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E-Commerce Elite

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Consumers have their favorite online retailers — and so do e-commerce experts.

Knowing that they’re often reticent to speak publicly about such issues, STORES asked a few dozen e-commerce luminaries — retailers, vendors and analysts — to share, under the cloak of anonymity, the online retailers they believe are delivering the best user experience in 10 key areas of business.

After compiling their feedback, we’re delighted to present the 2011 E-Commerce Elite — retailers that rise above the competition to deliver excellence in various areas of customer engagement.

The methodology is far from scientific, but that was intentional: It’s been our experience, after years of reporting on this channel, that if you really want to know who’s winning, losing and making waves, the best way to find out is to chat with a few experts willing to share an honest point of view.

As any e-retailer will attest, having the tools to drive sales online is one thing; integration, implementation and execution are what truly separates the “elite” from the rest of the lot.

On-Site Search

Go ahead… search for that GPS HD Helmet Camera you’ve been thinking about. At it’s no more than a few clicks away, thanks to simple, intuitive search and navigation that serves as the launch pad for a user experience that is immersive and relevant.

Manhattan-based B&H Photo and Video is an institution for selection and deals on cameras and electronics and a particular favorite of photo professionals. “We listen to our customers and implement changes based on what they say,” says Zisha Schnitzler, director of the web channel. Nowhere is that more apparent than on the website, where rich images, user reviews, real-time pricing and inventory availability are served up in a nanosecond.

B&H customers are assisted by robust search type-ahead, automatic spell correction and redirection capabilities. Customers are immediately shown all the relevant product attributes and content they require to make an informed purchase decision.

Leaving no stone unturned, there’s also a search feedback box at the bottom of the page that asks: “Did you find what you were looking for?” Shoppers can click “yes,” “no,” “chat now” or leave a comment.
Honorable Mention:

Check-Out Process

The beauty of the process can be boiled down to two components: simplicity and ease of use. The site has been around for more than 15 years and has never lost sight of the value of making it effortless for shoppers to make a purchase. As a result, Amazon’s conversion rates are best-in-class.

Shoppers key in payment data once and remembers. The payment system stores multiple addresses and payment options and allows shoppers to complete transactions in record time.

And then there’s 1-Click, the payment option that makes Super Moms super and allows those shopping while they work to be in, out and back on the job before the boss catches on.

The Amazon Prime delivery option that provides shoppers two-day free shipping on all orders for a $79 annual fee has spawned a cadre of devotees who refuse to shop elsewhere because Amazon has made it so convenient. Amazon recently upped the ante by allowing this select group instant access to the streaming of more than 5,000 movies and TV shows for no extra charge.
Honorable Mention:

Multichannel Experience

The electronics giant leverages its biggest assets — stores and associates — to deliver a crosschannel shopping experience that blends the best attributes of the physical and digital realms.

Consumers are enamored with shopping online, but they also love to touch and see the items they’re about to buy. The concept of buy online, pick up in-store resonates with those who can’t wait (40 percent of online purchases are now picked up at Best Buy stores), and there’s a degree of comfort that comes with knowing that if it’s not what they expected, they can easily return it in the store.

Plans are in the works to expand the online assortment, adding SKUs not available in stores, and Best Buy capitalizes on being a multichannel retailer by offering a host of services (home installation, Geek Squad repairs) that generate higher margins. Best Buy executives say they’re committed to servicing customers where they want, when they want and leveraging the brand’s multichannel capabilities as a competitive advantage.
Honorable Mention:

Integration of Online Video

If a picture is worth a thousand words, how do you value an online video? For the answer is through more sales from satisfied customers spending more time on its website: It attributes conversion rates of 15 to 20 percent to online videos and product reviews.

Having cut its teeth as a broadcaster, it was only natural for QVC to leverage video for online product presentations. What sets it apart is the sheer volume of items embedded with video.

QVC’s online videos are excerpts of the TV presentations, highlighting product demonstrations and pointing out key features. The beauty of the online video is the opportunity to watch an instructional clip over and over, learning the precise technique for applying that new eye pencil or printing photos from your digital camera. It’s considered the single most effective method of selling products online — coming as close as possible to replicating a one-to-one retail shopping experience online.
Honorable Mention:

Presentation of Product Information

When researching, phrases like “the standard for excellence” and “unparalleled customer service” pop up over and over again.

Crutchfield, the electronics retail business Bill Crutchfield founded 37 years ago from the basement of his mother’s house, raises the bar when it comes to delivering informative and immersive product information.

Click on any item and the data unfolds. The product overview is front and center, but not to be missed are tabs for hands-on research, features and specifications, accessories and reviews. Prepare to scroll down; there’s information there you never thought to ask.

Still not sure? Check out The Crutchfield Know Zone, where the learning continues —expert staff and technical support agents assist with choosing, installing and using gear.

With annual sales of roughly $250 million, Crutchfield is a relatively modest-sized player in its space, but it is the only merchant to win 11 consecutive Circle of Excellence platinum awards from Bizrate, a website that rates the customer service provided by online retailers.
Honorable Mention:


Some companies talk about customer centricity; at Wet Seal, merchants live it. Their reward: a highly devoted customer base that has become an adjunct design team for Wet Seal products, yielding incredible ROI in the form of higher average order sizes and conversion rates.

A combination of social media, user-generated merchandise content and online engagement has been the crux of Wet Seal’s ability to lift e-commerce revenues tenfold despite the sluggish economy.

Wet Seal began the process of melding online, mobile and social commerce in 2008 when it launched its Fashion Community on both the website and Facebook. Shortly thereafter, Wet Seal linked the Fashion Community to its stores, adding kiosks where shopper could scan an item and be presented with outfits generated by others.

In 2009, Wet Seal extended these capabilities to an app called iRunway, allowing customers access to a library of user-generated outfits and ratings via their iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad. Later that year, the retailer enabled a mobile-optimized website that made it easy and convenient for consumers to instantly shop Wet Seal products and find store locations.

Last fall marked the launch of a new Facebook game, Chic Boutique, which allows users to run a Wet Seal store, design their own outfits and share their creations with friends. Wet Seal also is pioneering the idea of teen tendering — allowing teens to shop online using their parents’ credit cards in a controlled fashion.
Honorable Mention: 1-800-FLOWERS.COM


E-tailers far and wide are quick to admit that executing website personalization is complicated, but it’s part of Netflix’s DNA. Nearly from the outset, Netflix has been gathering vast repositories of data from customers intended to fuel their recommendation engines. The more a shopper uses the website, the more Netflix is able to mix and match categories to improve on the personalized genres it offers.

Netflix recently debuted several new features intended to place even greater emphasis on movie discovery. These include the ability to set preferences across a variety of moods (dark, gritty, goofy), storylines (courtroom intrigue, mid-life crisis) or qualities (critically acclaimed, visually striking). Homepages reflect a member’s taste preference and recent activity, and customized browsing provides not only a selection of relevant movies/TV shows, but also a way to mix-and-match other categories to create new combinations.

Approximately 60 percent of Netflix users select movies based on recommendations tailored to their individual tastes; many say the personalized suggestions save time and lift their level of delight.
Honorable Mention:


The WOW factor encompasses many things that are at the heart of Zappos’ success, including an unheard-of selection, 365-day free returns, 24/7 customer service and 110 percent price protection. Still, for most consumers, free overnight shipping tops the list. (Even though the website states that delivery will take 2-5 business days, Zappos regularly provides free “surprise” upgrades to overnight shipping).

Inside Zappos’ state-of-the-art pick, pack and ship facilities, systems have been designed to process an order in under an hour: Where else can someone place an order by 11 p.m. and find it on their doorstep the next morning?

Zappos doesn’t believe it’s competing with other e-retailers: It measures itself against the store experience and insists that offering the best service and selection — and delivering the goods to the consumer as quickly as possible — is the path to sustaining customer loyalty.

Truth be told, there are shoppers who say Zappos has made it easier to buy shoes online than to visit the local shoe store.
Honorable Mention:

Mobile Site

No one is driving more sales via mobile phones than eBay. Considered the most aggressive retailer in the m-commerce space, eBay executives project that the company will double its mobile transaction volume to $4 billion this year.

Though still a tiny portion of eBay’s total revenue, executives say consumers are increasingly shopping via their iPhones, BlackBerrys and Android-powered smartphones. During eBay’s second-quarter conference call, president and CEO John Donahoe said that, if asked a year or 18 months ago what kind of company eBay is, he would’ve replied, “an e-commerce company… But [today] the mobile device is absolutely … blurring the boundary between online and offline.”

eBay offers seamless shopping and selling applications across a slate of device platforms. Consumers bought and sold more than $2 billion worth of merchandise via eBay’s mobile site last year. Much of the spending comes through PayPal Mobile, which is on track to handle $3 billion in payment volume in 2011 — a four-fold increase from 2010.
Honorable Mention:

Social Media

Lots of brands are experimenting with social media; only a handful are getting it right. Sitting at the top is Charlotte, whose campaign spans Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and Twitter and features promotions, online polls, fashion news and more.

Its desire to be part of the conversation began with a tool called ShopTogether. Initially used to help teens in their prom dress search, ShopTogether lets multiple users browse, chat and shop online via social media.

The success of that program quickly snowballed, leading Charlotte Russe to build a social media campaign focused on user-generated content and social engagement. Some of the leading-edge steps they’ve taken include using QR codes inside the stores to encourage sharing, and posting bold in-store signage inviting shoppers to get on the social media bandwagon.

One of the most notable aspects of the campaign is the retailer’s weekly trivia contest on Twitter, which compels consumers to visit the website. Another popular social engagement event: the ‘Be the Next Charlotte Russe Design Star’ — a t-shirt design contest in which the winner has his or her shirt produced and sold online.
Honorable Mention:

What’s happening in the world of global e-commerce? STORES reports on new data from Cisco that looks at global trends in online retailing and examines how retailers can capitalize on the potential of markets outside the U.S. Tap into this global insight by visiting “Next Stop: The World,” which appears exclusively at