The E-Mail Side of Sears

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Last week's marketing alliance with America Online will give pioneer Sears, Roebuck and Co. another leg up in e-mail customer service, by offering real-time communication between Sears customer service reps and its 60 million customers nationwide via a co-branded instant messenger service.

"It will allow Sears customers to instant message Sears' customer service. So, picture it, you're at home, you're online, you're having a problem with your dishwasher - it's rattling - you get on your instant messenger, and you instant message[e-mail] Sears customer service directly," said David Theis, a spokesman for AOL. Then, in real-time, a customer service representative can find out the model of your dishwasher and schedule a service appointment, said Theis.

The bricks-and-mortar retail giant knows a thing or two about e-mail. Despite the fact that response time is reportedly slowing down for consumers who e-mail questions directly to a company's Web site, according to a recent survey commissioned by e-mail software supplier Brightware Inc., Novata, CA, Sears is leading the pack. The Hoffman Estates, IL-based company had the quickest response times, answering consumers' e-mail questions in just nine minutes.

That's no small feat, considering that the study found that only 13 percent of the Fortune 100 companies who were surveyed answered e-mail queries within three hours, and several companies -- including Dell Computer, IBM, and Lucent Technologies -- did not respond to e-mails at all.

Theis was unsure if customer service representatives would be available for instant messaging 24 hours a day.

Instant messaging will also allow customer service reps to e-mail links to customers to help them find appliances.

"Sears has a loyal customer base," said Theis refusing to comment on how AOL will be able to tap into its customer base as part of the agreement.

"We're both well-known American brands… Certainly with our strengths in interactive services and Sears' strengths in retail and home services, we can combine to create a lot of real value for our customer base," said David Theis, a spokesman for America Online who refused to provide any information about its member base other than that AOL members are "mainstream consumers….[who] spend a lot of time online."

Sears refused to comment on the partnership.

As part of the partnership, AOL's interactive products and services will be marketed to Sears customers and Sears' merchandise and services will be marketed to AOL's member base, which when combined with subsidiary CompuServe, totals 23 million members.

The companies will be developing for release in the second half of this year a co-branded edition of AOL with links to and other Sears interactive sites that will be promoted to Sears customers and in certain locations in its 858 retail stores, as well as in its print and television advertising programs.

The 39 million active Sears credit card holders will be able to pay for their monthly AOL subscriptions with the proprietary card.

The companies also plan to market and sell broadband access, and intend to develop new broadband home improvement content. Sears customers will be able to attend live in-store demonstrations of new broadband-based technologies, which can be installed in their homes.

In February, AOL signed a similar deal with Kinko's, Ventura, CA, to provide AOL with a major in-store retail presence as Kinko's exclusive online service offering and feature Kinko's across several America Online brands.

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