate by terms such as type of wine or region, or by sections filled with advice on selecting, tasting and serving wines. They can learn, for example, that Pinot Gris, a rich, fruit-laden wine from Oregon or the Alsace region of France, is a good alternative to Chardonnay, as is Savignon Blanc from the Marlborough region of New Zealand.

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