Weekly Web Watch: Saks' slow and steady strategy proves savvy in the online race

Saks Fifth Avenue is finally selling online. Nearly a year after Neiman Marcus and nearly two years after Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom.

Saks Fifth Avenue is finally selling online. Nearly a year after Neiman Marcus and nearly two years after Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom.

Saks Fifth Avenue is finally selling online. Nearly a year after Neiman Marcus and nearly two years after Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom.

Saks' PR people have said the chain wanted to wait to be sure and get it right before launching online. Whether it has gotten it right remains to be seen, but waiting was the right approach.

Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's are synonymous not just with quality (or expensive, depending on your viewpoint) products but also with the experience of buying them. People who shop in those stores expect pampering.

They expect a certain personal service (or, again depending on viewpoint, a certain fawning obsequiousness). And recreating that online is very, very hard.

Now, Macy's is not Saks - not by a long shot. But the peppering of bad PR that Macy's brought on itself earlier this year is a lesson for established retailers seeking to move online. The problem was Macy's wedding registry.

Wedding registries are, usually, the sort of service at which department stores excel. And surely one of the objects of an online wedding registry is enabling far-flung friends and relatives to make contributions to the happy occasion. Well, at Macy's, that could happen only if the shopper had an American credit card. Could the same goods the happy couple had listed in the physical store be ordered online? No. If a few items that had been ordered were temporarily out of stock, could the rest be sent in the meantime? Nope. Only complete shipments allowed. And so on.

So Saks was wise to wait, and its site (www.saksfifthavenue.com) looks great and also does fancy things like magnified views of clothing so you can see if the fabric texture would work properly. But that still leaves the problem of how to replicate online that social experience of upscale shopping, that feeling of being pampered. And above all, how do you replicate the essential ingredient of being able to touch the merchandise, to feel the texture and weight and see the exact shade of gray or red for yourself?

Neiman Marcus has gone the route of employing personal shoppers who deal with online customers' queries, often entering into quite detailed and lengthy e-mail exchanges. If you can't touch the stuff yourself, the next best thing is to get someone to do it for you.

There is another, perhaps more sensible, approach, which is not to try to replicate the in-store experience. After all, no matter what you do online, it is not going to match up to the real thing.

That's Nordstrom's approach. Its site (www.nordstrom.com) is not geared towards a luxury shopping experience but towards speed and minimum hassle.

Features like sophisticated searching, power browsing and catalogue quick order contribute to this. The approach recognizes that the reasons a Nordstrom customer might go to the Web site are likely quite different from the reasons they visit the store. Think about the guy who doesn't like clothes shopping but does need some socks and new shirts. He knows what he wants.

In fact, they're repeat purchases.

The online department store that manages to meet those needs, and does it with style, technical slickness and outstanding service, will succeed and also enhance the reputation of its brick-and-mortar parent.



Stovin Hayter is editor-in-chief of Revolution. He can be contacted at stovin.hayter@revolutionmagazine.com.



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