A WEB RETAILER WITH AMBITION BETS BIG ON SELECTION, SERVICE

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I recently bought two pairs of shoes at Paul Stuart, the marvelous Manhattan men's apparel store. Despite its high prices, I shop there more or less exclusively because the quality has been exquisite and the longevity impressive; previous footwear purchases still grace my feet 10 years on.

But my newest shoe purchases started losing their soles after a mere dozen or so wearings. When I mentioned this to fellow Stuartians, they sagely informed me the store had changed its shoe supplier, and this shoemaker (according to the department manager) uses water-soluble cement to glue the soles to the calfskin. The store repaired the shoes gratis, but I doubt I'll buy footwear from Paul Stuart again. A great enterprise had broken its promise to me.

I mention this because of a fascinating conversation I had with Peter Neupert, a talk all about promise. Mr. Neupert, 43, is founder, president and CEO of Internet retailer DrugStore.com, which aims to do to Rite-Aid what Amazon.com has done to Barnes & Noble. He believes he can do this by establishing a pact with customers that physical retailers may find difficult to match.

"Our brand awareness is zero, and Rite-Aid's brand awareness is high," Mr. Neupert said. "But can they transform a brick-and-mortar promise into a meaningful promise in this space? There is a difference on the Web. It allows us to offer a promise of selection, convenience, information and service."

It's worth listening to him on branding; he and his partners have done it before. As a senior Microsoft executive, he teamed with such traditional-media stalwarts as NBC's Andy Lack and magazine guy Merrill Brown to create perhaps the most successful brand in convergence space, MSNBC. One of his DrugStore.com board members is Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com. His accomplishments as a brand developer are quite clear.

Amazon owns 40% of Mr. Neupert's operation-a signpost to the opportunities and perils for DrugStore.com. Like the online bookstore, the Redmond, Wash.-based pharmacy is premised on the belief consumers want choice, and plenty of it. It offers 17,000 health, beauty, wellness and medical items, compared with 5,000 at a typical chain drugstore.

But Amazon's main offering is intellectual property, by definition differentiated, and eagerly and specifically sought by book buyers. DrugStore.com specializes in package goods, many of them impulse buys or immediate needs, and available at a friendly counter near you. Can even a successful Microsoftie build a commanding retail brand on such pills and balms?

"Big chains have tried to teach narrow selection," Mr. Neupert responded. New Yorkers forget the rest of the country can't just turn the corner to a Genovese if the neighborhood Walgreen's is out of Tampax Super-Plus. "People have an emotional attachment to specific products," he said.

Too much choice can be overwhelming. Indeed, pharmacies are a showcase for one of consumer marketing's most troublesome maladies, identified by consultant William Weilbacher as the proliferation of brand extensions of "unrelieved sameness." Consumers have grown paralyzed by choice, and many's the brand that's been diluted by it.

DrugStore.com contends with the first dilemma ingeniously. In the cough and cold category, for example, an "adviser" queries the consumer for desired effects (nasal decongestant? cough suppressant?), asks about preferred forms (liquid? gel cap?), then spits out all the products that meet the specifications-with prices and one-click ordering.

Will people click? Mr. Neupert-a man of penetrating gaze and rare straightforwardness-concedes it will take "behavioral change" to induce consumers to direct-order lozenges and depilatories. "To do that," he said, "you have to be in broad-scale media." So DrugStore.com is planning a substantial mainstream advertising campaign prepared by Leftfield, a San Francisco agency that heretofore specialized in online marketing.

In addition, Mr. Neupert is looking at DrugStore.com itself as a worthy advertising vehicle. "For companies like J&J and Unilever, some 15% of their customers make up 90% of their sales. In their marketing activities, would they rather be talking to the 85% who don't buy? My gut says they want to be able to talk to the other 15%. I think I can be both a communications vehicle and a delivery vehicle for them."

In other words, provide a service-to consumers and marketers. As Peter Neupert says, "the brand-and the promise-is in the service."

I wonder if he'll be selling shoes.

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