Online Retail: At Last, After Years of Function, Fun!

Given the not-so-ancient dot-com debacle, it was inevitable that online merchants would have their eyes glued to their spreadsheets for several years. Now, however, it appears that they’re relaxing somewhat and can afford to focus on the nice-to-have features that make Web sites—dare we say it?—look cool. These days, of course, cool (as in different) is also a selling point with most Internet shoppers, who are bombarded by sites that all look and feel the same. If you’re willing to take the plunge and try something new, check out the suggestions in “Innovations In Online Retail,” a new report from Forrester Research Inc. Author Carrie Johnson highlights two main trends:

(1) Personalized shopping experiences. A unique capability of the Web is to deliver customized products and services to shoppers. Forward-thinking retailers are now investing in features that enable customers to “pull” information they want and provide feedback on products and content that they don’t like.

(2) Broadband-enabled selling. According to Forrester Research, more than half of the approximately 75 million U.S. households that will be online by end-2005 will have broadband access. This is a great opportunity for retailers to develop what Johnson calls “richer selling experiences,” such as content in Flash formats.

Johnson describes three applications that illustrate these trends:

Single-screen checkout. For a good example of this, take a look at the T.J. Maxx Web site, Molecular created this screen using Macromedia flex. An important feature of the screen is its secondary application—cross-sells that don’t force shoppers to leave the checkout process.

Proactive and integrated product customization. You’re probably familiar with Nike ID and Timberland’s BOOTSTUDIO, which allow customers to design their own products, but retailers can now take the process much farther. The software vendor Scene7 has developed a service that allows e-tailers to “pre-personalize” items. For instance, in e-mails to its customers during the 2004 holiday season, Lenox offered a personalized ornament bearing the recipient’s first name in the product image.

Guided selling. Target’s “electronic product advisor” asks customers about potential product usage, linking to jargon-free product specs such as “My camera should fit inside . . . a shirt pocket or backpack.” Created by Active Decisions, this tool simplifies technology decisions and makes Web research more accessible to the masses.

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