*Macys.com Gets Voice in Online Retail Parade

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SAN DIEGO - Macy's wants to be heard over the e-tail din. At the National Retail Federation's NRF.com conference here, the retailer introduced audio to its site at www.macys.com, starting with the bill payment section.

"It's that difference between walking through the store where no one can help you and one where there's a helpful voice," said Suzanne Brisendine, vice president at AudioBase Inc., which provided the audio technology to macys.com. "We're creating a more natural shopping experience."

AudioBase, Sausalito, CA, offers audio interface strategy, voice talent, recording services and copywriting.

In the case of San Francisco-based macys.com, AudioBase recorded and edited the voice-overs, mixed the master audio and trained quality assurance executives at macys.com and its sibling, Federated System Group.

A key goal is to enhance customer service for macys.com customers. Consumers on the electronic bill-paying page of the site are helped through the online payment of their bills and approval of applications via audio assistance.

Similarly, the same female voice guides consumers in the frequently asked questions area and announces the customer service number. The special services section, including wedding planning and personal shopping, also is voice-enabled.

This way, macys.com can boost the number of consumers paying bills online and can lower the incidence of customer service e-mails and telephone calls.

Audio cues can be switched off or on by clicking on the Play Audio or Pause Audio tab on the top right corner of the Macy's site.

"The overall goal is to reduce shopping cart abandonment and errors, and increase conversion of visitors to buyers," Brisendine said.

Brisendine cited a Boston Consulting Group study that showed e-commerce order conversion was only 1.8 percent. Voice, she said, could lift that rate.

In another study released this month by research firm Vividence Corp., respondents in a shopping cart prototype were twice as likely to go through the checkout process in the audio version vs. an image-and-text site -- 43.5 percent for audio compared with 20 percent for the non-audio.

The same study found that three times as many users chose the correct shipping method in the audio version vs. the non-audio version -- 28 percent compared with 8.5 percent, AudioBase said.

AudioBase's Java-based technology allows sites to incorporate audio into their content. Once installed, the voice automatically switches on each time the user hits that page. Users can customize the messages from recordings for novices to settings for experienced users. No plug-in or software download is necessary on the user's end.

Subscription rates for the AudioBase service start at $10,000 a year, plus development and consulting fees before implementation.

Macys.com is the first key retailer using AudioBase technology that has gone live. Through the fall, used-car seller iMotors.com, cataloger Hanover Direct's Web site for The Company Store subsidiary, dating service Match.com and apparel retailer Gap Inc.'s online version will seek to turn visitors into buyers by using AudioBase.

"What we do is we surgically place audio in that part of the e-commerce site where we know you're losing shoppers," said Alan H. Nichols, president of AudioBase.

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