The Columbus Dispatch : Will online shopping click?
Will online shopping click? Big Lots, DSW, Limited hit the Web late in the game
By Marla Matzer Rose
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Three Columbus-based retailers seem to have realized that this "Internet Thing is More Than a Fad"
DSW, Big Lots and the company that's keeping "The Limited" name alive have all begun selling online within the past four months. The moves come several years after a majority of their chain-store peers starting selling in the virtual world.
"Obviously, we're very late to the party," said Kathleen Schneider, area vice president of e-commerce for The Limited.
Investment firm Sun Capital Partners bought a majority stake in the retailer last year, though Limited Brands still owns 25 percent of the chain founded in Columbus nearly 40 years ago.
The Limited started selling on the Internet in September. Schneider said getting online was "one of the first major business objectives" of Sun Capital after the acquisition.
Shoe retailer DSW, which opened its first store in 1991, launched its e-commerce site in June. At the time, the company said it had "deliberately waited" to do so.
"The Web is littered with hastily designed and executed Web sites that yield mediocre customer experiences," said Jon Ricker, executive vice president of strategic business development for DSW. "We have always been extremely proud of the in-store experience we offer our customers and wanted to wait to launch a site until we could replicate that experience online."
Among the bells and whistles on DSW's site are high-definition, 360-degree views of the shoes, Ricker said.
In the early days of e-commerce, shoppers were hesitant to buy apparel online because they couldn't feel the goods. That resistance has virtually disappeared as technology has improved and shoppers have become more comfortable with online purchases in general, said Scott Silverman, executive director of the National Retail Federation's Shop.org digital-retailing division.
"For at least the last couple of years, apparel has been the biggest online seller after travel in terms of dollars," Silverman said. "Most of the national retail chains are selling online. It's hard to think of anyone that's not."
Both The Limited and DSW worked with local Internet marketing firm Resource Interactive to develop their sites. Resource Interactive has worked with international brands such as Coca-Cola and Wal-Mart on a variety of projects.
Silverman said online sales are likely to take less of a hit in an economic downturn than sales at traditional venues such as shopping malls.
"Online shopping offers a way to comparison shop and save money," Silverman said. "It also saves time and gas money, especially with so many merchants offering free or discounted shipping. Plus, these online stores don't see a downturn in foot traffic the way mall stores do when times get tough."
Still, connecting online stores with brick-and-mortar stores is a key component to success for many retailers. The Limited, for example, is promoting its e-commerce site in its stores, and it sees the Web site as a tool that women can use to "pre-shop" before going to a mall store, Schneider said. She added that they'll be testing an in-store Internet kiosk in the Polaris Fashion Place location beginning next month.
Discounter Big Lots has been outperforming retailers of almost every stripe with its off-price and closeout deals. This week, the retailer rolled out an e-commerce site for the first time, with a "Deal of the Day" feature. Each day, BigLots.com features a single brand-name item for sale at a discounted price.
"We're doing this as a test," said Tim Johnson, chief of investor relations and communications for Big Lots. "We've been looking at it for a while as a way to sell merchandise that may not be a good fit for our stores."
The first day's item -- an LCD high-definition TV from Sony or Samsung, priced at about $1,200 -- seemed to generate a lukewarm response from shoppers yesterday, judging by the comments on Big Lots' Web site.
"What's up with Big Lots?" questioned a poster going by the screen name Gina. "Have they watched the news? We are in a recession here. Few people are buying high ticket items... Disappointing choice for the first deal of the day."
"I was excited to see what their 'Big Deal' of the day was," said a poster with the screen name Sandi. "I was hoping for some amazing deal to kick off my Xmas shopping. Are they joking? ...What a letdown."
Several people leaving comments on the site also said they'd found the same TVs for hundreds of dollars less elsewhere.
Johnson said Big Lots has had success with big-ticket items in the past, and emphasized that the feature was in its first day of operation.
"An $899 Samsung flat-panel TV sold out in minutes at Christmas in 2006," Johnson said. "We've consistently heard from our customers that they want better quality and better brands. Maybe online is different; that's why we're testing."