November 30, 2007, 12:00 AM

Specialty/Non-Apparel For niche e-retailers, content is king

(Page 5 of 5)

"Our photo books, our cards, our calendars and all the different borders, our collage capabilities--all these things help people really be thoughtful and bring their memories to life," he says.

Redwood City, Calif.-based Shutterfly cultivates a close relationship with its customers, 70% of which are women, Housenbold says.

"We`ve always been a community commerce site, so we`re constantly in touch with our customers, listening to their needs, involving them in beta programs and really being customer-centric," he says. "We`re constantly talking to them about what they want and what experience we can provide to delight them."

Shutterfly updates its web site twice a month, adding new features such as a redesigned home page, new scrapbook pages or new types of greeting cards. Among the most recent additions are products using characters from Nickelodeon TV`s children series Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob Square Pants and Go Diego as well as photo books and greeting cards from Martha Stewart. Shutterfly also offers free unlimited storage of photos.

"Shutterfly has tremendous customization capabilities--you can use them as a storage repository or you can use them to print photos or Christmas cards," says Sucharita Mulpuru, principal analyst-retail at Forrester Research Inc. "They have lovely finish options like `sloppy edges`, black and white borders, matte finishes, etc.--all things that appeal to photo aficionados who want professional quality finishes."

The online photo service also owns its own manufacturing facilities, using the latest technology to make calendars, cards, photo books and enlargements.

"They have by far the best-looking prints of all the photo services I`ve used," Mulpuru says. "They do a nice job of color matching and ensuring that rich tones come out which the other photo services don`t really do. Photo processing is an underrated art." Back to Top

Out of the box
As anyone with a child on his gift list knows, few things light up a kid`s eyes like a really cool toy. And few gifts turn those sparkles to tears faster than a toy that comes out of the box with nasty surprises--it`s far smaller than the image on the box indicates, for instance, or the assembly instructions are too confusing for even the craftiest mom-and-dad construction team.

The Step2 Co. knows these challenges well. And the Streetsboro, Ohio-based manufacturer and retailer this year launched a redesigned e-commerce site that brings toy shopping to a new level.

The new site shows Step2 is mindful of the limitations shoppers have online as well as in stores when considering all of a toy`s characteristics before deciding on a purchase. To counter limitations, goes above and beyond and displays a wealth of information on a single page: Images that put toys into size context in play scenes, including some video and 3-D demonstrations; information on shipping times and costs; views of complementary toys; and detailed assembly instructions.

"We provide an out-of-the-box shopping experience, and our conversion rates have improved as we`ve added features that help people through the purchase process," says Robert MacKay, vice president of marketing and sales and head of e-commerce.

Doing its best to educate shoppers, Step2 provides consistent page layouts for each product, providing a familiar, easy-to-follow format throughout the site. One shortcoming, though, says Nikki Baird, managing partner with consultants RSR Research, is that listings of product categories don`t always indicate the appropriate child size or age.

But much of this information is provided in customer reviews, which offer valuable insights into how toys go with particular age groups or fit in living rooms, MacKay notes. Indeed, reviews are presented with brief lists of key points making it easy to get to the heart of each review, Baird says.

"Our first responsibility is to provide comprehensive information about our products to our customers," MacKay says. As Step2 shows, doing that well is more than child`s play. Back to Top

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