the abcs of online trends

May 01, 1999 9:30 PM  By

The world of electronic commerce changes faster than the weather in New England. Pioneers such as online bookseller Amazon.com and music marketer CDnow continue to redesign their Websites and expand their merchandise offerings; established retailers such as Nordstrom and Office Depot are making Internet commerce part of their overall strategy; and more small merchants are launching Web catalogs every day.

Given the dizzying pace with which e-commerce is evolving, keeping track of ‘Net trends can be exhausting. So rather than a mere catalog of what’s new in online commerce, here’s a primer of current trends and those that are likely to surface.

a is for AFFILIATE PROGRAMS. Amazon.com, which now has more than 100,000 affiliates, popularized these programs, which allow online merchants to take a broad, spiderlike approach to finding customers. In a typical affiliate program, a marketer will encourage other sites to sell its products or provide links back to its online store in exchange for a percentage of sales.

b is for BRANDS, which continue to establish their own Websites to make shopping easier and to test selling directly to the end user. Photography products manufacturer Kodak, for instance, has on its Website a Factory Outlet, which sells reconditioned and surplus merchandise; electronics manufacturer Motorola’s site offers in-depth product portfolios and directs surfers to sales offices in their state.

c is for CONTEXTUAL INTEGRATION-the integration of merchandise sales within community sites. Women.com, a site that includes a chat room and career-, health-, and family-related articles for women, is an excellent example: Its Deals of the Week link highlights products of special interest to women and provides links to online stores such as Amazon.com and BigStar Videos.

d is for DARE TO COMPARE. For online buyers, the ability to comparison-shop is a major benefit of Web commerce, and one that they’re coming to expect. Computer manufacturer Compaq’s Comparator feature, for instance, allows shoppers to compare features of assorted Compaq models.

e is for EXPRESS SHOPPING. Perhaps even more than the ability to comparison-shop, the speed and the convenience of online shopping give it a sharp edge over retail. An example of express shopping is the self-explanatory Gifts Wrapped & Ready option available from general merchant CyberShop.

f is for FREQUENT BUYER PROGRAMS. Given the ease with which online shoppers can jump from one site to another, Internet marketers need to encourage loyalty. And so we have companies such as ClickRewards, which allows shoppers to earn points toward the purchase of merchandise in return for buying from participating merchants, and online stores such as print and frame marketer Artuframe.com, which encourages shoppers to join its ArtCliques program and receive free prints and discounts in exchange for filling out a survey.

g is for GIFTING via gift registries and gift reminder services. Sites that excel in this area include chocolatier Godiva, which lets the customers decide how far in advance they would like to be reminded of the gift-giving occasion, and wedding registry service The Knot, which sorts the engaged couples’ selected gifts by price and product category.

h is for HOW-TOS and the incorporation of information that helps shoppers use their purchases or make better buying decisions. Online tie store Ties.net, for instance, offers step-by-step instructions on how to knot ties. (See VALUE-ADDED SERVICES.)

i is for IMPULSE BUYS, which are being incorporated into more sites, particularly via networks that act as “agents” for marketers. These agents, such as Impulse Buy Network, deliver product offers from merchant clients to popular content-driven sites such as search engine/portal Yahoo!, where the product will be seen by Web users who aren’t necessarily shopping for that particular item.

j is for JOIN THE CLUB. A surefire way to encourage shoppers to return to your site is to offer niche clubs like that of Sears’s Craftsman tools. Not only do members receive discounts, but the site also provides a chat room and invites members to submit entries to the Project of the Month feature.

k is for KEEPING TRACK of purchases and the ways in which individual shoppers navigate a site. Doing so gives merchants insight into how they might best present their wares. This could include something as simple as showing repeat visitors a set of products that matches categories they’d previously viewed or bought from.

l is for LOYALTY, truly the bread and butter of i-merchants, just as it is for print catalogers. (See FREQUENT BUYER PROGRAMS.)

m is for MERCHANDISING. Along with value-added loyalty-enhancing features, unique merchandise is a marketer’s best bet for distinguishing itself from the competition.

n is for NEWSLETTERS. Regularly e-mailing customers who have elected to receive electronic newsletters is a relatively inexpensive way to stay in touch with customers, reinforce brand, and upsell products.

o is for OFFLINE PROMOTIONS, in which marketers use nonelectronic channels to bring their audience online. Such promotions can be as simple as including the marketer’s Web address on all its catalogs or running space ads in niche magazines.

p is for PORTAL POWER. A portal can loosely be defined as a site acting as an online entry point for a large group of people, aggregating content, commerce, and community. Marketers can register their URL on search engine/portals such as Yahoo! for no initial cost, but to gain ad dollars, portals are now “leasing space” in more extensive online malls. As an example, America Online has a number of merchants within a particular channel such as apparel that pay a higher “rent” to receive an anchor position with special benefits, while others select a tenant position that costs significantly less with more limited merchant benefits.

q is for QUICK STORE DEVELOPMENT. Off-the-shelf software and affordable store-builder tools such as Via Web and iCat allow even the smallest businesses to create online catalogs.

r is for RESEARCH AND REPORTING, the cornerstones of any i-merchant’s success. Without transactional data and back-end reports, marketers will be unable to modify their sites to best serve their audience and reap revenue. Happily, there are off-the-shelf software packages that can help Web merchants compile such data.

s is for SATISFIED SHOPPERS, who are of course an integral component of online commerce. When it comes to overall customer satisfaction, Internet shoppers report that online merchants are quite frequently meeting or exceeding their overall service expectations. For instance, during the third quarter of 1998, 86% of participants in BizRate-a Website that rates online merchants based on consumer surveys-rated the performance of online marketers as “good” or “excellent.”

t is for TARGETED E-MAIL, such as early notification of specials sent to Web visitors who had registered on a merchant’s site, or information about children’s offerings to customers who’d previously bought children’s apparel. Merchants such as apparel marketer Eddie Bauer are seeing response rates to targeted e-mail in the 20% range, compared with 2%-3% home page response rates for many top commerce sites. (See NEWSLETTERS.)

u is for UNLIMITED INFORMATION, which plays an important role in product purchasing. In fact, many online shoppers visit particular sites not to make an immediate purchase but rather to gather information to help them form their eventual buying decision.

v is for VALUE-ADDED SERVICES, which can include cross-sells, online-only specials, and “deals of the day,” all of which keep Web surfers coming back for more.

w is for WOMEN, who are playing a greater role in e-commerce now that they make up more than half of the online market.

x is for XML, or Extensible Markup Language. Sites written in XML, as opposed to the more common HTML, can simplify the search process for users.

y is for YOUR OWN STORE as part of another Website. This would include customizing a software store on Buysoftware.com, where customers would receive a discount on products selected especially for them.

z is for ZIP UP YOUR WALLET and head online to check out other innovations from fellow i-merchants.

Amazon.com: www.amazon.com Artuframe.com: www.artuframe.com BizRate: www.bizrate.com Compaq: www.compaq.com CyberShop: cybershop.com ClickRewards: www.clickrewards.com Eddie Bauer: www.eddiebauer.com Godiva: www.godiva.com Impulse! Buy Network: www.impulsebuy.net Kodak: webs.kodak.com Motorola: www.mot.com Sears: www.sears.com/craftsman The Knot: www.theknot.com Ties.net: www.ties.net Women.com: www.women.com Yahoo!: www.yahoo.com