The Smartest E-Tailing Start-Up of All

Anyone these days can write about dot-com failures. Today let me tell you about a big dot-com success.

According to Forrester Research, the top e-tailing site today is iQVC. The site finished on top of Forrester’s Power Rankings last month, ratings for which survey results are combined with some actual online shopping experience.

I could have given Forrester this story six years ago. That’s when I first ran up against the iQVC success story — I was writing then for Interactive Age.

There are many important factors in making a retailing site successful, and we can learn a lot of them by looking at iQVC.

The first secret to iQVC is consistency. The site hasn’t really changed much (except in superficial ways) since 1995. The pages are still delivered based on a database. The business model also remains identical: The web site fills out the product line hinted at on the QVC cable network.

The network is the second secret. Since 1995 most top sites have been adjuncts to cable networks. Cable divides the market by interests or lifestyles, and sites serving the same interests and lifestyles have a guaranteed, regular audience as well as a direction.

But consistency and traffic have no guarantees. Compare the QVC home page design with that of its chief rival, the Home Shopping Network (HSN). Notice how busy the HSN page is and how it wastes space by advertising products that are better seen on TV.

iQVC also places product headings at the top of the page, and even though it lists all headings, it keeps its search box at the top as well. HSN tries to fold its entire stock into detailed menus along the side of the page. iQVC sells only QVC products and products from sites it has signed alliances with. HSN wastes time (and goodwill) by throwing up other sites’ ads when you click on its page.

Properly scaled fulfillment is another success secret. The QVC site piggybacked on the QVC TV network, of course, but the company also spent money upfront, integrating the two channels so that it could capture those savings later. Sites that fail to do this make a big mistake.

Concentrating on the blocking and tackling of customer service is yet another success secret. iQVC got top marks on this from Forrester, and it’s no accident. It’s something you have to work on every day. The benefits come long after the work in the reputation and brand you build.

Here’s another success secret: monitored chats and bulletin boards. iQVC requires that users register before allowing them to use these features and makes sure those users aren’t left alone. This increases traffic, goodwill, and the value of time spent using the system.

Sure, you can’t copy all these success secrets without a cable network, but you can learn from them. Here’s how:

  • An old media alliance builds your traffic at low cost.

  • You can best take advantage of that alliance by doing what the web does best — adding detail — rather than copying mass production techniques.
  • Scale your fulfillment to your sales to guarantee a profit on every sale.
  • Integrate from the beginning not as an afterthought.

Retailing and merchandising are detailed disciplines. They’re not learned all at once, any more than web retailing is learned all at once. Now that the excitement of dot-com mania has died, you have time to learn that discipline. There’s no better way to start than by going to school on iQVC, the smartest e-tailing start-up of them all.

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