The Cybercritic reviews chocolatiers

Feb 01, 2001 10:30 PM  By

www.sees.com Reviewed Dec. 8, 9 a.m., Explorer 5.0 See’s Candies has a cult following out on the West Coast, claims a native Californian and friend of The Cybercritic’s who is apparently a member of said cult. This friend not only urged me to go to the site but also built up some unrealistic expectations for what I would encounter.

When I arrive at the site I immediately understand the branding behind the See’s name. As the home-page link to a toy replica of a See’s delivery truck from 1927 makes clear, the brand is steeped in tradition. The tagline, “California’s famous old time candies,” underscores the message, as does the script font used throughout the site. But tradition is no excuse for offering some of the old-fashioned features on this Website.

On the plus side, this old-time company does its best not to confuse the customer with elaborate site design. It sticks with the tried-and-true placement of product-category links on the left side of the page, a constant throughout the site. Along the top of the home page are more links, to a catalog request form, a list of store locations, and information about quantity discounts, among others.

As expected, the product assortment is a chocoholic’s dream. But there’s no search engine to make it simple to find a particular candy.

More problematic are the product descriptions. They do nothing to compensate for visitors’ inability to see, smell, and sample the sweets as one can in a store. Here’s the entire description of the Nuts and Chews package: “They’re enough to make grown-ups weep with happiness: Some of the tastiest, crunchiest treats around.” And the photo looks a bit washed out; it doesn’t have me salivating or even thinking that the box would be much more impressive a gift than, say, a Whitman’s Sampler.

But the site does score points for its old-fashioned privacy policy, which specifies that See’s will neither share nor sell customer information. (True, it would have scored even more points if you could link directly to the privacy policy from the home page, rather than having to select the FAQs link and then scroll down till you get to the question about privacy.)

When it comes time to check out, I have a tough time finding the icon of a little bag – which is not labeled and is tucked in a remote corner of the product pages – that is meant to be a shopping bag and takes you to the checkout portion of the site. And alas, the site claims to need 24 hours to prep outgoing packages. If you’re in a hurry for your chocs, you’d better dig deep into your wallet: See’s charges nearly $25 for next-day delivery. For that much money I could buy two 1-lb. boxes of See’s milk chocolates. Oh well, good things come to those who wait.

www.godiva.com Reviewed Dec. 7, 2 p.m., Explorer 5.0 If anyone could sell ice to the proverbial Eskimo via the Web, it’s Godiva. How many sites selling chocolates have such luxe photography that you can actually see the ridges of the chopped hazelnuts atop the truffles? The photos and graphics are so crisp and clear – so stunning – that The Cybercritic is almost speechless.

Fortunately, the copywriters at Godiva are not. The prose is descriptive and precise, rather than flowery and promotional. Take this description of the Nut and Caramel Assortment: “Every piece is rich with caramel, chock full of nuts…or generously filled with both! The result is more than just a winning combination, it’s a collection of our crunchy and chewy best. Included milk, dark and ivory pieces, truffles and Caramel Nut Bouchees. Kosher OU-D.”

But let’s start at the beginning. The Godiva site recognizes first-time visitors. A pop-up window appears above the home page for folks like us and reviews the functions of the site, promotes registration (good for monitoring traffic and demographics), explains shopping bag and checkout procedures, and discusses added benefits such as gift reminders that you can download into your Palm Pilot. Then there’s the thorough explanation of the corporate gift program, which includes volume discounts and personalized packaging.

Perhaps the thing that I like most about Godiva.com is that it has everything you could possibly need to enhance the chocolate-shopping experience. Take the Godiva Chocolate Guide: Click on the description of a favorite chocolate – say, the Raspberry Cordial – and you will be shown a list of Godiva assortments that include the choc in question. There’s also a search engine that is so thorough it should be called a work engine. When I type in “espresso,” it presents me with a link to the four product assortments that include espresso truffles.

In the line of duty, I spend more than a few minutes trying to trip up the Gift Advisor. But every time I put in my specifications – type of recipient, occasion, price range, and kosher preference – I’m led to a gift that’s right on target. And when I select a Birthday Truffle Box and add it to my shopping cart (which is actually a posh-looking bag), the screen displays “May we also suggest…” followed by a list of related products.

Checkout, by the way, is a breeze. And the shopping bag displays the sum of your purchases as you ease through the site so that you aren’t hit with any surprises, even when the shipping charges are added in.

But my favorite value-added portion of the site is the recipe section. This link is complete with its own search key to enable visitors to find recipes from Chocolatier magazine. I type in “cake” and come up with 34 recipes!

The only problem I encounter is while trying to test the live chat feature during the hours that, according to the site, service reps would be standing by. Alas, they are either all busy or taking a snack break, because I’m told to leave an e-mail instead.

But that’s okay. I don’t need their help anyway. The search engine and other features – not to mention the gorgeous photography – leave me confident that I’ve selected the correct gifts. For the record, The Cybercritic hates sappy sentiment (even around Valentine’s Day), but I’m going to have to make an exception: Roses are red, violets are blue, candy is sweet, and Godiva, I love you!

www.ethelm.com Reviewed Dec. 9, 1 p.m., Explorer 5.0 Environmental friendliness is a fine thing. And The Cybercritic applauds Ethel M. Chocolates for maintaining an expansive cactus garden (the company is based in Nevada) and a chemical-free wastewater treatment center. But the company lavishes more copy and better photography on the garden and the treatment plant than it does on the chocolates it sells.

You don’t learn about the garden and wastewater facility until you select the “About Ethel M.” link on the home page. And given how lackluster the home page is, you may not be interested in drilling down any further. The type fonts are generic, and the product shots are unnecessarily tiny, given the overabundance of white space surrounding them.

Nonetheless, I click on the “Specialty Collections” link on the left side of the home page and am directed to a page with a small, fuzzy photo of a box of chocolates. I click on the picture, assuming that I can enlarge it for improved clarity. But as the adage says, Never assume. The photo cannot be enlarged. For shame!

Make no mistake: There are some good things going on at the Ethel M. site. For one, the product assortment is well rounded, and the copy is better than I expected. (I could dub it “short but sweet,” but I won’t.) The Creme Liqueurs Gift Box, for instance, is “Ultra-creamy. Lusciously potent. We capture the essence of premium liqueurs within a distinctive creamy filling enveloped by our rich dark and milk chocolates.” Then there’s this description of the Satin Cremes Gift Box: “Fresh sensations! Intense-yet-subtle pure and natural flavors from hand-squeezed lemons, sun-ripened raspberries, real maple sugar, butter rum, vanilla, and the richest chocolate go into this luscious array.” Can’t you just feel the chocs melting on your tongue?

Another asset is the “B2B” link. This gives Ethel M. a chance to roll out the red carpet to corporate gift-givers and bulk buyers with volume discounts, personalized packaging, and the promise of attention from an Ethel M. “corporate consultant.”

Clearly, Ethel M. aims to please. That desire comes through in its copy, in the simplicity of its navigation, and in its unconditional guarantee, which reads, “If your experience is less than wonderful, we will make it right.”

So, please, improve the graphics, add a fun feature or two, and please, make it right. Make it wonderful.