Sony recently started promoting the WebTV set-top on its main site. The ad links viewers to Sony's online store, where consumers can buy the unit directly from Sony. Though Sony has been selling the WebTV online for some time, only recently did it give the product prominent play.
Microsoft is currently attempting to bolster WebTV in the face of a looming TV threat from archrival AOL.
In the United States, Sony already sells its personal computers on the Net, as well as some accessories for products such as video cameras, but it has been reluctant to expand its roster for fear of potential conflicts with its traditional retail partners. Company executives only recently admitted publicly to having a desire to sell more products directly to consumers, a move first reported by CNET News.com.
"I wonder if it's connected to the fact that Web TV is not setting the world on fire," said Barry Parr, commerce analyst for International Data Corp.
Eventually, the company said it will expand its online product lineup to include audio-video products such as TVs and video cameras. The move to sell the WebTV product online is one of the first concrete steps the company has taken in the United States in that direction.
Earlier this year, Sony opened up the gates in Japan with the launch of its PlayStation 2 game console. Sony Computer Entertainment let customers order their game consoles online prior to the system's launch this month; customers could pick their systems up from one of 11 outlets, including 7-Eleven Japan, which owns a sprawling network of 8,000 convenience stores nationwide.
Although Sony has had success with its notebook computers, most of the other products it sells are either small-ticket items or items that aren't sold in great volume by retailers. In that regard, Microsoft's WebTV device, itself a blend of TV and computer technology that has had a hard time finding a mass market audience, is a perfect product to experiment with as Sony tries to feel out its strategy.
The company needs to move soon if it wants to keep up with aggressive upstarts like Amazon.com. Forrester is predicting that online sales of consumer electronics goods will reach $11.7 billion in the United States alone by 2004. In comparison, total consumer electronics goods sold in 1999 totaled around $80 billion, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
Sony only recently authorized a limited number of retailers with online sites to sell Sony products, including 800.com, the sole Net-only retailer on the list. Sony products are already available from other online sites like Amazon.com, although there are differing levels of warranty support if a dealer isn't authorized to sell Sony products. Dealers also must meet certain requirements for customer service, product presentation and product availability.