The Sharper Image

When you’re selling cutting-edge gadgets like the Emilio Robot, an electronic butler that mixes and serves drinks, your Website should also be cutting edge. With that in mind, cataloger/retailer The Sharper Image ( retooled what had been a mundane e-commerce site into a dynamic, innovative Website.

Improvements include futuristic-looking product photos, a more efficient user interface allowing multiple entry points to the product pages (by category, hot products, new products, sales and specials, and search by SKU or keyword), and a 3-D section. And when it unveiled the improved site in February, the $243.1 million company also launched an auction site (auction.sharperimage. com/osauction.shtml).

Online sales for March, the month after the sites launched, were $913,000, a 437% increase over $170,000 for the same month a year ago. And April sales broke $1 million, says Meredith Medland, the company’s director of global Internet marketing. She declines to break out the revenue per site or to release traffic figures, but in the first quarter, she notes, the average sale per online customer was $120, higher than either the average in-store or catalog sale.

In contrast, last year Sharper Image generated $5 million in online revenue. But the Website did attract new customers: Analysis revealed that 70% of shoppers who placed online orders over the holidays had never made an in-store or catalog purchase from the company.

Attracting a new clientele is key to Sharper Image’s growth strategy. According to Medland, the traditional Sharper Image customer is “older, more moneyed” – an executive with the disposable income to spend $199 on a Truth.Seeker Prism Sculpture, which detects modulations in human speech that could indicate someone is being less than honest. But the company also wants to reach out to those whom Medland dubs “generation E: people in their late 20s or early 30s who have a pager and a cell phone and a laptop and are totally wired, totally connected.”

To connect with this audience, Sharper Image has tweaked its merchandising focus. The company best known for extravagant indulgences like the Get Away Massage Chair is now emphasizing items such as high-tech furniture brushes that do away with pet odors.

It also sees the auction Website as another means of introducing its wares to a younger audience, by making the prices more accessible. The Truth.Seeker Prism Sculpture, for example, was auctioned off in June for about $70 – less than half of its original price. Then, too, Medland believes “generation E” enjoys the auction process. “They’re willing to work harder for a product – for the savings and for the fun – because it puts them in that frame of mind of being totally wired,” she says.

`The closest thing to the real-world shopping experience’

The improvements to the core Sharper Image site should also help to attract an audience that sees itself as “totally wired.” Not that the former site was a stiff; it just failed to live up to the company’s name. It sold only a smattering of SKUs, featured a clumsy user interface that required the shopper to point-and-click for several rounds before reaching a product page, and displayed flat, unattractive product images that loaded at a snail’s pace.

The new core site sells 600-800 SKUs, the company’s total inventory (except for products that are being phased out). And thanks to improved bandwidth at the host, shoppers no longer have time to run to the kitchen for another cup of coffee while product photos load.

The 3-D section, which currently consists of 25 products, lets customers do just about everything with a product except smell or touch it. The 3-D model of a CD player-clock radio, for example, lets customers point-and-click their way through opening the CD player and popping in a disc, checkin g out the battery compartment, examining the power cord, zooming in for a close-up, or turning it upside down.

Viewpoint Digital of Marina del Rey, CA, which specializes in 3-D graphics services, developed the 3-D section for Sharper Image. Because Viewpoint has been working with Intel to optimize its software and tools for the multimedia capabilities of the Intel Pentium III processor, users who have Pentium IIIs will get the best results. But Medland stresses that any user can see the 3-D product models. “If you have the Pentium III, you pick up the shimmer of the metal or a little more detail,” she explains. “But you don’t need the chip to use the content.”

Users do need plug-ins, though – software additions to their Web browsers – including the Spike player by Shells Interactive and Macromedia’s Shockwave, to see the 3-D effects; both plug-ins are available for download at Sharper Image’s site. Medland would not reveal how many users have opted to download the plug-ins and use the site, but customers have e-mailed “to say they are excited to have this unique experience,” she notes. “It’s the closest thing to the real-world shopping experience.”

Like the company’s phone and fax orders, Sharper Image’s Web orders are batched hourly. Phoenix-based Evergreen, which hosts both of the company’s sites, sends the online orders to Sharper Image’s centralized systems via file transfer protocol (FTP).

Sharper Image has been corralling more and more of its e-commerce responsibilities inhouse. Up until the redesign, nearly all of the core Website’s design and administration had been outsourced, but “as the business grows, we’d like more control over the site,” says Greg Alexander, senior vice president of MIS. About eight staffers work on the two sites, and Alexander is looking to hire three more.

But the company plans to continue having Evergreen host the sites. Bringing that function inhouse “doesn’t make sense for us,” Alexander says. “Evergreen is an ISP and has the fluctuations of bandwidth and processing power” that enable it to beef up bandwidth to meet surges in demand.

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