New service helps brand clicks with bricks

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A fairly new Web site service is helping companies brand clicks and bricks together. Vicinity Corp., a provider of Internet-based marketing services, is helping business-to-business marketers build their brands online and send potential customers to the nearest stores.

With less than 5% of those who visit electronic-commerce sites actually buying, a great difference exists between shopping online and buying online. Presuming that buyers still want to see and touch before making purchases, and that buyers many times need products immediately, Vicinity, Palo Alto, Calif., has created a bridge to that gap by directing online shoppers to the nearest store.

Vicinity's SiteMaker and Business Finder software, launched in July, let nationally branded companies set up Web sites for local stores, complete with maps and other helpful information. So when businesses need the nearest dealer of a certain computer system or the closest drop box for a shipping company, all they have to do is access the brand's Web site and navigate to the nearest location.

"Basically everything that we're about as a company is finding a customer that is interested in a product or service and connecting them with the nearest supplier of that product or service that's a Vicinity client," said Eric Winkler, VP-marketing for 4-year-old Vicinity.

Store locator

Mr. Winkler said less than 1% of consumers buy online, and the figure is slightly higher for b-to-b customers.

"What we're focusing on are the other 99% of the folks out there who want to buy their products in the real world," he said.

Vicinity's services generally work in conjunction with a company's own Web site. As shoppers navigate through the company's site, they'll reach a point where they can tell the server where they are located. Although the link is not visible, the shopper will then be transferred to Vicinity's servers where the local seller's individual Web site is housed.

From there, information includes driving directions, a map, hours of operation and other pertinent information about the closest provider of whatever product or service the shopper is seeking.

The cost to a client varies, based on the volume of traffic to the client's Web site and the variety of Vicinity products used. Mr. Winkler said clients typically pay from $50,000 to $1 million a year.

From the perspective of the Vicinity client, the national brand, creating pages requires minimal computer skills. The software has templates, into which clients enter their information for local sites. Then changes or additions can be made by accessing the site with a password.

Mr. Winkler said clients' preferences about who maintains the site vary, with more b-to-b clients preferring to let the local store manager or staff update the information.

"A lot of what we're seeing is a focus on local marketing efforts," Mr. Winkler said. "One [Vicinity] customer … wants to have each individual computer reseller out there be the person in the community that's sort of your one-stop-shop guru on everything computer related. So they want their sites to be specific to that community and reflect the businesses in that community."

Vicinity's client base of 280 national and international brands covers many industries and includes TechnologyNet, Network Solutions, Cort Business Services and Oracle Corp.

Mr. Winkler said, by traditional definition, about 20% of the brands are business-to-business. But when home office and small-business purchases are included, the percentage climbs to about 75.

Reseller referrals

One client, Hewlett-Packard Co., Santa Clara, Calif., says Vicinity's services have created a three-way success for the computer company, its resellers and customers.

"We do 100,000 referrals each month [to HP resellers] through the Vicinity site," said Cyndi Harrell, HP Small Business Center Web director. "That's a huge number of resellers that are getting business--customers that are finding their closest reseller--and Hewlett-Packard is getting a call reduction" at the its call center.

That reduction has enabled HP's call center staff to devote more time and attention to callers with concerns about products, Ms. Harrell said.

Before the arrangement with Vicinity, the company's Small Business Center site had received fewer than 3,000 hits a month, according to HP figures.

The reseller-location area "is one of the most frequently accessed areas of our site . . . because people are able to find the information easily. . . . From the customer's point of view, all they have to do is type in a ZIP code."

Prio makes tracks

Over the past few years, Vicinity tracked how many shoppers received directions from its Web sites, with between 500,000 and 1 million b-to-b shoppers a month directed to a single brand's stores. That number varies by brand and is rising steadily, Mr. Winkler said.

Although many people shop online to save time, for a business customer, the lag between when a product is ordered and when it arrives is often too long. By shopping online, then buying at a physical location, a b-to-b customer can get the product or service immediately.

But Vicinity was unable to gauge how many customers actually went to stores from the sites, and, if they did, how long it took them to do so after using the service.

To help track that information, Vicinity recently announced a partnership with Prio, Mountain View, Calif., which specializes in developing programs to drive buying online and at brick-and-mortar locations.

Prio lets Vicinity's clients build promotions and special offers into their Web sites, encouraging shoppers to go to a store within a specific period. Through registering a credit card number on the Web site, then tracking the purchase at the store, Vicinity can estimate how many shoppers buy as a direct result of the Internet service. For every related transaction, the manufacturer pays Prio a fee.

"Our service . . . closes the loop between a person seeing something on the Internet, getting an offer or seeing an advertisement and actually making a purchase in the real world," said Robert Plaschke, CFO and VP-corporate development, Prio. "It also provides actual feedback on the specific individual: who they are, when they went in and what they bought under what conditions."

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