Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Branded Ecommerce in the Age of 70% Off

How can ecommerce providers drive sales without resorting to free shipping and deep discounts?

As everyone knows, online retail sales continued their meteoric rise this past holiday season – but at a price. Free shipping was epidemic and discounts more aggressive than ever – some etailer home pages dedicated more space to their “70% off” banners than the merchandise they were trying to sell. But though everyone discounts at least occasionally, there are a few ecommerce providers that dare to differentiate in other ways. As an avid online shopper, I’ve noticed that this differentiation seems to be clustering in a few broad strategies:

Become a destination – have you ever gone into a store just because it looked cool and fun, even though you really never intended to buy anything? And maybe you did indeed end up buying something, or at least coming back later when gifting season hit? Some online stores are trying to stand out by just providing an opportunity to take a break or window shop in a new way. Here are a few I’ve seen:
Brookstone – they have taken the concept of “browsing the shelves” literally with a new interactive feature that lets you view 3D shelves in a virtual store, viewing hundreds or even thousands of items at once.
Trip Advisor – I just wasted 30 minutes on their incredibly fun “World Challenge” game. Other raging time wasters include chatting with other travelers via their social network, or posting on their message boards.
Diesel Denim – has a section called “the cult” with articles and videos about performance artists, cutting edge music festivals in Europe, etc. True, it doesn’t make me instantly shell out 200 bucks for jeans, but does serve to reinforce Deisel’s street cred in an image obsessed category.

Become the ultimate helpful sales clerk – today’s most advanced ecommerce sites do everything a sales person can do, with the possible exception of telling you how great your butt looks in those jeans. Web 2.0 tactics are especially helpful in achieving the virtual shopgirl effect, as is bonus content from “experts” real or perceived. Some favorites of mine:
New Egg –this lesser known electronics site now includes an “eggspert” forum – basically an wikipedia created by nerds to help simpletons like me differentiate between 1080p and 720i.
Travelocity – like any good travel agent, Travelocity’s recently launched Road Trip Wizard lets you enter your travel interests and preferences, then spits out a complete itinerary, with maps, hotel recommendations, etc.
Barnes and Noble.com - want to get a better feel for a book you’re considering buying? Barnes and Noble now features video interviews with authors to help you go beyond the inside cover.
Lancome just overhauled their site which features beauty tutorials and suggestions for alternatives to discontinued products.

Make it especially for you – personalization, in some form, has been around since the dawn of ecommerce. But recently, some business have been taking it to the next level, giving users access to products that are truly custom made, even one of a kind:
Threadless.com goes well beyond just letting you create your own T-shirt. In a triumph of 2.0 democracy, they only sell user generated designs. Apparently, some of the more popular user-designers have achieved near “Project Runway” fame for their designs.
Intellifit.com, a recently launched men’s clothing site, has installed body scanners in airports around the country to measure users; clothing recommendations from various well known brands, including Nordstrom, Levi’s and Land’s End, are then sent via e-mail based on your body type.
• And though it’s been around for awhile, Nike.com can guarantee that no one will be wearing the exact same shoes as you ; choose your heel color, your swoosh color, your shoelace color – and top it off with your very own written ID on the back of the shoe (as long as it doesn’t say “sweatshop”).

Maybe all this is a waste of money and resources. Most people go to an ecommerce site to point, click, buy and get out of there. But the same can be said of offline retailers, and that group has not hesitated to enrich the shopping experience with grand piano players, free beverages, or even (in the case of Home Depot) classes on DIY home improvement. They know that the extras are what bring people back, develop those coveted positive brand associations, and maybe even let them run those 70% off sales just a little less often.


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