November 21, 2008, 12:00 AM


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In addition, the site now features articles by the professional musicians who staff the retailer’s call center, and includes the writer’s e-mail address so customers can establish personal contact with the expert. “We want to be more than just a site where you buy,” Ash says. “We want to be the site you come to when you have a question.” That, he’s sure, will lead to sales in the long run. Back to top

Making it easy
Click onto and you’ll be greeted with an immense menu of shopping options. Under three broad categories-office supplies, furniture and technology-visitors to the site are given 54 product choices.

On some retail web sites, such an unwieldy list might turn off shoppers. But caters primarily to a group of customers who usually know precisely what they want before they reach the retailer’s home page. They are often office managers and small business owners. About one-half of the sales on comes from small business.

“You can really tell from the design they’ve done a lot to accommodate the focused shopper,” says Nikki Baird, an analyst and managing director of research and consulting firm Retail Systems Research. “It speaks to the fact that people come here because they have a specific need.” receives lots of feedback from customers who appreciate how easy it is to find what they are looking for on the site, says Pete Howard, senior vice president for Staples Business Delivery and the executive responsible for The site, he explains, “is designed around what our customers want.”

The company strives to make the entire online experience as easy as possible for its core customers. Atop every page, in fact, is the Staples’ white-on-red logo followed by the words, “that was easy.”

The company offers regular customers an “easy reorder” feature that enables them to purchase quickly merchandise that they bought before, without having to remember the product number. Many office managers use “easy reorder” to make regular purchases of items like pens and toner cartridges, says Howard.

The site features special promotions on the right side of the homepage, including a list of 99-cent “hot buys.” Also posted on the right track is an invitation to enroll in Staples’ rewards programs, which features a 10% rebate on many items. Teachers also are offered a 2% reward on products purchased.

A convenient store locator is provided atop the home page. And customer ratings and reviews accompany each product that is sold on the site. Back to top

Getting the picture’s employees don’t just sell musical instruments, they play them as well. And that, says Mike Clem director of e-commerce at Sweetwater Sound Inc., is the major difference between Sweetwater and its competitors.

All product descriptions are penned personally by employees, who receive 13 weeks of training when they join the company. The retailer encourages employees to rent an instrument for a weekend, try it out and then post a review on the site. An Expert Center houses glossaries, buying guides and tech tips from staff and industry professionals. Category forums allow users and employees to exchange tips about complex equipment, such as digital audio workstations.

To put web shoppers at ease when considering guitars that often can cost $5,000, Sweetwater launched the Guitar Gallery, a section that hosts six pictures of each guitar-not the same picture for all of the Gibson Les Paul Classic guitars on offer, for instance, but pictures of the specific guitar the consumer is considering, complete with unique serial number.

“We may have 10 of one type of guitar in stock, but the wood grain patterns and colors are different for each one, and consumers want to choose the exact model they purchase,” Clem says.

Shoppers can find such extra touches throughout the Sweetwater site. “Many retailers will go to the manufacturer’s web site and pull descriptions and copy, but we have an entire team of product specialists that try out the gear and write descriptions themselves,” Clem says.

Anne Brouwer, senior partner at retail consultancy McMillan Doolittle LLP, says information and education separates Sweetwater from the pack. “There is a wealth of easily accessed information about products, from how to shop and select to extensive photo galleries and detailed product information,” she says. “There is more than enough on the site to satisfy anyone from a novice to a pro.” is an e-retailer run by musicians, for musicians. Consumers wanting further proof need only take a trip to Sweetwater’s new headquarters in Fort Wayne, Ind. There, they’ll not only find offices and computers, but a state-of-the art performance theatre as well. Back to top

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