The online channel: Niche vs. in-store applications

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PALM DESERT, CA - Several multichannel merchants at the eTail conference this week discussed how their online channels enable them to better meet the needs of both niche customer segments and the masses in a seminar titled "Embracing the Ability of the Online Channel to Serve Unique Consumer Needs While Simultaneously Supporting Your Store Channel."

When trying to create a customized shopping experience online, Neiman Marcus looks at what merchandise shoppers are buying so that it can create "taste clusters," said Jessica Weiland, senior vice president of marketing and customer care at Neiman Marcus Direct.

The luxury retailer imports information from all its channels so that it can see what shoppers are looking at and buying.

At apparel retailer Eileen Fisher, the primary objective isn't to customize the online experience, said Jim Gundell, vice president of retail and e-commerce. However, while viewing information across all channels, the retailer occasionally notices a particular opportunity.

"We have an opportunity to focus on plus sizes online because we can't show them effectively in stores," Mr. Gundell said.

The evidence also shows that the customer wants to buy plus-size apparel online, he said.

These retailers see a broader application of their online channels.

Neiman Marcus markets a larger selection of home decor items on its Web site at www.neimanmarcus.com than it has available in its stores because its stores are limited in size.

However, a few stores have introduced home decor showrooms with Web-enabled kiosks intended to introduce the online business to the Neiman Marcus shopper, Ms. Weiland said.

In its outlet stores Neiman Marcus uses kiosks that allow customers to sign up for e-mails. This strategy has proven quite successful, Weiland said. However, when tested in Neiman Marcus' full-line stores, the kiosks didn't perform as well.

Eileen Fisher's Mr. Gundell said he sees kiosks "as a big opportunity for us." The challenge is that using them requires store personnel to take a holistic view and understand that if they push customers to engage with the online store then everyone benefits.

Mr. Gundell would like to create a stronger connection between Eileen Fisher's stores and its Web site at www.eileenfisher.com. He points to Coldwater Creek as an example of how seamless the connection can be.

"We don't have the systematic ability, so it's a big operational opportunity for us," Mr. Gundell said.

It's important to understand the different benefits that the online and offline channels each offer. Don't try to recreate the in-store experience on your Web site, Ms. Weiland said.

A Web site "can facilitate customers seeing a lot more merchandise quickly; they can have early access or be able to pre-order," she said.

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