BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : NOVEMBER 20, 2000 ISSUE
BUSINESS WEEK E.BIZ -- NEUBORNE ON E-TAILING

Seamless Shopping
Stores at last are melding online sites with their bricks-and-mortar presence

There's a lot of neat stuff online this holiday season, but nothing makes me happier than the Talbots ( TLB) catalog. By techie standards, there's not much to celebrate: Just a plain old paper catalog now searchable on their Web site. Big deal? Well, actually, it is. That catalog represents much more than the site's technical prowess. It's a symbol of the melding of the online and offline retail world--one tiny example of convergence, retailer style. And it's great news for consumers.

Last year, there was still a palpable sense of unease among traditional retailers even as they trumpeted their online sites. Other than slapping RetailerName.com all over their shopping bags, they didn't handle much of the crucial holiday season in concert. It was as if these were separate stores. Often they looked different, stocked different merchandise, had different ad campaigns. Barnes & Noble ( BKS) took the prize for image disconnect by making it difficult to handle online returns and gift certificates in its earthly stores. Were these guys on the same team?

This year, retailers of all stripes have overcome their fear and are blending their e-commerce programs far more effectively with their retail stores and mail-order catalogs. Sites that once functioned as experimental satellites are now more integral parts of the retail whole. Take Nordstrom.com. Among other things, Nordstrom ( JWN) has unified the look of its on- and offline stores. Brand boutiques on the Web site have the same look and feel that a mall browser would find at the bricks-and-mortar stores. Calvin Klein's Web boutique features runway models in striking poses. Polo Ralph Lauren's ( RL) site is backdropped in a preppy-elegant forest green. The decor matches the store. The consumer sees a common image, no matter where the consumer is. ''Customers are not all that interested in our channel operations. They are interested in a relationship with a retailer,'' says J. Daniel Nordstrom, CEO of Nordstrom.com Inc.

Crate & Barrel has had a similar epiphany. Last year, only a minimal selection of its merchandise was available via the Web site. This year, the entire mail-order catalog is for sale online. CEO Gordon Segal says the decision to unify his merchandising strategy was not a tough one--customers demanded it. And it makes perfect sense, he says. Customers don't want to be bothered remembering where they saw a certain item: Was it in the catalog, the store, or online? ''They want to buy it however it's convenient at that moment. You need to be there and not disappoint,'' he says.

Even Barnes & Noble got the hint. Not only is the returns issue history, the company is installing Internet service terminals in its superstores. The goal, says Vice-Chairman Steve Riggio, is to make the shopping process more seamless.

Why does this retail convergence matter? It shows retailers are starting to get why consumers go online in the first place. Scoring discounts is nice. Midnight shopping in my bunny slippers is fun, too. But what we really want is the same relationship with stores online that we have offline. Many shoppers say their experiences with their favorite real-world stores are good ones. We want more of that experience online.

All that will vary greatly depending on the store. We'll want the great deals of Loehmann's ( LOEHQ), the wide selection of Home Depot ( HD), the service of Saks Fifth Avenue ( SKS)--but blended into the new virtual store. Making that seamless shopping experience may or may not involve the latest in cutting-edge technology. But it always will require a retailer to embrace all channels as part of the whole.

By ELLEN NEUBORNE, ellen_neuborne@ebiz.businessweek.com

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