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Online Retailers Stick To The Basics

A look at how online retailers expect to handle the upcoming holiday shopping season.
Online retail sales are still growing despite bleak holiday shopping forecasts, and companies keep investing in their Web sites. But instead of gee-whiz features, they're focused on boring performance measurements that also happen to make customers happy.

REI Stores Inc., which sells outdoor gear in stores, online, and via mail order, is concentrating on reducing the number of E-mails or phone conversations that Web customers need to make a purchase. A year ago, it was 1.2 contacts per order; it's now well below one, thanks to improved Web navigation, checkout, and account setup based on feedback to call centers, says Joan Broughton, VP of direct sales. "It's not something showy. The less you notice about your experience shopping online, probably the better," she says. has seen a surge in online purchases since Sept. 11. The comparison-shopping site, which aggregates data from more than 2,000 retailers, reported $574 million in sales from Sept. 4 to Sept. 10. By the week of Oct. 9, that figure grew 32% to $756 million, a 51% increase over the same period last year.

Gartner expects fourth-quarter online sales of nearly $11.9 billion in North America, a 30% increase over last year. Market-research firm eMarketer predicts total online consumer sales of $54.2 billion this year, a more than 40% increase over $38.3 billion last year.

Two Federated department stores, Bloomingdale's and Macy's, redesigned their Web sites this summer to reflect customers' concerns. The goal is to have the upgrades--a new search engine; a tool to compare items by brand, fabric, and price; and a gift finder that makes recommendations based on shoppers' input--ready for the holiday season, says Dawn Robertson, president of Federated Direct Inc., the catalog and Internet operations of Federated Department Stores Inc., which solved its 1999 fulfillment debacle by handing off the responsibility to last year, unveiled its revamped Web site, powered by Amazon, earlier this month. Toysrus expects to top last year's $180 million in online sales by understanding shoppers better. "They don't want bells and whistles," says Jeanne Meyer, VP of communications and strategy. "They want it to be fast."

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