Not all online malls are created equal

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One of the more popular sports films of the 1980s, "Field of Dreams," told the story of a farmer in Iowa who built a baseball field in his cornfields that attracted members of the Chicago White Sox, including the legendary Shoeless Joe Jackson. The film was famous for the inspirational quote: "If you build it, they will come."

Fast forward a couple of decades. Change the venue from an Iowa cornfield to the Internet and the pastime from baseball to online shopping and it would be tempting for marketers, whether they have built an e-commerce component to their Web site or constructed an online mall to modify the Field of Dreams mantra and make the assumption, "if you build it, they will come, they will stay, they will spend and they will return."

After all, online commerce clearly continues to explode. A Forrester Research/Shop.org study estimated that 2006 online sales increased 20 percent to $211.4 billion. Furthermore, Forrester projects that 2006 online holiday shopping sales reached $27 billion, a 27 percent increase.

Despite these rather frothy sales projections, the truth is that from the functionality and ease of use perspective, all e-commerce Web sites and online malls are not created equal.

Additionally, overall satisfaction with online shopping experiences and credit card security trust is declining. What does this mean for marketers and how can they combat these two trends?

For starters, marketers must ignore the temptation to adopt a promotional-only strategy and truly build trust and loyalty with online shoppers. They'll accomplish this by touting their safe online shopping experiences, focusing loyalty programs on rewarding word-of-mouth behavior, creating segmented and audience appropriate online store offerings, offering the most compelling awards benefits and, in sum, creating the best possible online shopping experience.

One of the most effective vehicles for accomplishing these objectives has proven to be an optimized and customized online mall featuring merchant-funded rewards programs. For marketers in virtually every industry - from airlines to banks to professional sports teams, as well as membership organizations of all types - online malls offer a significant revenue generation and loyalty opportunity by allowing customers to access a private label online mall where they can earn bonus rebates.

But from your most important constituency's perspective, the consumer, what defines an optimized online mall experience that will drive repeat purchases and build long-term loyalty to your brand, your product and your service?

Whether you are a marketer for a large, small or medium-sized organization, the top considerations when creating or evaluating an online mall platform will apply. Here is a list of these considerations, which can often be the difference between an optimal and a forgettable experience.

ò Personalization and customization are the top of any consumer's wish list.

Personalized recommendations encourage repeat use of the mall by bringing customers' most relevant merchants within easy reach, and suggesting additional merchants of value to them.

To encourage participation and promote special deals, an online mall must allow merchants to communicate with customers via personalized multichannel marketing programs.

The right platform will integrate with the company's existing e-mail system to enable easy and frequent communications with shoppers. Additionally, without sharing PII, the portal should recognize the customer each time they log on and present them with offers specifically targeted to them based on past purchases.

ò Look and feel is a key imperative.. A clean and attractive design makes it easy for customers to access and navigate through. A superior online mall will create an enticing and intuitive user experience that quickly guides customers through the portal into a well-planned mall environment. Consumers must be able to see merchants in a clean, uncluttered fashion and must have multiple paths to find a given merchant, like search box, navigate by category, and alphabetical listing.

ò Offer variety. Shoppers don't like to wait, whether they are in a line or online. A first-rate online mall saves the consumer time and maximizes ways to earn rebates by offering a comprehensive range of merchants. Be selective and limit the merchant offering to the best in every major category so that your brand is not diluted by unknown or poor-reputation merchants.

ò Promote the mall. To encourage participation and promote special deals, it's important to communicate with customers via personalized multichannel marketing programs. The right platform will integrate with existing e-mail systems to enable easy and frequent communications with shoppers.

ò A back-end accounting system is essential. Back-end accounting is essential to keeping the customer informed of his or her purchases and rebate status. It is critical to have a flawless back-end accounting system to match purchases with rebates or points, and to ensure that rebates are allocated precisely.

ò Leave it to the experts. While some institutions may be tempted to try implementing their own mall, a trusted partner who has designed and implemented online malls previously will maximize your mall's potential. Choose a platform that can not only be customized and integrated seamlessly into existing systems, but also offers added capabilities like email integration, back end accounting and reporting tools.

ò Frequently update the site. Like any other Web site, the mall's content should constantly be changed and offers updates to keep the site fresh and relevant to site visitors. Consider seasonal offers or a special deals section to encourage purchasing. Many providers will take care of this as a part of the package.

Whether you are a loyalty and awards program manager for a bank, airline, club, organization or nonprofit, a private label online shopping portals offer a way for your members to shop easily and securely at hundreds of name-brand sites through a single point of entry, your Web site.

With the best technical platform, financial systems and mix of merchants as part of your online network granting awards, bonuses and rebate points for purchases, customers and members can shop at the stores they know, love and trust, while earning extra points and strengthening their ties to your organization.

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