"The shopping portal is the huge battleground," said Karl Haller, principal consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Nowhere can this be seen more than among the long-established search engines, which first recast themselves as general portals and now are working feverishly to make sure shopping clicks with their users.
FETCHING THINGS TO BUY
Today, Lycos breaks its first national TV campaign that doesn't focus solely on its search capabilities. Created by Bozell Worldwide, New York, two TV spots feature site mascot Lycos fetching more than just information for people; the Labrador retriever now also fetches things people can buy online. The spots start and close with the tag used in earlier spots: "Lycos. Go get it."
Portal leader Yahoo! recently broke a commercial from agency Black Rocket, San Francisco, that focuses on its Yahoo! Shopping service. It's the first time the portal has highlighted a specific area of its site in its tagline. In conjunction with the commercial, Yahoo! Shopping added new merchants to its site, including Brooks Brothers, Eddie Bauer Inc., Patagonia and Macys.com.
Also today, Excite@Home rolls out Excite Shopping Service (shopping.excite.com), which is designed to help users more quickly locate purchases online. Product searches are integrated throughout special interest areas on Excite. The new service also features Shopping Alerts, which send e-mails to consumers about price changes and various products, and Special Requests that, through a relationship with shopping-service site Respond.com, help users get information on hard-to-find products. Only online promotions are planned to market the shopping service.
For Lycos, Madeline Mooney, VP-marketing, said the portal realized commerce is central to its strategy since it handles more than 12 million product searches a month, representing 40% of all its monthly searches.
"This is the first time we've expanded beyond search," she said. The Lycos campaign also includes billboards in Boston and San Francisco and the portal's first print campaign; newspaper ads will run in USA Today through December.
In one spot, Lycos rescues a Scottish bagpipe player whose kilt is flapping in the wind by delivering a pair of boxer shorts. "Start your day with Lycos.com," says the voice-over. "Your home page for everything from fast searches to one-stop shopping." Music, shopping and e-mail are among features highlighted in the spot. Lycos has an annual $15 million advertising budget, according to Ad Age estimates.
AltaVista, too, has hopes to be a shopping center as part of its shift from being merely search site to portal -- providing expanded content and services to users. AltaVista is able to draw on the resources of Shopping.com, a commerce site that merged with AltaVista early this year.
The Web's traditional search engines aren't the only ones battling for so-called first-screen status. Established shopping sites such as Amazon.com are moving quickly to become the place where consumers can find anything they want online. Already the first place consumers look for books and CD's online, Amazon last week announced plans to offer videogames, software and tools -- from drills to woodworking equipment -- and a co-branded credit card with NextCard. It is also said to be looking to sell sporting goods, travel services and even office supplies.
A domain name the company registered last month is telling: amazoneverywhere.net. Already, with an all-product search button, Amazon has expanded its offerings with online auctions and a toy site, as well as its new zShops, in which Amazon offers items for sale from specialty merchants, small businesses and individuals. The company has fortified itself with stakes in Drugstore.com, Gear.com, HomeGrocer.com and Pets.com.
Discounters from Wal-Mart Stores with its expanded Web site next year to Buy.com and ValueAmerica also are pushing for first-screen status. Meanwhile, a host of Web upstarts, such as Webvan Group, intend to deliver more than just groceries to the home.
Another genre vying for the all-things-to-all-people category is the field of so-called shopping bot programs, which search the Web to find specific products and/or the lowest prices. Some shopping bots, along with other reference sources offering consumer guidance on product quality, intend to allow consumers to find what they want, see how it shapes up compared to others in the category and then find it at the lowest price. BizRate.com, for example, recently tied in with Consumer Reports. CompareNet, which Microsoft Corp. purchased last year, and MySimon are other bots.
Most portals use in-house software or outsource for their bot services. For instance, Excite@Home purchased a company called Netbot in '97 for its Jango software, which supports its product finder service.
Other contenders for first-screen status are lifestyle sites, such as iVillage, or the site Starbucks Coffee Co. hopes to become by parlaying its coffee culture into a place where people buy more than just java. Meanwhile, Deja.com, which posts consumer critiques of goods and services, hopes to be the place where online buyers look before they leap (AA, Nov. 1). The tagline in its TV campaign that broke this fall from DiNoto/Lee, New York: "Deja.com. Before you buy."
Many sites are viewing the future more narrowly by defining positions as specialty e-tailers to corner their category on the Web, said Courtney Buechert, managing director at San Francisco shop Leagas Delaney. The agency is working with Red Envelope, formerly 911 Gifts, to position the site as the Web's luxury goods retailer.
The marketing battle, he said, pointing to work done in the past year by Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York, for Outpost.com that had wild dogs attacking a high school marching band, has gone beyond "just remember my name."
To be sure, sites such as Red Envelope have their work cut out for them to get people to remember their names. And they are facing tougher competition from well-known bricks-and-mortar names. Neiman Marcus, for example, has said its goal is to establish its site (www.neimanmarcus.com) as the premier lifestyle platform for affluent consumers on the Internet for both content and e-ecommerce.
LOCKING DOWN A BRAND
Like Red Envelope with luxury goods, Guild.com is hoping to lock down its carefully defined position. Former Miller Brewing Co. executive Jack Rooney, VP-marketing at Guild.com, said he does not want his company to be a niche site, but instead wants to "precisely position" the site "so people are clear what it is we are offering. What we want to become is the preferred resource of the stuff we have to sell, the finest work of practicing artists." Guild's agency is Publicis & Hal Riney, San Francisco.
The portals are taking the battle in stride.
John Yost, president of Black Rocket, said he's confident Web-war veteran Yahoo! will succeed in the shopping arena. Said Mr. Yost: "Three-and-a-half years ago, we were up against 52 search engine wanna-bes."