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Time Warner's e-commerce strategy

The media giant wants to create an e-commerce hub to integrate its myriad properties, and its Giftfinder offering may be a preview.

Is Giftfinder the face of Time Warner to come?

Giftfinder, an online shopping guide, was launched without fanfare a few months ago on Time Incorporated New Media's much-maligned Pathfinder site. Though it has kept a low profile, it could represent an early move toward Time Warner's goal of combining its myriad Web properties into a hefty e-commerce hub.

A link to Giftfinder Is Time Warner next in merger  mania? has remained at the bottom of Pathfinder's home page since its soft launch during the holiday season, according to Christin Shanahan, director of commerce at Time Incorporated New Media. The service contains a shopping search agent powered by Junglee and links to commerce partners such as Barnes & Noble, Cyberian Outpost, and Office Depot. In addition, it sells gift subscriptions to paper versions of Time Warner magazines such as Time, People, Entertainment Weekly, and Sports Illustrated.

Last month, a source close to the company told CNET News.com that Time Warner is focusing on developing an umbrella user interface to connect its array of properties. It could take the form of a start-up page on a cable TV set-top box, for example, or a portal or "destination" site. The links to Giftfinder, which can be found on every Pathfinder property, may indicate the beginnings of that development.

A successful Web strategy has eluded Time Warner; the media giant suffered a great deal of criticism for its unwieldy Pathfinder site. One of the biggest challenges for the company is how to tie together its disparate operations with widely varying goals, ranging from television programming to magazine publishing.

With Giftfinder and other initiatives, "We're trying to create a lot of platforms that make sense, depending on where you come into the network," Shanahan said. "We've created it in a way so that it can be very adaptable to how all our [Time Warner] businesses online evolve."

Shanahan added, "I hope everything we're doing are seeds of something very big in the future."

As previously reported, Time Warner is venturing forth into unifying its hodgepodge of Web sites under a universal e-commerce user interface. This interface is one attempt for the media giant to introduce consistency among its often independent news, entertainment, and recording online properties.

While the company has not made any announcements, Time Warner has taken small steps toward developing a common e-commerce infrastructure among its sites. Recently it appointed Michael Pepe to head its e-commerce consolidation initiative. It will be Pepe's role to find a way to bring separate Time Warner Web entities together.

"Michael's tapping into every division and everyone's expertise right now, so a lot of people are wrapping their minds around this," said Shanahan.

Still, creating synergy will be challenging for a company that has long prided itself on its decentralized structure. Already, divisions such as Warner Bros. Online and CNN have created sites that are leading lives of their own.

For example, Warner Bros. Online's community site ACMECity has enjoyed steady growth since its launch in January, and plans to further tap into the direct marketing revenue potential its fan sites can generate. CNN continues to rank as one of the most trafficked news sites on the Web, leveraging its television audience to cross promote its Web site.

Nonetheless, Time Warner hopes it can rein in these sites without diluting their developed brands. Because, as Time's venture into Pathfinder has shown, putting an array of strong brands under one roof does not guarantee success.

Many have speculated that Time Warner would simply acquire its way into becoming an online powerhouse by taking a controlling stake in a Web portal. Time Warner has been rumored to have talked to AltaVista and Lycos for possible stakes in the companies.

However, a source close to Time Warner said the company's appetite for a portal acquisition has never been lower.

For its part, Giftfinder contains a promotional link to the People Store, an online shopping site Time launched more than six months ago for the magazine's online readers, including those from its America Online site, said Shanahan. The site primarily sells books from Barnes & Noble as well as music and videos by Total E, a Columbia House Web site.