Circuit City debuts online courses

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Circuit City Stores Inc. has launched an education Web site offering free courses about consumer electronics.
The site, sponsored by Sony Electronics, went live the week of Dec. 11, just in time to take advantage of holiday sales. With consumer electronics topping many shopping lists this year, the resource site at http://learning.circuitcity.com aims to take the confusion out of buying electronics by clearly explaining all of the jargon, features and technologies.
"This is information that people really want," said Dave Ellet, CEO of Powered Inc., which provides the content for the site. "Every time someone is making a considered purchase, especially if they're going to spend time researching it and potentially a significant amount of money, there's not a lot of things on the Web to help them through the process."
With this in mind, Sony began a series of online courses from Powered, Austin, TX, on its own e-commerce site, www.sonystyle.com, some time ago and has raised conversion rates as a result, Mr. Ellet said. The conversion rate for a typical Powered client is 25 percent.
However, "even though Sony has a direct retail business, most of its sales are through channels like Circuit City," he said. So the electronics manufacturer brought the concept to Circuit City, Richmond, VA, which already offers educational material on its Web site.
The new Web site differs from that other material in that the information is offered in four or five separate lessons lasting about seven minutes each.
"Our research has shown that this is how long people will sit and digest educational material like this," Mr. Ellet said.
Courses cover topics such as digital photography, videography and basic Web design.
People sign up for a course in advance on the Web site and sit through the lessons together online. A course could have a couple thousand people. An instructor is online to answer any questions at the end of each lesson. Each subsequent lesson is usually offered a few days later. Once the entire program of lessons has been rolled out, consumers can take the entire course at the same time if they wish. New courses are posted regularly.
This format offers several benefits, Mr. Ellet said. First, it gives consumers a reason to return repeatedly to the Web site. Plus, it gives retailers a reason to e-mail consumers with a reminder about the next course. And because consumers are engaged with the retailer's Web site for up to an hour during the entire course, there is a chance to learn a lot about them.
Finally, the course is entirely opt-in, which means consumers decided to be there and receive the information provided. Powered's research indicates that 96 percent of the people who take the courses say they would recommend them to a friend.
The content is product agnostic, Mr. Ellet said, in that it does not promote or mention any specific product. Sony's products are merchandised as ad placements on the right side of the site.
Circuit City plans to promote the educational site on its main site as well as via e-mails to registered users. That the course material is accessible to consumers whenever they wish drives loyalty, Mr. Ellet said.
"Once they're aware that this resource exists, they tend to come back," he said, as in a typical year 35 percent to 40 percent of people who take a Powered course have signed up 36 months earlier.

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