Web e-tailer touts 'unparalleled' care

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Aiming to differentiate its brand in an increasingly crowded field this holiday season, technology e-tailer 800.com is trying to fill the void consumers encounter in the real world of bricks and mortar by promoting superior cyber service and a huge product selection.

The e-tailer's $25 million campaign, which was created by Lowe Lintas & Partners, San Francisco, and broke Nov. 21 during football games, takes a straightforward, problem/solution approach against a hip, contemporary backdrop.

"Our positioning is unparalleled customer service," said Tim Zuckert, 800.com's VP-chief marketing officer. "We're trying to say that if you could get all of these things in the real world, you wouldn't need 800.com."

The company offers live, online advisers who help consumers in real time through instant messaging. The product specialists receive manufacturer training and 800.com's call centers answer calls in less than a minute, said Mr. Zuckert.

They'll need to do that and more if 800.com's holiday traffic projections are to ring true. The company racked up 3 million customers last Christmas, and Mr. Zuckert forecasts about 40 times the traffic this season. He estimates that more than 50% of 800.com's customers are return shoppers enticed by the breadth of product selection and extras such as free shipping.

The company boasts more than 60 authorized merchant relationships with brands such as Kenwood, Panasonic and Toshiba.

That's about four times the number that Amazon.com maintains, Mr. Zuckert said.

Still, the site faces stiff competition from Amazon.com and other sites that sell consumer electronics and technology products, which include Buy.com, CircuitCity.com, NetMarket.com, Outpost.com and Roxy.com.


The company's marketing blitz, which extends through the first quarter 2000, includes three TV spots airing heavily on shows such as "Friends" and "ER," along with cable news and sports programming. Ads will run in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal and online support and promotions on leading venues such as America Online, CompuServe, Netscape, ZDNet, MSN and RealNetworks.

TV spots will also run on holiday specials such as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade and network movies. Promotional tie-ins include a national sponsorship program with the National Basketball Association Portland Trailblazers, the hometown of 800.com's headquarters; and a forthcoming initiative with AOL in January.

Mr. Zuckert said there were no plans to make a Super Bowl ad buy, but he wouldn't rule out advertising on a spot-market basis.

One of Lowe's spots, "Bar," features a beautiful blonde sitting at the bar with a seemingly spaced-out guy next to her. She says, "I know that look. You're trying to decide which DVD player you should buy, aren't you?" The woman goes on to suggest that based on the guy's existing home theater system, he should purchase a unit that has Dolby Digital decoding. A voice-over interjects: "If learning about DVD players were this easy, you wouldn't need a place like 800.com, but it isn't. So you do." The woman seals the deal: "Call me, I'll help you set it up." The kicker: "800.com, everything you've always wanted from an electronics store and more." The line "Electronics. And more." appears in print at the end of the spots.

"We're trying to take a very positive and direct approach," said Mr. Zuckert. "One of the things we know is that people love the gear. They like to go shopping to see what's new, but they're very confused when they go to traditional stores. We've tried to take an approach that is both entertaining and engaging on an emotional level, but also clearly calls out what customers are looking for," he added.


The company's target is savvy Web users who already shop at places such as Amazon.com, CDnow, and 1-800-Flowers.com; are 18 to 49 with average annual incomes of more than $75,000; and skew slightly more male.

"We're talking to a pretty sophisticated customer, who's already familiar with what's involved in shopping online," Mr. Zuckert said.

Holiday 1999 is likely to be a true test of tech e-tailers' prowess. As more mainstream consumers come online, e-tailers will need to streamline the sales process.

"Sites need to get better at selling complex products more simply by providing more descriptive information," said Seema Williams, an analyst with Forrester Research. Ms. Williams notes that cozone.com, the new CompUSA online subsidiary, does a good job of describing the buying process and qualifying shoppers, guiding them to the right products.

Meanwhile, Jupiter Communications projects U.S. consumers will spend about $6 billion online this holiday season and that typical sites will experience quadruple the amount of traffic and transactions than usual.

"Customer service will be a key differentiator in this space," said Mike May, Jupiter's digital commerce analyst. "Price is an issue, but paying $10 less at one online retailer vs. another and getting questionable service will not be a trade-off that a lot of consumers will make," he added.

Online retailers also need to focus on qualifying consumers with the right product in the first place to avoid problems with returns.

Mr. May said, "800.com wants to be the category killer," adding, that all the banner ads, live online support, free shipping, promotions and other customer service premiums have established the e-tailer as a category leader on the Web.

Copyright November 1999, Crain Communications Inc.

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