Internet Search Finds Style at Talbots

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Multichannel merchandising is often referred to as if it's a recent phenomenon, but Talbots has had bright-red phones in its stores that connect shoppers to a call center since 1986. This way, anyone who doesn't find what they're looking for in a store can order it from the catalog.


Last year, the Hingham, MA-based company extended the strategy to the Internet and, along the way, developed one of the most innovative multichannel merchandising tools since the phrase became buzz-worthy.


Style Search, as the Internet tool is called, had a soft rollout in November 2004 on the company's Web site, talbots.com. It lets shoppers pinpoint which stores have a specific, full-priced item in stock -- down to color and size -- and then reserve it to be picked up. In February, Style Search was made available to all customers shopping the Web site, and Talbots promoted the tool for the first time in an e-mail to its customers in May.


With minimal promotion to date, Style Search has experienced growth every month since its introduction that wasn't a sales month. Plus, two-thirds of customers who made reservations in the past year on Style Search also bought additional items when they went into a Talbots store to pick up their reserved item.


The company expects even better results next year when it starts aggressively promoting Style Search via its catalog, bag stuffers and other means, said Bruce Prescott, Talbots senior vice president of direct marketing and customer service. One reason for the success of Style Search is that it's an evolution of Talbots' existing customer service program, he said.


"I believe that there's a real movement afoot of people who are using the Internet for more than shopping," he said, adding that Style Search provides these consumers with "a real window" into the Talbots brand. Plus, it lets shoppers reserve an item without having to talk to anyone on the phone, "which some people find to be the best part of it."


Style Search was developed with the help of technology consulting firm Molecular Inc., which surveyed Talbots' Internet customers to learn as much as possible about their online shopping behavior.


One finding was that a large percentage of customers who buy in stores, having researched products online first, do so either because they want to touch something before buying it, they're uncomfortable using their credit card online or they don't like the inconvenience of returning items they received in the mail. From these results, "we started to put together Style Search," said Darryl Gehly, executive vice president at Molecular.


Style Search "isn't really changing the behavior of customers, but by understanding it, Talbots can provide better service and start to take advantage of this electronic distribution of information between the consumer and Talbots," Gehly said.


This arrangement benefits Talbots by creating "appointment shopping," Prescott said, as sales personnel often call customers to let them know the item they reserved is ready to be picked up. And frequently, customers will say when they are coming into the store, Prescott said. This lets Talbots personnel pick out additional items and have them ready for customers to look at when they arrive.


Prescott said he also thinks Style Search is driving more traffic into the stores, though it's too soon to know for sure because it is still in soft launch.


The logistical issues to installing the new tool were minimal as Talbots already had an inventory system that lets it know what products are in each store, Gehly said.


Chantal Todé covers catalog and retail news and BTB marketing for DM News and DM News.com. To keep up with the latest developments in these areas, subscribe to our daily and weekly e-mail newsletters by visiting www.dmnews.com/newsletters


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