Disney Opens Virtual Shopping Mall

Disney Online is readying for the holiday shopping season with the launch of its Main Street Merchants virtual shopping center.

The microsite, Disney.com/mainstreet, is patterned after Disneyland's Main Street USA, which features shops that sell products from Disney and its partners.

Main Street Merchants, which debuted Oct. 23, is the third Disney Online e-commerce venture, joining DisneyStore.com and Disney Auctions by eBay. Disney Online, a business unit of Walt Disney Internet Group, Anaheim, CA, operates Family.com and Disney.com.

Though Disney Online executive vice president Ken Goldstein said the uncertain economy and times make it difficult to project increased Internet holiday sales, the company has “every good reason to believe we're going to have a good Christmas.

“We're seeing our usual good fall business in online transactions … and Halloween numbers have been extremely healthy,” he said.

Anchor tenants in the virtual Main Street USA include toy manufacturer LEGO, a Disney marketing partner, and Disney Home, which includes retailers of Disney-themed bedding products such as Wal-Mart and Fred Meyer, as well as Sherwin Williams, which licenses Disney paints.

The site divides product categories into separate stores on the front page: Toys, Home and Garden, Baby, Party and DisneyStore.com. Once a user enters a store, he can click on individual product samples, which link to a description of the product and information on participating retailers. Under the Bedding & Bath section of the Home and Garden store, for example, clicking on a photo of one bedding set takes visitors to a link with a message that the set is available exclusively at Target stores, along with an 800 number to order.

Retailers handle customer service and fulfillment themselves, while Disney acts as the landlord.

Meanwhile, Disney Online is looking for other retail partners.

“We're largely talking to companies that Disney is familiar with and has done some business with in the past … but we'll likely bring in some new tenants,” Goldstein said.

Tenants will offer both Disney-themed and general merchandise.

“The initial attraction is those products that are Disney-branded because that makes the most sense for the vendors, but once you get to their site, you can obviously enjoy the full spectrum of their products,” Goldstein said. Products must be applicable to a family-oriented audience, he added.

Some of the retailers are focusing on brand association with Disney, while others are focusing on direct sales.

“We see Main Street Merchants largely as a branding opportunity,” Goldstein said. “The amount of direct sales that they are going to get are interesting, but not nearly as interesting as using the reach of the Disney site to keep people focused on the products that they license.

“One of the major goals … is to make sure that advertisers understand the Internet as a branding opportunity, as well as a direct sales opportunity,” he said.

If the merchant's main objective is branding, “then we will be building programs around awareness and affinity,” Goldstein said. For partners mainly seeking a boost in direct sales, Disney Online will use its opt-in e-mail list. Of the more than 2 million opt-in subscribers to its e-mail newsletter, many have also opted in for offers from Disney partners. Goldstein would not reveal how many of the total list have opted in.

“We have an extremely qualified, extremely targeted, mom-oriented outbound newsletter that is … valuable to advertisers,” he said.

The average age for the Disney Online e-newsletter is 35, with a household income of $66,000. Sixty-eight percent are female, and 59 percent have children under 18 living at home. The e-newsletter is sent monthly, or whenever there is an initiative its partners need to promote.

In attracting new merchants to the virtual shopping center, Disney Online is stressing the value of association with Disney. In a recent study conducted for Disney Online, 43 percent of interviewees reported feeling more positively about brands or products advertised on Disney.com because of their association with Disney.

And Disney.com visitors are active online shoppers. In a CyberDialogue study, 73 percent of Disney Online visitors made an online purchase in the past year, compared with the national average of 47 percent.

Disney Online is initially publicizing Main Street Merchants via public relations, but also will promote it on Disney-owned Web sites including ESPN.com and ABCNews.com.

The entertainment company will display a “virtual parade” on the site, mimicking Disneyland's daily Main Street USA parade, before the end of the year.

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