November 21, 2008, 12:00 AM


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That’s one of the highlights of this site. Despite the fact that grew from 6,000 products to 10,000 in the first nine months of 2008, customers can still easily find their way around the site and locate the products they want.

That’s partly due to a redesign late last year that created more user-friendly landing pages, says Kevin Watts, director of e-commerce. The result is increased ease of use for customers.

“This is an excellent site in that it has kept its assortment appropriately sized and well organized so that it is easy to shop and customers are helped throughout the process,” says Lee Diercks, partner and managing director of consulting firm Clear Thinking Group LLC. “A lot of other retailers try to cram in too much product and make it difficult to shift through all the options.”

Along with that emphasis on organization are some nifty features, such as the site’s new dorm room registry. Not only can recent high school graduates select items they want for their college dorm rooms, but they can e-mail the list to those contemplating graduation gifts. Purchases are saved and shipped later directly to the dorm room, rather than immediately shipped to the student’s home for later transport. also offers an online closet design tool. Visitors provide the dimensions of a closet and suggested products appear on the screen. Users can click on specific elements to modify the design. They can also click to specify whether they want baskets or drawers or whether shelves should be made of wood or cloth. The cost of the items, including estimated shipping, is tallied on the side. As customers change the specifications, the cost is updated automatically.

As part of its commitment to helping customers, the site provides videos that show assembly instructions of products it sells. If those videos don’t do the trick, the site provides a toll-free number where customers can get personal advice on assembly. Back to top

A video menagerie
Much has been said about what the online retail channel can’t do, such as allow customers to touch or try a product before buying it. The web sites of PetsUnited LLC are instead focusing on an area where e-commerce excels over stores: its ability to serve up video on demand to entertain and educate. And it’s leveraging video in abundance to distinguish itself from other online pet supply stores.

PetsUnited this year has added some 1,200 videos to an initial three of its, and plans to launch more across all off of its nine sites at the rate of about 100 per month. CEO Alex Tabibi understood the power of video through earlier online projects, a lesson he didn’t forget for the sites of PetsUnited.

The videos range from as long as 10 minutes for an instructional video on horse training to about two minutes for product videos. PetsUnited has resolved the technical challenge of serving up a large volume of videos without slowing its site by using a custom file compression formula developed by its video producer, and by using a content delivery network to speed up delivery to customers’ browsers.

Tabibi says PetsUnited briefly experimented with paid video before making all video content free. Now, some videos get hundreds of thousands of views. And while the company is still working on associating a marketing expense with each video to more precisely determine the effect on sales and return on investment, Tabibi sees positive signs.

“It appears that a general rule is if a consumer views a video on a product, that improves the sale of that product by about 50%,” he says.

Gene Alvarez, vice president of Gartner Inc., praises the clean page design templates across PetsUnited and their eye-pleasing balance of useful content and white space, as well as the brand’s commitment to video. “From Gartner’s perspective, video is one of the best communication tools,” he says, “especially when you are trying to educate or instruct customers.” Back to top

A sound strategy
Pictures show what a product looks like, but they can’t tell a consumer what a musical instrument sounds like.

That’s why Sam Ash Music Corp. added the Virtual Cymbal Room to its e-commerce site, Visitors can view images of cymbals, drag the ones that interest them into a horizontal bar across the bottom of the page and then click on each image in turn to compare the sound of one cymbal to another.

Other music sites may allow visitors to hear the sounds of instruments, but not on the same page, says CEO David Ash. “This gives you a rapid-fire way to play many cymbals at once.” The retailer started with cymbals because major suppliers provide sound files for their products; it plans to extend the concept to other instruments.

David Schofman, a drummer when not working as an e-commerce consultant, likes the concept but found it a bit complex to use. It’s a first try, and the retailer plans to improve it, says David Gusick, chief of direct response at Sam Ash. “We see it as a really cool tool that will improve the customer experience on the site,” Gusick says.

The Virtual Cymbal Room was just one new feature introduced this fall as part of a complete overhaul of The guiding principle in the redesign was to provide customers with more information, Ash and Gusick say.

The retailer spent a year and a half adding more data about each product so that product pages can include complete specs about an instrument. That also makes searching for a product easier, because a visitor can find instruments with specific features, Gusick says.

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