What you see is what you want.

Internet Retailer

Cookie cutters, rugs and screwdrivers weren't the items consumers initially rushed to buy on retail web sites when they first began shopping online. Unlike items like books, CDs and computers, furniture and housewares often are unique, and many shoppers want to see, touch, heft, and perhaps sit on them before they buy.

In fact, less than 1% of U.S. retail sales in home furnishings occurred online in 2003. But by 2012 it was more than 4%. And the web sites in this year's Hot 100 illustrate the progress online retailers have made in helping consumers visualize the products they're considering, find products that match their tastes and obtain answers to technical questions.

A prime example is Williams-Sonoma.com, which sells everything necessary to prepare and serve elegant meals, from cake pans and mixing bowls to steak knives and wine glasses. While Williams-Sonoma Inc. operates 590 physical stores, the web accounted for three-quarters of its revenue growth in 2012 and, by mid-2013, about 45% of its sales, underscoring how much housewares shopping has shifted to the Internet.

Williams-Sonoma.com shows why. The imagery is rich and navigation guides take many forms. A discreet bookmark in the left-column navigation helps a shopper keep her bearings, and product pages provide customer reviews, dimensions and instructions for care. Little wonder that consulting firm The E-tailing Group Inc. ranked Williams-Sonoma as the best e-commerce site to shop in its annual mystery shopping study conducted during the 2012 holiday season.

There are many ways to provide consumers with the information they need to find the right household item, and other e-retailers in this category offer a rich mix of innovations.

Wayfair.com lets a shopper drag an image of an item to a bar at the bottom of the page, so she can easily return to it later. That's vital for a site that offers some 5 million SKUs. The web-only retailer grew its revenue more than 20% in 2012 over the prior year by making it easy for consumers to find just about anything they need for the home at Wayfair.com.

Lumber Liquidators Inc. sells flooring, not an easy item to sell online. Its room decorator tool lets a shopper upload a photo of a room in her home to see how various flooring materials would look there, providing a view the shopper couldn't get in a store. DoMyOwnPestControl.com offers videos offering guidance on how to exterminate a variety of critters, and points interested consumers to environmentally friendly products. Visitors to Blinds.com can arrange a live video chat with a salesperson for advice on how to measure and choose window coverings.

In all sorts of ways, these Hot 100 retailers offer consumers a complete picture of their merchandise, and shoppers are responding by moving more of their home goods buying to the web.

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2013 December magazine, 2014 Hot 100, DoMyOwnPestControl.com, home furnishings online, Lumber Liquidators, Wayfair.com, Williams-Sonoma.com