Microsoft to Tap Holiday Surge With Comparison Shopping Site

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Microsoft Corp. this week swaggered more assertively into the online holiday marketing fray with a new comparison shopping site. And Jim Kinsella, president/CEO of MSNBC and general manager of MSN sales & marketing, holds no delusions about what most e-commerce players agree will be a pivotal buying season.


"I think that this holiday season is going to be something of a 'make or break' for a lot of companies. They're going to figure out whether they're able to be in the game or not," Kinsella told DM News. "I think some of the dot-coms will really distinguish themselves, and I think a lot will fall by the wayside."


Inserting itself firmly into the center of the storm, Microsoft, Redmond, WA, debuted MSN eShop, a site designed to let shoppers search for products by detailed specifications and then compare goods from store to store. In addition to showing product images, prices and features to consumers, the site will even let shoppers compare different merchants' warranties and return policies.


MSN's move follows the establishment of a similar cross-vendor comparison site operated by portal Lycos Inc., Waltham, MA. The sites will go toe-to-toe this season with online malls operated by the most heavily trafficked digital media entities, especially America Online Inc. and Yahoo Inc.


Forrester Research Inc. forecasts merchants raking in $4 billion in online sales between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Research firm NFO Interactive Inc. predicts the upcoming gift-buying season will drive the number of online shopping households to more than 27 million.


Some retailers fear comparison shopping sites will bite into their profit margins by helping consumers consistently find the lowest prices. But apparently such concerns have not stopped cyberstores - including some operated by veteran direct marketing players - from signing up for eShop. Participants include 800-Flowers.com, Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, CDW.com, Crutchfield.com, Eddie Bauer Online, gap.com, OmahaSteaks.com and sears.com.


According to Kinsella, merchants choose to work with Microsoft largely because they trust its technology. "[Microsoft] provides something large, strategic players can use that makes them grow and flourish. It's called software. We're simply delivering those same software solutions on the Web," he said.


"Microsoft is the No. 1 buyer of Web advertising," Kinsella said. "It puts its money where its mouth is. Microsoft has been on the Internet in very aggressive ways, and I think major players, major advertisers and marketers understand that. They feel heartened by that."


Microsoft is going after smaller merchants as well, employing a local sales force in the top 20 US markets to attract regional players to the program. Auto dealers, clothing merchants, banks and other small to mid-size firms that do business online are all potential partners, Kinsella said.


The new MSN site, at eshop.msn.com, is integrated into the company's larger Web network. For example, visitors to MSN's CarPoint auto site might be shown eShop offers for products such as car alarms. Microsoft's Passport digital wallet technology will be integrated into the site as well. MSN eShop includes a product finder and a gift finder for searching across stores.


Kinsella would not elaborate on how Microsoft will promote the site to consumers, except to say the company plans a "very aggressive" advertising campaign across "every media."
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