Forget Sleigh bells. That jingling and ring-ting-tingling you’re hearing this Yuletide is cash pouring into the coffers of e-commerce sites — to the projected tune of more than $6 billion, according to analysts at Jupiter Communications — and it’s a siren song that is enticing even the most conservative brick-and-mortar merchants and catalog companies onto the Web. According to the National Retail Federation, more than three quarters of major retail chains either plan to sell online or have already begun doing so. That’s good news for consumers: With their carefully cultivated brand names on the line, these established emporiums have even more reason to avoid the all-too-common customer dissatisfactions — site crashes, insufficient inventory, delivery screw-ups — that tainted e-commerce last Christmas. As major merchants get wired, e-customers may find online service almost as attentive as in-store treatment.
Want proof? Ambitious e-tailers have addressed last year’s problems with bigger warehouses and upgraded servers, while stores and catalog companies, which have deep experience delivering on customer orders, are likely to set an even higher standard. Plus, many are offering a stockingful of interactive goodies. At Lands’ End.com (www.landsend.com), the ”Lands’ End Live” button summons salespeople to answer questions immediately by phone or text screen. At the Victoria’s Secret site (www.victoriassecret.com), the Bra Salon includes a size-calculating function that also locates bras to match your preferences. More elaborately, Lands’ End and JCPenney (www.jcpenney.com) feature customizable virtual models that demonstrate how their clothes might look on you. And hopeful boys and girls can write Silicon Age letters to Santa via ”wish lists” — i.e., gift registries — at sites for Eddie Bauer (www.eddiebauer.com), FAO Schwarz (www.faoschwarz.com), Crutchfield Electronics (www.crutchfield.com), and Powell’s Books (www.powells.com).
In fact, many click-and-mortar retailers offer the ultimate in interactivity: E-customers can walk into their local store for face-to-face help with online orders. What’s more, companies such as computer chain Circuit City (www.circuitcity.com) let you pick up Web purchases at nearby stores; others, including Gap (www.gap.com) and JCPenney, allow you to return or exchange merchandise in person.
Meanwhile, as the mall moves onto the Web — in the form of such shopping portals as iVillage’s Shopping Solutions, which links to gap.com and macys.com — the Web is also moving into malls. Eight Gap locations — and soon every one of Borders’ 270 stores — contain in-store Internet kiosks where customers can browse or order from the companies’ websites.
Such innovations may keep traditional merchants from getting their chestnuts roasted on an open fire. Still, even if a site’s only customers are people who would otherwise shop at that store, having an online outpost has become an economic necessity. ”It’s better to cannibalize your own sales than be eaten by someone else,” says Scott Silverman, vice president of Internet retailing for the NRF. And there’s no shortage of fine young cannibals on the Web this holiday season.