The 1997 holiday season is poised to become a watershed for electronic commerce on the Web.
Some of the leading retail brands, such as Wal-Mart, are putting a little real world holiday hype into their virtual storefronts.
But beyond that, a number of the nation's main street retailers are moving away from fun, games and a corporate profile on their home pages. Instead, they are making strong moves toward selling online which will have ramifications long after the tinsel is cleared from the living room floor.
"When Amazon.com did well, Barnes & Noble woke up," said Kate Delhagen, senior analyst, Forrester Research, Cambridge, Mass., which has issued a new consumer online shopping report putting 1997 online spending at $2.4 billion, expected to hit $17.4 billion by 2001.
MAJOR BRANDS PAVE THE WAY
The presence of the major brands online, she said, will further push the e-commerce environment. "These guys know how to market," Ms. Delhagen said, adding that the next frontier for the Web is to move from the current climate where consumers make strategic buys to one where consumers will shop on impulse.
Several of the retailers, such as Macy's and Eddie Bauer Inc., are advertising their sites on search engines such as Yahoo! and Excite, and placing information about their Web site in traditional holiday mailings and print advertising.
"The move of the premier brands [to e-commerce] bodes very well for the future of online," said Judy Neuman, divisional VP-interactive media, Eddie Bauer. For many consumers, online shopping "is becoming a natural experience, vs. a scary thing," she said.
After years of tests with interactive media, Eddie Bauer now sees real potential for online shopping.
Eddie Bauer believes the channel is a legitimate business unit, with percentage growth in the three and four digit range every month, Ms. Neuman said.
Last week, Eddie Bauer teamed up with iDream Software in a deal that will let consumers design 3-D room models on the Eddie Bauer site, beginning later this month. Remodelers can visualize various combinations by placing furniture from the retailer's catalog into the 3-D model, or sampling colors, fabrics, and textures. Selected furniture can be ordered online.
"Consumers will be able to make better and smarter purchases and there will be fewer returns," Ms. Neuman said.
Among those setting up significant online presences is Sears, Roebuck & Co. which is offering more than 3,500 Craftsman tools on its first e-commerce Web site (www.sears.com).
100 PRODUCTS AT GAP SITE
The Gap, meanwhile, has launched its first online store in time for the holiday season. The store offers almost 100 products which will be updated every six weeks.
Several retailers have added ways for shoppers to establish a list of gift-giving dates for friends and relatives. Like Eddie Bauer, the Gap will send out e-mail reminders two weeks before birthdays or anniversaries. Macy's (www.macys.com) offers an e-mail reminder for customers and an automatic replenishment service for wardrobe staples such as stockings or underwear.
Macy's upped its holiday offerings from 40 items last year to 125 this year, in categories ranging from shirts to martini sets. A Web store is "becoming more viable," said Kim Miller, Macy's promotions director for special services.
HOLIDAY DECORATIONS ONLINE
Meanwhile, several retailers have gotten into the holiday spirit. Wal-Mart Stores (www.wal-mart.com), already with more than 4,000 items for sale on the Web, has dressed its site in holiday style, with a sign at the top counting down the number of days until Christmas.
Even the Europeans are getting into the act. E-Christmas, backed by Microsoft Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co. and United Parcel Service, has 150 European businesses online and is expected to attract more than a half million visitors during the holiday selling season. The online stores include the U.K.'s Hamleys toy store and food purveyor Fortnum & Mason.1
Copyright November 1997, Crain Communications Inc.