Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Virtual Wave of the Future?

At the eTail West 2007 show in Palm Springs, Calif., I remember stepping into a virtual fitting room, consisting of a cylindrical unit where holographic imaging technology performed a 360-degree body scan in less than 10 seconds. Afterward, the unit provided me with a free computer printout that listed the brands and sizes for my fit.

The units, developed by Horsham, Pa.-based Intellifit, were being tested in stores such as After Hours, Levi’s Stores, and Fashion Bug. The chains installed the 50-sq.-ft. Intellifit unit into its floor space. When newspapers, magazines and TV shows got wind of the concept, they predicted the technology would forever change the way we shop.

However, I was quick to question whether or not this type of technology was too premature for our daily regimen. I later learned that the concept wasn't faring well in these chains. But I always thought that the idea could thrive online—where shoppers could get a better idea of how apparel would fit without having to try it on in a store.

It seems as though I’m not the only one that sees potential for technology like this in the e-commerce field. The ability to show consumers how a piece of clothing could fit them, without having them leave the comfy confines of their computer chair, could be a powerful shopping tool. And according to this article, perhaps the trend is already beginning…

Zappos 101

I recently blogged about how companies can learn a lot from Zappos.com. And now, they can for a small fee.

Zappos is rolling out a subscription video service called Zappos Insights that allows companies to ask questions to actual Zappos employees about how the retailer conducts business. It will charge $39.95 per month for subscriptions.

I’m sure companies will tap Zappos as a resource for tips on how to enhance business strategies and fine-tune corporate cultures, but I also hope they learn a thing or two about appealing to the Gen Y crowd. From reaching customers through social-networking sites to even hiring candidates through Jobvite.com, Zappos is ahead of the game when it comes to talking to Gen Y.

Not only can some companies learn how to do better business, many could also use a crash course in speaking the language of the younger generation.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Playing with Pictures

There’s a good chance Amazon.com is sick and tired of me. Ever since the company launched its new application for the Apple iPhone and iPod touch earlier this month, I’ve been taking full advantage of its new photo-identification tool—mostly to prove that it’s not always accurate. But so far, it’s only proven me wrong.

Launched earlier this month, the application offers an easy way for users to search and browse for products offered by Amazon and thousands of retailers, such as Target and Macy's. However, what gives these retailers a run for their money is the “Amazon Remembers” function. After downloading the app, consumers can snap photos of any image they want. Then, they can send Amazon the image by automatically uploading it onto the site. Minutes later, Amazon sends back a list of products similar to the photograph.

Users can then click on the products they want, and have immediate access to ratings and reviews, a product-comparison tool, and the “Buy Now” button. Consumers can also "remember it" for later in their Amazon account.

The cutting-edge concept is certainly ahead of its time. Consumers may not be ready to make purchases on their phones just yet, but Amazon.com is ready when they are.

Like all first-generation technology, there are still some kinks that need to be worked out. Amazon.com may have the art of reading titles down, but it still has some work to do on deciphering unbranded objects. It will promptly identify a DVD or book, but sometimes struggles with untitled items. Upon this rare occasion, Amazon.com notifies you that it was unable to locate the product.

I came to this conclusion after snapping pictures of virtually everything I could think of—this is why Amazon must be so over seeing images sent from my iPhone account.

However, its speed and accuracy are usually astounding. Regardless of its small quirks, retailers need to keep an eye on Amazon.com. It already dominates the online world, and if its Apple app is any indication, it’s almost ready to take over the m-commerce field too.

Monday, December 15, 2008

The Webbys

Although big sales are top-of-mind for merchants each holiday season, it's also the time of year that many online and multichannel retailers vie for the online industry’s most coveted award nomination, the Webby. The call for entries ends this Friday, Dec. 19th.

The awards culminate with a red-carpeted awards gala held each June. For the past 12 years, The International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences has honored the best in Web sites, interactive advertising, online film and video, and mobile Web sites.

This year’s event, hosted by Seth Meyers of “Saturday Night Live,” attracted attendees from Stephen Colbert to Web celeb “Obama Girl,” as well as those representing sites such as The Huffington Post and Facebook. Retailers were also in attendance, competing for the Webby in the Best in Retail category.

Last year's retail standout was IKEA's “Sleeping Better and You” site launched in October 2007. The concept offers testing guides and tips for better sleeping, while showcasing IKEA products. The interactive site features a Swedish man, dressed in signature blue and yellow IKEA colors, who encourages consumers to click around to find, search and learn more about mattresses. Other nominees in the category were Nike Golf, Apparel, Samsonite Black Label, Moo.com and Around the World in 5 Kitchens.

Think your site has what it takes? Submit entries here.

Perks of Procrastination

For many online retailers, Thursday, Dec. 18 represents the last possible 24-hour period when online shoppers can place their orders with guaranteed delivery by Christmas Eve. Some merchants looking to vie for the attention of these last-minute shoppers are partnering with www.freeshipping.org for its first annual Free Shopping Day event.

Retailers already on board include: Bloomingdale's, Circuit City, Macy's, J.C. Penney, Crate & Barrel, Eddie Bauer, Kmart, Nordstrom, Sears, Sur La Table, Target, eBags and Zappos.

How's that for rewarding those who put off holiday shopping?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Who doesn't love a Zappos staffer?

I LOVE that a message from Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh and senior VP of merchandising Fred Mossler (singing “Jingle Bells”) plays when you call the online shoe retailer's customer-service hotline. Zappos.com is not only known for delivering top-shelf customer service, but it's a standout among companies that make consumers truly understand its corporate culture. Hsieh and fellow employees are even accessible on Twitter, where he writes engaging, interesting and sometimes amusing updates about Zappos' office life.

It's funny, whenever I hear stories about any Zappos staffer, I feel like I'd want to be their friend. Do I get the same feeling about employees from other retailers too? Not always. There's just something about Zappos that makes everyone who works there so darn cool. I first came to this conclusion when I heard Tony Hsieh speak at the eTail conference back in 2007. He told the following story:

After a long day at a sales conference, Hsieh and some colleagues anonymously dialed the Zappos call center to see what would happen if they asked for a pizza delivery to the Santa Monica area. “The rep put him on hold and came back a few minutes later with a list of the five closest pizza places in Santa Monica,” he said. “If you get the culture right, you don’t need to come up with a policy and procedure for everything. And if that were a real customer, I’m sure it would be a story that would be relayed to all of their friends.” (Read the full story here.)

To find passionate candidates who fit in with their corporate culture, Zappos.com also uses innovative hiring practices, including "The Offer," in which the company tests the enthusiasm and commitment of new hires by offering a $2,000 bonus to quit. New hires are told about the offer at the end of the first week of their four-week training class. But seriously, who would want to quit?

Zappos.com also uses a recruitment application from Jobvite to support hiring, promote the company’s culture and use social-recruitment techniques. The retailer’s staffing team reaches out to candidates through social-networking sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn, MySpace and Twitter, and uses Jobvite to channel the resulting candidate applications.

Zappos.com does so many things right in my mind—no wonder I want to be friends with all of the employees who made it that way.

The Snowball Effect

I can't stop playing with my latest iPhone application, the Target Gift Globe. This free application, designed by San Francisco-based digital-marketing company AKQA, acts as a virtual snow globe that reveals gift ideas (think Magic 8 Ball).

Here's how it works: After downloading the application, select the age and gender for whom you might be buying a gift. Then, shake your iPhone to let digital snow fill in the globe. When the snow dissipates, a gift idea appears from the retailer. You can then click through to Target’s site to purchase the product or locate nearby stores.

I'm continually amused by this little app. Like a little kid, I shake it feverishly and feel like I win a prize every time a gift idea pops up. Although I rarely go back to the Target site from my iPhone—and have yet to make a purchase from the retailer this holiday shopping season—it's still an effective branding strategy. I'm certainly engaged by my new (Target-sponsored) snow-globe toy, and that counts for something.

Friday, December 5, 2008

“80% of success is just showing up”

Online retailers looking to make headway this holiday season should listen to Woody Allen.

Cyber Monday sales may have been up this year, but many retailers fell short of its true potential due to Web site issues, including major system slowdowns, that discouraged shoppers from spending.

Dell, Victoria’s Secret and Williams-Sonoma are among the retailers that experienced site issues during Cyber Monday, causing them to lose sales opportunities and frustrate shoppers, according to Lexington, Mass.-based Gomez, Inc., whose services test and monitor the performance of Web sites.

Gomez reported shopping-cart page malfunctions on the Victoria’s Secret site, payment-page delays on Williams-Sonoma’s site, and account-information errors at Dell.com. (Read the report here.) Some companies had problems even earlier than Cyber Monday: Overstock.com was running far slower than normal during Thanksgiving Day weekend, while J. Crew, Bloomingdales, Sears and Costco experienced site-availability problems.

Although Costco did not experience site issues on Cyber Monday, I was disheartened to hear it had any problems over the weekend. I thought it would have worked out its kinks from last year by now. On Cyber Monday 2007, the site’s overall response time slowed nine to 10 times compared to its normal levels, Matt Poepsel, VP of performance strategies for Gomez, told me last year.

Critical errors like this should be top-of-mind for online retailers this season, and all-year round. Research has shown that few online shoppers are willing to wait more than six seconds for a site to download and, at times, Costco’s site was significantly slower than this on Cyber Monday last year.

Sites that experience any issue during this critical time should make sure it doesn't happen again. Companies need to test critical e-commerce platforms early, often and from the end-user’s point of view, in order to be up for the task each holiday season. The country’s top retailers are hardly immune to site-performance issues, and it’s unfortunate that its costing them significant sales each year when they can be easily prevented.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

More on the Importance of Language

This comes from The Consumerist, a snarky consumer affairs blog. Its point reads loud and clear.

What’s in Your Virtual Window?

Six adorable Shiba Inu puppies became instant Web celebrities last month. A San Francisco couple looking to keep a watchful eye on their dog’s new litter set up a live puppy cam on popular site UStream.TV, and the rest is history.

The feed initially attracted more than 1,000 viewers who logged on to watch the pups play, eat and even sleep. But over time, the site caught on even more, attracting several million views in total (and an average of 20,000 people watching online at a time). It’s safe to say that America formed an attachment to the litter, learning their names, habits and personalities, and continually came back to the site to check in on them. (The site is still running: Click for the live feed).

It’s amazing how a concept so simple can ignite such a national phenomenon. The puppies weren’t for sale (nor were the toys they played with), but imagine if a business concept was tied to this: Would a bidding war ensue for ownership of the puppies? Could sales skyrocket for squeaky toys, if they were available for purchase?

Using online video to implement an idea like the puppy cam could truly differentiate a retailer looking to standout in an increasingly crowded marketplace. You may not have puppies for sale, but there are endless opportunities for retailers looking to attract consumers back to its sites.

For example, if your company sells cookware, why not film live episodes of a chef cooking with and testing the products? Take it even further by setting up chat rooms and message boards to encourage community interaction.

There is so much potential here for retailers. If a simple puppy-cam site lured millions of viewers in a matter of weeks (at the price of only a video camera?), imagine how your company can use online video to attract the masses.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Language Lessons

For this month's Chain Store Age print edition, I spoke with Tamara Adlin, partner and experience strategist for Seattle-based customer-experience strategy and design firm Fell Swoop, about homepage etiquette. Some of her biggest pet peeves include: Using way too many exclamation points (SALE!!!!!!), unnecessary capitalization (don't yell at your customers), and overwhelming consumers with too many links (50 can be too much). Simplicity is key, and it's important to remember that a homepage is not a destination (it's a jumping off point to where the shopping experience begins).

Adlin also stressed the importance of a seamless end-to-end experience, from a shopper's first impression down to the thank you note sent after a transaction is made. Amazon.com is known for many things, but it's end-to-end experience should be emulated by all. Last night I took advantage of some of its Cyber Monday deals (mentioned in a previous post), and was pleasantly surprised by the note I received in my inbox this morning. Note the word choice and language used:

"We thought you'd like to know that we shipped this portion of your order separately to give you quicker service. You won't be charged any extra shipping fees, and the remainder of your order will follow as soon as those items become available."

Amazon is king when it comes to customer service, and it lets customers know in the right way (it tells them and it shows them, by sending a few items early). Also included in the e-mail is tracking information and details on which products were sent early, as well as when they expect to ship the remaining items. I don't want to play favorites, but there are many reasons why Amazon.com fares so well during the ever-critical holiday shopping period. The bottom line? They exceed expectations, start to finish, time and time again.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Happy Cyber Monday!

Cyber Monday feels like the Super Bowl of e-commerce world. It's certainly no secret that it's a big day for both retailers and online shoppers.

According to a Shop.org survey, conducted last weekend by BIGresearch, 84.6 million consumers said they plan to shop online from home or at work today, up from 72.0 million in 2007 and 60.7 million in 2006. With more shoppers scouring the sites, retailers are expected to up their online ante today: 83.7% of retailers have planned a special promotion for Cyber Monday, up from 72.2% last year.

Amazon.com is among the retailers to lead the pack each year with its Cyber Monday deals (and its holiday specials in general), but what's uniquely enticing about its offerings this year is its "Lightning Deals" incentive, a business model that features discounted items for a short-time period (usually one each hour). This strategy, which creates the idea of urgency, has become increasingly popular on the Web, thanks to sites like Woot.com and its one-deal-a-day business model. It cultivates a loyal customer base that eagerly returns to the site to check up on daily deals.

And, judging by the sold-out notices on the "Lightning Deals" feature today, it seems like it's working for Amazon.com too.

It's About Time!

I recently blogged about how retailers have been slow to offer free virtual gifts on social-networking sites, such as Facebook. This marketing strategy, which is already aced by movie studios and soft-drink companies (to name a few), allows members to send virtual icons to their friends, who can then tout these branded images on their own profiles. But alas, retailers are (finally!) starting to catch on. Last week, Facebook members could send free virtual icons from Sephora and eBay to their friends. It's about time indeed.