(formerly "A Clue...to Internet Commerce")
by Dana Blankenhorn
Volume II, No. XXXI
For the Week of August 3, 1998

This Week's Clue: Merchandising 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion)  

The Truth About Beanies 

The Lesson of the Cereal Boxes 

Knock Off With the Portals Already 

Clued-in, Clueless

This Week's Clue: Merchandising  

Back when the Web was spun, in 1995, a lot of stores put professional merchandisers in charge of their Web sites. Many of them floundered for some time. Some still flounder  (and it's no longer a fluke). But some swam well in the deep end, and continue to offer lessons for you. 

A good place to look for lessons is QVC . The design is by Studio Archetype of San Francisco. The look is clean, there are references to the TV network (which remains the cash cow), and it's easy to create your own comparisons between products within a category. (There's a sophisticated database call and chart-making script behind this easy-to-use front end.) Also notice how smoothly information on you goes into their data warehouse. Want to make a second purchase more convenient? Enter your information here. Want to join the discussion of breadmakers? Register here. And I've never gotten a spam from the folks at QVC. (One more thing - QVC has used its interactive unit to greatly expand its stock of goods, offering thousands of products 24-7, against the mass-market, one-at-a-time selling on the cable channel.) 

More important is the ease of navigation. In the case of QVC, you'll note that the search box, main commands, and art are all "above the fold," and you're one-screen away from a complete list of product sections. There's no loud selling going on (quite a contrast to the TV operation) and you're even one-click away from personalization tools (called "my QVC"). 

You can calculate how the navigation on your own site compares with this ideal. Imagine an obscure product sold on your site, and look for it. Count the clicks. Count a database search as five clicks, a search through one of those ugly lists as three clicks. Have to go down on a page (below the fold) to find the command you want? Count that click, too. Do this a half-dozen times, with different products, and think like a customer (which means don't think too much). Do this through a laptop and a modem, and put a stopwatch on the whole process. You can perform the same exercise with a careful examination of your Web store's logs. Look especially closely for unfinished page loads (that's lost opportunity), or abandoned sessions (they could have gone to the competition). 

Now that you know where the problems are, it's time to offer solutions. The first solution is to solicit e-mail feedback. (Having trouble finding something? Let us know about it!) Next, read those e-mails carefully. Look for problems - you can't learn much from praise. Next, study the pages of successful merchants  and try some of their techniques. Note that there's still a premium on saving Ks (and thus download times) on your home page. (Are you as tired of splash screens as I am?) Remember that the purpose of a main page is to get people to a place where they can get service, and do it quickly. If your redesign doesn't cut your search time by half (without changing your inventory) it's not worth the trouble. 

Now that we've talked at-length about design in merchandising, let's talk a moment about price. Price does move the merchandise. A special will get people in the door, but its effect is like buying links. You're getting one chance to make a good impression, and you have to deliver on the sale's promise to get the customer back. A sale, in which everything is discounted, has the same impact, but people do wonder why, if you're taking 20% off now, they should come back when prices return to normal. What everyone is trying to develop is value, the feeling that whatever the price, it's fair. That's the whole package - the price, the experience, the fulfillment. If you concentrate on delivering all of it, you're a good merchant, and can survive some mistakes in design. 

Finally, let's talk briefly about e-mail. There are too-many crappy e-mails coming into everyone's mailbox. If you don't have something worth saying, or an offer really worth pursuing, hold those addresses until you do have something worthwhile. And before you send an e-mail, look at it, honestly, from the recipient's point of view before you hit the send button. 

SSP (Shameless Self-Promotion) 

Ah, August! Ah, vacation! Martha's Vineyard, the Poconos, Las Vegas? Well, no (I'm sorry to say). It's Orlando. The kids are 10 and 7, so if they don't do the Hagid and pray to the Mouse (seven times around Cinderella's castle to learn the mysteries) their souls are in peril! (Please, it's a joke!) This means that issues 33 and 34 of this letter must be pre-made, with feature material too long to go into a regular issue. I hope you enjoy it. 

You can now subscribe (or cancel your subscription) to A-Clue.Com automatically by emailing us at a-clue@list.mmgco.com or (if you prefer the .txt version) aclue_textonly@list.mmgco.com. Just put the magic word "subscribe" (or join, if you prefer) in the body or header. If you don't get service, of course, feel free to drop me a note at dana.blankenhorn@att.net. And we want your feedback  as well, always. In time you'll also see an ad in this space (or very near it) to defray our higher costs. (You won't mind, will you?) 

As usual, I'm also talking to lots of new publishers, and you can be one of them. Remember that it's Journalism -- checking the news, calling people, listening carefully, writing on deadline -- which keeps the Clues coming, although I also handle consulting and commercial writing (ask about those rates via email). If you're looking for excellent work, as found in Atlanta Computer Currents , at PlugIn Datamation  or in Net Marketing magazine , among other locations, don't wait for the email -- give me a call at 404-373-7634. 

And now back to our show... 

The Truth About Beanies  

The folks at AdAge  asked me to write a piece about Knight-Ridder's Beanie Babies site recently , and I obeyed. I interviewed the editor who put it together (she's in Wichita), and the business-types in San Jose who agreed to "syndicate" it, through links in other papers' sites that make it seem the content is local when in fact it's from far away. 

Well, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. After turning in the story I was led to more research and learned some hard truths. I found an amateur's site , with tons of ads. I found an auction site  doing real electronic commerce  and providing valuable services like a "Beanie Calculator" to help people gauge the value of their collections. I talked more to the folks in San Jose, who spoke vaguely of soliciting ads from national toy makers for their site. And I talked to their ad people in Wichita, who admitted no locals had been banging down the door to buy ads, so they hadn't sold any. 

You can learn a lot from a bag of beans. The mistake made by Knight-Ridder is in thinking their site is a news site, period. It's not. It's a hobby site, meaning it's part obsession, part marketplace. One of their Wichita writers got so involved in her work she created an excellent column of Beanie rumors on her own time and became semi-famous on the Beanie "show circuit." Even then her bosses didn't take the hint. There's a guy near Chicago with plenty of money to hire her away... 

The Lesson of the Cereal Boxes  

I've mentioned it before, but fewer and fewer news sites include links in their stories. 

It's gone beyond Clueless to downright annoying. For instance, a piece in the Washington Post July 27 called "How to Take the World Wide Web to Court" by Margot Williams has ads and internal links, but no links within the text. Then, lo' and behold, at the bottom of the page are over a dozen links, like footnotes. But they're not really links. There's the name of a place, like "Oyez Oyez Oyez," which has interesting court cases, and there below it is the site's address -- oyez.nwu.edu. It's simple to copy the address, paste it to the top line of your browser, and hit enter, but why not just have Oyez Oyez Oyez

Editors and publishers give a number of reasons for this, all of them bad, false, wrong, and Clueless. You might not understand the link goes outside the protected environs of the Post site. Links are an "asset" to be sold, not something you give away. You might actually lose the link, and thus your place in the story (there's no such thing as a "back" button)? You might think the link is a recommendation, and sue the Post if you don't like what's on the other side. Why "give" someone else the attention you've "earned"? 

I wouldn't feel so strongly about this if so many news sites hadn't moved to it - including ZDNet, which one would assume knows better. I'd also feel less angry if I didn't know how useful links are to writers as well as readers. Last week, for instance, I felt unclear concerning my memory of Stratton Oakmont, which sued Prodigy for libel several years ago. I checked the Web and found both records of the original case and citations of the SEC's case against the company. By providing links, I covered myself against any charge of faulty memory or libel by a firm I was attacking in print. I also gave you, the reader, the tools with which to check out my story. To me, that's what Web journalism should offer, the service that lets you decide for yourself the truth of what you read. 

I date this attack of Cluelessness from a week-long seminar held last spring by Counsel Connect, the "American Lawyer" site, which mainly featured a bunch of idiot lawyers spinning nonsense at each other. The idea that links are recommendations or you can get sued for them, or you can legally enjoin others from having them, were a big part of that nonsense. (And lawyers wonder why we hate lawyers?) 

I'd like to think this is just a fad that will go away, but I'm not hopeful. Call it the lesson of the cereal boxes. When I first started buying cereal at places like Costco, they'd re-box two cereal boxes into a larger box. I'd toss the large box and pour as normal. Then they decided to get rid of the inner boxes. I saved one of my old boxes and suffered the inconvenience. More recently, General Mills began re-boxing Cheerios (the kids' favorite), in a five-pack. Each bag is too small for my old retail box, and the larger box they're stuffed the bags into is ridiculous. I have to keep it for weeks (to store multiple cereal bags) or risk oat flour, and it's very hard to find a place for it in my cupboards. If I want the "convenience" of the lower price, in other words, I have to pay for it. No good deed goes unpunished. 

But let's be straight, just between us, about this topic of links. Links are a convenience, they're built into the HTTP protocol. Name something and readers can link to it quickly, either through a cut-and-paste or a quick Yahoo. They're not a recommendation, and you can't be stopped from offering them. No matter what their lawyers say. 

Knock Off With the Portals Already  

The word "portal" has become a crutch reporters lean on so they won't have to tell the truth, namely that some people are Clued-in enough to succeed online, while others are being proven Clueless. 

MediaOne  is in the latter category. Their "DiveIn" sites, were crummy, and had crummy ads, so they're going down. They'll become the default home pages for cable modem service in the six markets now being built-out (slowly) to provide it. Meanwhile, Network Associates, never one to ignore a fad (or an excuse to juice the stock price) claims it will turn its Microsoft-based Web site into a "portal." They've hired a former Netscape executive to negotiate for the added content. If they concentrate on their strength (security), they could win millions of new page views. If they don't have a clear strategy, they could waste a few million bucks (but they'll make it up elsewhere - their products are OK.) Still the magic word, "portal," becomes a hook for Wall Street, Fleet Street, and Main Street to use in attacking (witlessly) or defending (equally witlessly) a straightforward business move. 

Henceforth we'll call it the 'p' word, and maybe its use will 'p'-ter out soon. 

Clued-in, Clueless 

Clued-in is Stanford University, which last week said it will offer its Master's in Electrical Engineering degree in a completely online mode starting this fall. This is the first major commitment of a "name" university to online education, spurred by a $450,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. 

Clueless is Microsoft's low-bandwidth online marketing effort. Spam me once, shame on me, spam me twice, shame on you. Then there's this from Sean Cafferky, who notes that their Hotmail unit offered a free CD of Explorer 4.0 at, a link that forwarded him to https://ie4cd.microsoft.com. Unfortunately, the SSL certificate on this link has expired, he writes. (When we tried the link, it wouldn't work at all.) This is truly Clueless merchandising. 

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