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Mike's magical mystery e-tour

Check out Mike Yamamoto's first-hand tale of how not to meld the Old Economy with the new.

Department stores have made a science out of predicting the behavior of consumers, going so far as to hook up laser gadgets to peoples' foreheads to learn which items they noticed first in a retail setting.

If studying such minutia is so important, then why do so many brick-and-mortar stores pay so little attention to the online side of their operations?

Poor Web navigation and design are hardly exclusive to sites run by Old Economy companies; that is a topic worthy of its own column. But it's inexcusable for offline retailers to offer products in their stores and catalogs that can't be found easily--or at all--on their corresponding Web sites.

A couple of Christmases ago, I tried to order a plastic castle for my son from the Toys "R" Us catalog. After spending several hours just trying to get on the site, I finally logged in and found the right category--only to discover that the item advertised in the catalog was nonexistent on Toysrus.com.

The more things change
That was a while ago, so I figured that things must have improved in such basic left-hand, right-hand issues for brick-and-mortar stores and their online inventories.

Silly me.

The latest example of interdepartmental confusion involves another traditional retailing giant, Eddie Bauer. It started out simply enough, or so I thought: After finding an item in a company catalog sent to my home, I went online to buy it.

First, there was the usual problem of locating the product. (Why can't Web sites make this easier?) The item in question was an end table; I clicked on the tab marked "Home." The next page included links for "Furniture" and "Outdoor Furniture," so I chose the former.

It then offered three categories: beds, upholstery and dresses and armoires. Nary a table in sight. Several fruitless clicks later, I happened upon another link labeled "Shop by room." There I found the end table, under a newly discovered living room section.

Ready for checkout? Hardly. The table was the same as the one in the catalog, but it wasn't offered at the same sale price.

That's when my wife, fearing for the safety of our computer monitor, wisely took over. She picked up the phone and called the 800 number listed on the site.

"Did you look for the product on the catalog section of the site?" the customer rep asked. Confused, my wife said she thought that was precisely what we had been doing for the last half-hour. We were then directed to a small link on the front door of Eddiebauer.com labeled "Catalog order," where we were able to call up the item by typing in its catalog number, with the right price.

This whole exercise seemed perfectly logical to the young-sounding voice on the other end of the phone--the separate link, the two sets of inventories, the different prices for the same item. Of course it would; he and many others in his department visit this cyberstore every working day and know where everything is. I felt like inviting him to my house and asking him to find my car keys, which I keep in a basket behind a door in the kitchen, and then making him feel like an idiot for not knowing where they were.

Right hand, meet the left hand
Many brick-and-mortar retailers, even the largest ones, outsource their online operations to companies that have grown out of the e-commerce industry, not traditional retailing. That's no sin, but it behooves the retailer to make sure that its online subcontractors are adequately integrated into the workings of its stores and catalogs--at least to the point where they offer the same products at the same prices.

For some inexplicable reason, retail companies apparently view their Web operations as a foreign entity that is simply grafted onto the side of the main organization, not melded in any natural way for the benefit of the consumer. It reminds me of some grotesque laboratory cloning experiment from a B-rate movie.

Eddie Bauer, for example, proudly states that its award-winning Web site is the work of one Fry Multimedia, which has built e-commerce operations for other large retailers, including 1-800-Flowers, Crate & Barrel and Godiva Chocolatier. Fry's top officers list impressive credentials in technology and consulting, but their bios are surprisingly absent of direct experiences in running retail businesses.

To be fair, it should be noted that Eddiebauer.com ranked first among 23 apparel Web sites surveyed by Gomez Advisors, which reviewed such factors as customer confidence and on-site resources. But I have to wonder how well Eddie Bauer Inc., a Seattle institution since 1920, understood the work of a Web consultancy from Ann Arbor, Mich., that started up in 1993, and vice-versa.

I'll have plenty of time to think about it. We got a notice that our table, ordered weeks ago, would not be delivered until May. Naturally, the e-mail included no apologies for delay--as with everything else, it should make perfect sense.