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Lands' End gives Web shopping the personal touch

The catalog retailer is trying to make shopping online more like going to the mall with a friend.

Lands' End is trying to make shopping online more like going to the mall with a friend.

To help eliminate the isolation of online shopping, the catalog apparel retailer this week launched two new services on its Web site--"Lands' End Live" and "Shop With a Friend." The features will enable two people at separate locations to shop together and compare notes on what to buy through instant chat. The company said shoppers need no special software or plug-in to participate beyond a browser.

The added features on the Lands' End site come at a time when customers are demanding human interaction from online retailers. A recent survey by market research company Jupiter Communications found that 90 percent of online customers prefer some sort of human contact during an e-commerce transaction.

"We asked ourselves 'What are some of the perks of shopping in a store that we don't have online yet?' " said Bill Bass, vice president of e-commerce at Lands' End. "Shopping can be a very social experience. We decided to offer customers the option of shopping with a friend or a salesperson," Bass said.

"Lands' End Live" works as follows: a customer sends an email to customer service requesting the help of a personal assistant as they peruse the site. The customer can then browse pages of the online catalog, while asking the personal shopper questions about size, color, price, availability, or fabrics, for example, as the two parties look at the same pages. The assistant can also help mix-and-match outfits and answer questions. This can be done over instant chat or the customer can click on a "call me" button on the site and talk over a cell phone or telephone while viewing the same Web pages.

"Shop With a Friend," meanwhile, lets two friends in separate locations browse the same pages, while comparing prices and exchanging opinions over instant chat. Both services should particularly appeal to customers with only one telephone line because instant chat replaces the need to call customer service or a friend for advice. Webline Communications helped develop the services with Lands' End, which only a year ago was reporting flat sales and inventory problems.

Since October 1998, when David Dyer took over as president, Lands' End has zeroed in on boosting catalog sales, improving the online site, and cutting costs. The company cut back on costs by eliminating 93 jobs and closing three of 19 U.S. outlets.

The strategy appears to have paid off. Lands' End recorded second-quarter profits of $4.5 million compared with a $61,000 loss for the year-ago quarter.

Online sales helped by bringing in $61 million, up from $18 million the previous year. So far this year, Internet sales have more than doubled from the same period last year, according to Charlotte LaComb, Lands' Ends' investor relations manager.

Catalogs are still the primary business of Lands' End, but LaComb said that the company's Internet success is helping to change its strategy.

"The big nut is when we get to the point of moving the catalog customer over to the Internet," LaComb said. "We need to reduce the costs of the mailings. The cost to produce and mail is about 17 percent of sales, and that's something we'd like to cut."