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Internet Retailer : Hot 100 - Necessity Breeds Innovation
By Marketing
12/1/2009 12:00:00 AM

Necessity breeds innovation 

E-retailers responded to the recession with a burst of creativity. Here are 10 ways this year’s Hot 100 online merchants kept sales flowing during the downturn.

By Don Davis  

As the economy spiraled downward early this year, Staples Inc. added new product categories to its web site and beefed up site-to-store features. The goal was simple, says Pete Howard, senior vice president of Staples Business Delivery. 

“We want to emerge from this recession with a healthier customer list,” says Howard, who manages Staples’ e-commerce business. 

With the economy beginning to pull out of the deepest downturn in generations, this is a good time to highlight those online and multichannel retailers that used their web sites in novel ways to make customers more loyal, even, as Howard observed, if they were spending less. This year’s 

Internet Retailer Hot 100 list is full of such examples. 

As described in the pages that follow, each of these e-retailers came up with new ideas in the past year that offer valuable lessons for other web merchants. 

Many focused on engaging customers, through enhancements to ratings and reviews features, more informative blogs and question-and-answer features on their web sites, and by aggressively communicating through such social networks as Facebook and Twitter. Some made site navigation more intuitive, while others generated excitement through members-only offers and daily deals. 

And a surprising number jumped into the emerging arena of mobile commerce, showing that consumers will indeed buy from their increasingly sophisticated mobile phones. For the first time, this year’s Hot 100 issue features a dedicated m-commerce section that highlights the achievements of five pioneers in this new retail channel. 

There are astute strategies to be found in each of the profiles in this issue. Here are 10 lessons that all e-retailers can take away from the innovations of this year’s Hot 100 online retailers. 

1. Connect with customers

If there’s one trend that stands out on the pages that follow it’s how much consumers’ penchant for communicating online has become part of web retailing. 

“Social networking is ingrained in our corporate culture because it is ingrained in the lives of our customers,” says Eric McCoy, founder and CEO of shoe e-retailer Heels.com, which maintains a presence on all the major social networks. 

Hot 100 retailers don’t just have Facebook and Twitter pages, they make them exciting destinations. Teen apparel retailer Forever21 has attracted more than 450,000 fans by using Facebook to introduce new styles that devotees can vote on and share. It also offers up fun contests, lots of photos and lively discussions. Cosmetics retailer Sephora has 227,000 fans of its Facebook page that offers exclusive deals, videos and polls. Sephora used Facebook this year to introduce a new product line. 

On-site social features also keep growing more sophisticated. Backcountry.com awards points to reviewers based on the usefulness of their comments—and for using their real names. Question-and-answer features are increasingly common and useful. At Walmart.com, shoppers rate answers on their helpfulness and can find out more about those who post responses. 

2. Go mobile

Despite the recession, 2009 turned out to be the year that online retailers moved decisively to selling to consumers through their mobile phones. More than 100 e-retailers now offer mobile commerce, and the numbers grew rapidly in the second half of the year. EBay alone expects $500 million in mobile sales this year. 

A special section starting on page 16 highlights the groundbreaking efforts of five of the most advanced mobile retailers. Those profiles illustrate how these retailers quickly learned how to adapt retailing to the demands of the small mobile phone screen. For instance, a consumer visiting the mobile site of 1-800-Flowers.com immediately sees the online florist’s best-selling items, enabling the shopper to buy with just a few taps on the phone’s screen or keyboard. 

These retailers are also taking advantage of features unique to the mobile phone. For instance, Sears’  mobile app takes advantage of the geo-location feature of mobile phones to target offers based on where the consumer is. Many phones have cameras, and Amazon lets a consumer in a store snap a photo of a product, then offers that item for purchase through the phone. 

3. Be an expert source

Back when there were neighborhood shoe, clothing and hardware stores, their owners or longtime employees served as a source of expert advice. Now that it’s rare to encounter that sort of expertise in a store, smart online retailers are using their web sites to fill the gap. 

VanDykes.com, for instance, has a Boring Search tool that lets consumers search for replacement cabinet handles based on the distance between the screw holes bored in the cabinet. At women’s sports apparel retailer Title Nine, testers rate sports bras based on how much support they offer, giving each item one to five barbells; the web site lists those ratings next to each product. 

Employees at fashion apparel retailer Net-A-Porter.com try on every piece of clothing sold on the site so that product pages can provide exact guidance on everything from the width of a headband to how tight the leg opening is in a pair of jeans. Giggle.com evaluates the children’s products it sells on 10 criteria, such as their safety and any allergy issues.

That kind of expertise can set a web retailer apart. 

4. Make navigation more useful

There’s more information than ever in the site navigation bars at Hot 100 e-commerce sites. Take Shopping.HP.com where the tab for computers distinguishes between PCs for everyday use and for high performance, and displays an image of each type. At SunGlassHut.com, the Color tab unfolds a palette of colors along with text descriptions, and the Shape tab displays outlines of popular sunglasses styles. 

Navigation bars at apparel retailer BodenUSA.com show how much stock remains for each item, and the wait time for items not currently available. At ToysRUs.com, shoppers can sort by the personality of the child to receive the gift, such as creative versus sporty. 

Retailers that operate more than one site are tying them together via the navigation bar. For instance, Hayneedle, which operates 225 highly specialized sites, groups the product offerings of those sites under navigation tabs such as Patio/Garden, Baby&Kids and Home/Accessories. 

5. Personalize the experience

Each shopper is unique, and several Hot 100 retailers tailor their sites to the individual.

When a shopper returns to Overstock.com, the discount retailer remembers the items she examined on prior visits, and the home page shows her those products and others that are related. Art e-retailer DNA 11, which sells to 48 countries, recognizes the consumer’s nationality by his IP address and shows the matching flag and currency, as well as presenting the site in the most appropriate of four languages—English, Spanish, French and German. 

At Clinique.com, shoppers can take a 10-question survey, then see recommendations of skin care products that match their profiles. Parents can go to Scholastic.com and create pages that display grade-specific products and information. 

6. Make tough purchases easy

It’s not easy to buy a gazebo online—or offline, for that matter. But GazeboCreations.com walks the consumer through the selection of materials, dimensions and designs, and displays the cost of the kit at each step. 

The same is true for window treatments—it’s tough to figure out how to take measurements and to know what will look good with the colors in a consumer’s home. Levolor.com offers a product configurator that helps consumers quickly choose from a wide assortment of blinds and drapes, and to see how their selections would look next to a variety of wall colors. 

RawlingsGear.com also has a product configurator—for baseball gloves. The shopper chooses the age and skill level of the player, then customizes the glove by choosing the leather, color and webbing style, just like Major Leaguers do. 

Godiva.com offers a feature that will come in handy at this time of the year: Companies buying gifts for clients can enter the number of recipients and total budget and see a variety of product recommendations from the famed chocolatier. 

7. Sell yourself

TracyPorter.com is all about Tracy Porter and her selections in shoes, clothing, jewelry and home décor, which she shares with enthusiasm on the video-laden site. Biking enthusiast Brian Van plays a similar role on the e-retail site he founded, SportbikeTrackGear.com, which features more than 500 videos of Van demonstrating biking gear. 

Hair stylist Ouidad tells her own story of growing up with curly hair on Ouidad.com, the e-commerce site she created to cater to women like her. And Barneys New York offers a subtle form of personalization that will appeal to those in the know—the navigation tabs are written in the script of Barneys’ longtime creative director Simon Noonan. 

8. Create a sense of urgency

This was the breakout year in the U.S. for a European craze, members-only e-commerce sites that let high-end fashion retailers and designers dispose discreetly of excess merchandise.

Gilt.com offers products for just 36 hours, provides members with a calendar of upcoming events and offers a waiting list for items that have sold out. Rival RueLaLa.com creates its buzz by sending registered consumers daily e-mails with product offers. 

Woot.com illustrates another way to create excitement. The site offers a limited number of items at a fixed price—the trick is consumers don’t know how many are left and can be left empty-handed if they wait too long to buy. 

9. Connect site and store

Retail chains are getting savvier about using their web sites to drive store traffic, and vice versa. 

Apparel retailer Old Navy is a prime example. Its web site offers hidden coupons that can only be redeemed in stores. And it’s added a social twist: a shopper can share one coupon a week with a Facebook friend, a feature that turns Old Navy customers into viral marketers of the brand. 

Staples lets customers order custom-print jobs online for pickup within four hours at its office supplies stores. It also mines customer data to encourage cross-channel shopping, for instance, sending online coupons to store shoppers. Sears began this year allowing online shoppers to schedule store pickup of web purchases, and allows someone other than the person who placed the order to pick up the goods. 

10. Play the value card

Retailers that offer discounts are playing them up. For instance, both BikeTiresDirect.com and OakleyVault.com, the discount site of high-end eyeglass manufacturer Oakley, show not only item prices but also the discount shoppers are getting when they buy at those sites. 

Electronics retailer Best Buy found another way to sell to value-conscious shoppers: it introduced a Pitch In card that allows online shoppers to create an account that many friends and relatives can contribute to, a good way to promote sales of high-ticket items. 

Finally, although it doesn’t fit into any category, a special mention goes to computer gear e-retailer Newegg.com, which this year became the first e-commerce site awarded gold-level certification by the National Federation for the Blind for making its site accessible to the visually impaired. All the Hot 100 retailers are doing well by being smart; Newegg is also doing well by doing good.  


Green and stylish

Environmentally conscious home furnishings don’t have to be drab, say Susan Aplin, president, and Carolyn Wapnick, chief technology officer, who together launched Bambeco.com in April. “We’re not green-preachy, but we want to offer consumers a choice when they make that decision,” Aplin says. The site presents fashion-forward home décor with often stunning photography set off by a crisp design. Each product page explains what makes the item eco-friendly, lets visitors launch a slide show of product images, and offers a Q&A feature. “Education is an important piece of what we do,” Wapnick says. Aiming to make navigation easy, there are tabs for seasonal items and gift ideas organized by occasion, price and recipient. Video and more social content are coming in 2010. 

On the case

Retailer Case-Mate.com, which sells mobile phone cases, lets consumers search by wireless carrier or phone type, because everyone knows what phone they carry and their carrier, says Andrew Knight, vice president of e-commerce. The new version of the site, launched in April with vendor ShopVisible, includes embedded YouTube videos on product pages that show off each case’s features. Viewers can double click on a video to go to YouTube.com, where they can comment on a video or share it with friends. And they do. One video about a new iPhone case that carries credit cards and ID was viewed 42,000 times in the six weeks after the product’s launch. Case-Mate also solicits comments from visitors with a Feedback tab on every page, and Knight says that input helps shape company product plans. 

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