The recent holiday season was dismal for most retailers, but online retailers credited the deployment of new information technologies for enabling them to grow sales that far outpaced the overall sector.
Software from Art Technology Group Inc., Found Inc., Active Decisions Inc., Endeca Technologies Inc. and others helped some e-tailers improve sales and conversion rates and lower their shopping cart abandonment rates—and in some cases, drive more customers to retail stores.
In the offline world, same-store retail sales last month were up just 1 percent from the same month the year before, according to the The Goldman Sachs Group Inc. index of same-store sales.
However, Goldman Sachs, in combination with NetRatings Inc.s Nielsen/NetRatings unit and Harris Interactive Inc., reported online retail sales up 24 percent, to $13.7 billion, for the period from Nov. 2 to Dec. 27.
While much of that growth can be attributed to the natural maturing of the e-channel and free shipping promotions, online retailers give some of the credit to new technology.
Athletic footwear and apparel retailer Finish Line Inc. moved its 3-year-old Web site to ATGs Commerce Server 5.5 in mid-November after it had run on Microsoft Corp.s Site Server. The ATG technology gave Finish Lines site the improved stability and performance the company was looking for. It also improved the rate at which the site converted browsers to buyers to the 2 to 3 percent range, which is in line with the industry average and far above the rate in the 2001 holiday season, said Kent Zimmerman, director of e-commerce at Indianapolis-based Finish Line.
"We have the ability to reply to certain trends, which has had a positive effect on our conversion rate," said Zimmerman. "We see how people interact with the site and use that data to make decisions on what to present to the customer."
Finish Lines site also deployed Founds iCaM inventory and order management system to increase the number of products available online this past holiday season, which Zimmerman also credits with increasing the sites conversion rate.
"ATG gave us the ability to integrate easily with the Found system," Zimmerman said.
Zimmerman described Finish Lines online holiday season as "better than average," although he conceded that the site is probably cannibalizing some sales from Finish Lines retail stores; however, he said the company hasnt assessed that yet.
But improved Web sites dont necessarily mean the online channel will simply divert business from other channels. RadioShack Canada, a division of InterTan Canada Ltd., deployed Active Decisions AEP (Active Enterprise Platform) guided selling engine at its Web site, which officials credit with driving more business to its 1,000 retail stores across Canada, since customers can research products online before coming into the store.
The application, branded RadioShack Shopping Assistant, guides customers through comparisons of products and makes recommendations based on criteria that customers select.
The guided selling engine went live at RadioShack.ca Dec. 16. RadioShack Canadas vice president of advertising, Lyndsay Walter, said the company doesnt yet have hard data on how much the software helped improve sales or conversion rates, beyond anecdotal evidence.
"Just looking at the clicks, we know that people are using it; we know they have an interest in it," said Walter, in Barrie, Ontario.
Employees are using Shopping Assistant in the store as well to help customers make the right purchasing decision, Walter said, which helps RadioShack Canada save on training expenses. Walter uses click-stream data on what products customers are looking at on the site to plan advertising campaigns.
"Weve always graded high on providing information that customers can trust," Walter said. "This is a convenient manner for us to fulfill customer needs to learn and know about the products we sell."
Improved search technologies on Web sites also played a factor in driv-ing sales. Christianbook.com, the Web subsidiary of Christian Book Distributors Inc., deployed Endecas InFront in August.
While the site enjoyed a 15 to 20 percent increase in customer volume this holiday season, it credits InFront with helping it decrease its shopping cart abandonment rate by 30 percent: When customers put items in their "book bag" on the site, they were 30 percent more likely to complete the purchase than they were the prior holiday season.
"We allowed folks to find exactly what they were looking for in fewer clicks," said Mark Pepin, IT manager for Web development at Christianbook.com, in Peabody, Mass.