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Enhance Brands for Retail Success Online

Talk to people actively working in the bricks-and-clicks space these days, and they will say they are still learning how to get their branding right online.

Struggling the most are those categories where browsing is key, particularly upscale multi-category retailers like Macy’s or Saks Fifth Avenue. In their attempts to bring their businesses online, they seem to have forgotten what made them successful in the real world: their selection of brands and merchandise; their store environment (great retailers make shopping easy and fun); and their commitment to customers and service.

Only by taking such features and combining them with good online shopping fundamentals can multi-category retailers hope to differentiate their online brands. The combination is crucial. Web site features that may seem “cool” to retailers do not always provide easy shopping experiences. On the other hand, features that allow consumers to get in and out of a site quickly do not necessarily encourage the browsing and discovery that can make online shopping fun.

At its most basic, a brand is a series of attributes that promises something to a customer. Good brands deliver on their promises: Tide cleans your clothes, David Letterman makes you laugh, Williams-Sonoma is a cook’s resource. Branding online is not about making a better search engine (unless you are Yahoo), but rather about reinforcing a brand’s attributes and experiences online — from the time the customer clicks on the logo or types in the URL to the time she receives the products.

So how do offline retailers successfully differentiate and enhance their brands online?

First, they focus on software and applications that reinforce their brand attributes and facilitate their customers’ shopping experiences. Along with more generic applications — store locator, registration programs and “Wish Lists,” for example — e-retailers need to create applications that can reinforce brand positioning and solve customers’ individual problems.

For example, Origins, a cosmetic company owned by The Estée Lauder Cos. Inc., is positioned as promoting well-being and stress relief. So instead of filling its site with virtual makeovers, Origins provides online reflexology, relaxation exercises and a stress test. The site then suggests appropriate Origins products for a site user’s specific condition. Even if a customer has never been to an Origins store, the company’s Web site lets the customer know that Origins is not just a brand for “lipstick chicks.”

Williams-Sonoma also successfully uses its online recipe applications to reinforce its branding. The company’s Web site provides “special features” and “recipes” sections — where a user can seek recipes for any meal or occasion as well as searching by ingredients. The recipes, of course, feature the appropriate specialty foods and cookware, thereby reinforcing Williams-Sonoma’s expertise and its specialized merchandise selection. Each one of these gives texture to the brand and gives the user a reason to visit the site between buying sprees. Lands’ End’s famous “virtual model” lets users put in their measurements and see clothes on their own body type — solving the biggest concern for apparel buyers: Will it fit?

None of these applications make the shopping experience faster, but they do make it better and more informative for consumers. Retailers serious about branding online must create applications that will reinforce their positioning and actively engage customers, even when it does not lead to an immediate online sale.

Second, multi-brand retailers must allow customers to browse by brand, not just by category. According to a recent study by Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, one of the key differentiators between the affluent and others is that the wealthy are more brand-conscious. Yet until recently, most upscale retailer sites allowed users to navigate only by category.

Nordstrom, among others, has started developing “branded boutiques” where Nordstrom.com visitors can now shop by brand. In fact, certain brands actually have online “stores within a store” — including features and insight that help differentiate the Tommy Bahama brand from Nautica, for example.

According to Julie Bornstein, general manager, Internet at Nordstrom.com, “Our goal is to connect our customers easily and efficiently with the merchandise they want. Organizing the offering around brands that our customers know and trust is a way to help them quickly find those products. Our customers should be able to find the brands they love – on the Web, in the catalogs or in a Nordstrom store. Creating online brand ’boutiques’ to mirror the brands found in our stores helps evoke the flavor of the brand while making the strong product offering from each of our vendors easy to find on our Web site.”

Of course, if a customer is looking for a cashmere sweater, she should be able to look across all brands. But many people shop retailers for specific brands, and the more the brands can be highlighted online, the better.

Third, retailers need to create site page designs that differentiate the brands and categories they carry. In trying to make their sites easy to maintain, nearly all online retailers have fallen into the trap of making every category of product and every brand follow the same design template (e.g. the “thumbnail” page with a grid of small images). In their stores, retailers never use the same fixtures or layout to sell dishes as they use to sell designer gowns — so why use the same page designs? If an online customer can’t tell Tommy Hilfiger from Ralph Lauren other than by price, how can she tell Macy’s from Saks?

Finally, retailers must create flexible site designs that don’t assume to present a “one size fits all” model to customers. Different customers demand different features. Some are “surgical shoppers” and search engines work great for them. Retailers should meet their needs as long as they reinforce their brands along the way. Nordstrom.com, for example, has a dynamic search engine that serves up brands and attributes based on the categories users select.

Other shoppers are browsers, and retailers need to entice them, educate them and engage them, in order to get them to buy online or offline. That does not mean that retailers should necessarily employ rich media to engage a “browser.” Not all site visitors want to watch a flash movie. Saks.com recently had a great merchandising feature, “11 must-haves for spring,” but then offered a slow-loading, painful flash movie. The Web is still a low bandwidth medium, so if retailers want to create some “flash,” they would be well served to provide simpler versions for those who want the expertise without the pizazz.

To most Fortune 500 retailing companies, online sales may only make up a small percentage of total business. If a site’s conversion rate is 5 percent, the average for the industry, that means 95 percent of its visitors are not transacting online. But for 100 percent of them, the online contact is an incomparable opportunity to reinforce their brand, create a new relationship, and acquire permission to talk to that customer when she is not in the store. Retailers that remember what has made them great in the offline world, then temper that knowledge with a commitment to an easy online shopping experience, will find the greatest success in building their brands online.

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