November 21, 2008, 12:00 AM


(Page 6 of 9) does a good job of fully utilizing the three Cs of e-commerce-community, content and commerce-says Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president of TNS Retail Forward, a consulting firm. “The web is really suited to aggregate consumers who share the same passion in a way you couldn’t do in a store environment,” she says. “I doubt that passionate knitters had any source prior to the Lion Brand site to get a regular 30-minute podcast on what’s new in knitting and crocheting.”

But Lion Brand’s focus on being a resource center for its consumers may be overshadowing the retail side of the site, says Jim Okamura, senior partner at retail consulting firm J.C. Williams Group Ltd.

“They’re doing an excellent job of being a resource center for their target customers,” he says. “But I almost feel like the e-commerce portion, the shopping part, gets a little bit lost in all of this great community and extensive content and information.” Back to top

A modern site
When merchandise is selected by museum curators, a site’s assortment is bound to be out of the ordinary. And when the defining criterion is modern and the shopping experience wrapped around it all is served up in spare, crisp and responsive web pages, it’s clear that less can be more. Such is the case with, the online store of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

It’s a formula that has helped spark double-digit revenue growth for the site since it launched in 1999; what’s more, sales have quadrupled annually in recent years, says Kathy Thornton-Bias, general manager of MoMA Retail.

“Our buyers go all over the world, but all the products are approved by a curator,” she says. While the distinctive merchandise may help draw people to the site, the site works hard to guarantee them a good experience once they arrive.

For seamless shopping and browsing at, Thornton-Bias hands a measure of credit to the IBM WebSphere e-commerce platform that the store migrated to in 2004 after struggling with stability issues on two earlier platforms. “WebSphere gave us the platform functionality that would normally be available only to larger enterprises,” she says.

In terms of advanced functionalities, the site may have fewer bells and whistles than others, but its streamlined, modern interface and sensibilities are reflective of the core shopping base, says Mary Brett Whitfield, senior vice president at consulting firm TNS Retail Forward. The Designer link in the top navigation bar that leads to text bios of designers whose work is featured in the store is noteworthy from multiple perspectives, as it not only educates in keeping with the museum’s mission but also groups products from each designer with the bio for more effective merchandising, Whitfield adds.

With three U.S. stores and a number of international locations, MoMA Retail gets about 55% of its sales from the stores and 10% from its wholesale channel, according to Thornton-Bias. The rest are from the direct channel, where e-commerce sales are the fastest-growing segment. “This little machine,” she says, “is just getting started.” Back to top

Sheet music hero
In order to move sheet music retailing into the age of e-commerce, Musicnotes, Inc. became a master of improvisation. Using file compression and encryption technology, the sheet music e-retailer has developed software that enables visitors to download sheet music samples, see how the notes to the song are played, and then purchase the sheet music along with an extended lesson.

“It builds on the iTunes concept of listening to the music before making the purchase to make sure you get the version you want,” says Chris Vicente, senior manager, Products Consumer Markets Group, for consulting firm BearingPoint. “Shoppers want to interact with digital music before they purchase it and has enhanced the interaction with sheet music.”

Shoppers can access sample passages of songs in the’s library and play them on the Guitar Guru application, which displays the notes for each guitar tab in sequence, at no charge. A read-out of the sequence is displayed for each section of the song, and users can sync the speed of Guitar Guru to their ability. The fret board where players place their fingers can be minimized, enlarged or sized to the available screen. Visitors can learn the fret sequences for acoustic, electric and bass guitars. In some cases, users can view more than one sample passage of a song.

To speed browsing, Musicnotes serves up sample pages of the song. Full files are pushed to the customer after the purchase.

“We view ourselves as more of a platform company that has taken sheet music retailing from its inception during the days of buggy whips to digital riffs,” says Tim Reiland, chairman and chief financial officer for Musicnotes Inc., which downloads 5,000 songs per day.

The attention to the guitar is timely because more people are taking up the guitar, in large part because of video games like Guitar Hero, says Lee Diercks, managing director of Clear Thinking Group LLC, a consulting firm. “Sheet music retailers have pretty much faded away,” Diercks says, “but Musicnotes offers a great song library and a visually appealing site. It creates a lot of possibilities.” Back to top

A fetching site
The About Us page on says it all: Its “Bored” of Directors includes chief mischief officer Lulu, public nuisance officer Zoltan, chief eating officer Arthur and chief sniffing officer Harry. This is just one small example that shows how keenly Muttropolis knows it customers, who are all about their pets.

This year, the retailer decided to bring the highly social and crazy atmosphere in its five stores to its e-commerce operation by launching its own social network, the Online Pet Park. When it comes to community, Muttropolis is far ahead of the pack-only a handful of e-retailers host their own social network.

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