But it's not just P&G that's impressed with Olay for You, an online product- recommendation program that's attracted more than a million visitors since January, 80% of whom completed an involved question-and-answer process and spent an average of eight minutes on the site.
Wal-Mart Stores has begun testing an in-store version of Olay for You via kiosks in stores, marking the latest of several efforts in which offline retailers are looking to tap the convenience and functionality of online tools, such as search and recommendation engines, to improve the often-annoying offline shopping experience.
It may not be a bad idea. Even as overall retail sales started tanking late last year, online retail sales were growing at healthy double-digit rates, according to ComScore and Nielsen Online.
Ease in the aisle
For the growing number of consumers who prefer the online experience to traditional shopping, the ease of finding products and getting recommendations clearly is a draw, said Carter Cast. Mr. Cast, a former CEO of Walmart.com and head of strategy for Wal-Mart Stores in the U.S., became CEO of fledgling specialty online retailer Netshops late last year.
Because of expectations created by web shopping, consumers increasingly expect offline stores to have the goods they want and make them easy to find, Mr. Cast said. "So the ante is raised in the physical world."
Unfortunately, stores aren't always anteing up. "I've read statistics that show a surprisingly high number of people [more than 10%] will go into a big-box and leave without [buying anything] because they haven't found what they want," he said.
Though he hasn't seen some of the newer systems in stores, such as the Olay system being tested by Wal-Mart and P&G, he said they have potential. Mr. Cast also said more retailers will look to mimic the online experience by porting inventory data from their stores to their websites to give consumers real-time information about product availability.
Another take on the online-to-offline phenomenon is Evincii, which began installing kiosks offering a mix of search and recommendation-engine capabilities in the over-the-counter-drug sections of Longs pharmacies in California in 2006 and is looking to roll out the concept nationally.
Johnson & Johnson is an initial advertiser on the system, which allows advertisers to place ads similar to online display ads, including video, around search results.
But like Google or other search engines, Evincii looks to return "organic" results only based on the criteria shoppers input, such as their symptoms, said Charles Koo, CEO of the private-equity-backed venture. Then, once they've selected a product, the kiosk helps them locate it on the shelf.
Not only does Olay for You appear to have had unusual success -- consumers like the site so much that about 7% have contacted P&G's consumer-relations staff to say so, more than double the average for online initiatives -- it also comes from an unusual source. It was created by Talk Me Into It, a digital agency founded last year by Marie McNeely, a former global equity director on P&G's fabric and home-care business for Saatchi & Saatchi, which handles creative duties both for Tide and Olay. It's the first project for Talk Me Into It, which has offices in New York and New Zealand.
The idea was largely to help Olay, and consumers, cope with a downside of the brand's success over the past eight years: A proliferation of products and product ranges has made it difficult, particularly for newcomers to the brand or category, to know what they should buy or even where they should start in making a decision, a P&G spokesman said.
While P&G has tried in-store kiosks before with such brands Clairol and Millstone coffee, Olay For You's combination of a highly graphic, iterative interview process and a soothing female voice may come closest to actually simulating a customer-service rep.
But while all the systems sound like good ideas, James Sorenson, exec VP-retail and shopper insights for TNS Sorenson, said getting consumers to search online in the store may be a nonstarter. While consumers might be willing to spend the time to do search queries from the comfort of their homes, doing it in stores is another matter, he said.
Mr. Koo, however, said Evincii's research at Longs indicates that 15% to 18% of visitors to OTC-drug departments use the kiosks, numbers similar to those that ComScore found last year of consumers who use online search to research package goods. Stores using the kiosks, he said, had category sales lifts of 3% to 6%.
"That was a surprise to everybody, because we thought initially it was just a good vehicle for advertisers," Mr. Koo said. "But it certainly helped retail sales, too."