business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

While I admit to being something of an Internet junkie, I’m not completely convinced that web-based businesses are set to rule the world. That is until I get one of those great personal reminders of what an Internet business can be.

The latest reminder came courtesy of my steadily declining tennis game. In the process of getting run ragged on the court by my son, it became clear to me that I needed to improve quickly. The obvious solution of course was to blame my equipment. Ergo, I needed a new pair of tennis sneakers.

That shouldn’t be a hard call, except for one problem. Through the years I have managed to sprain my ankles so many times that I don’t feel comfortable playing tennis in anything other than what we used to call mid- or high-top sneakers. But as tennis has waned in popularity, these models have disappeared. Usually, I’m forced to buy basketball sneakers to make do.

Not any more.

A few months back I was hired to moderate a panel that included a representative from, the Internet shoe retailer. I had heard people rave about Zappos in the past, but I had no personal experience until I started doing my research. Immediately I was stunned. Certainly Zappos has shoes - tons of them to be exact. In fact, Zappos has way more than just shoes at this point. But Zappos offers something else: An experience.

I researched Zappos using my running shoes for guidance. (Please don’t ask why I have so many different sneakers. I don’t ask why you have so many pairs of black shoes!) Zappos showed me how to understand why my sneakers wore out and whether or not I pronate. It turns out I was actually buying the right running shoes, but didn’t know it nor did I know why. Zappos educated me.

The experience contrasted sharply with how I find most sneaker purchases (and, to be frank, most purchases in general) take place these days. At many sporting good stores I visit - Dick’s, Sports Authority and others - sales “help” is a misleading term. Mostly I pick out my own style, hunt in the stacks for the right size and make my own decision. If someone helps it is usually to dig through the piles of misplaced boxes.

Now, although I understand the challenges of cutting costs and finding engaged employees, the bottom line is the in-store experience stinks. At Zappos, I interacted with no employees, but the information listed with every pair of shoes helped me make the right choice. Paradoxically, Zappos managed to provide a superior customer service experience without any customer service.

That’s a situation that should concern any brick and mortar retailer. Sports Authority, for example, couldn’t and shouldn’t hope to match Zappos on my peculiar choice of tennis sneakers. In the long-tail world of Internet marketing, where small demand can be easily met, Zappos can build advantage by stocking less popular models, additional sizes and even “vegan shoes.” That’s where a dot-com should excel. (By the way, I have nothing against Sports Authority. In fact, put any retailers’ name in these sentences and the point should work.)

Building experience is where Sports Authority and other retailers should win. It’s not a matter of overwhelming customer service, but of offering the right kind of service to enhance the experience and provide the shopper enough value to come to the store. Certainly Sports Authority should certainly be able to match Zappos by having information to explain the products I’m buying. Sports Authority might even be able to offer me a catalog of unusual items that they can’t stock in stores. In short, take away the advantages held by the on-line retailer.

And then, Sports Authority – or any other brick-and-mortar retailer - should do something special that gives the added sense of value and makes me want to come back. In store excitement is essential, whether you are selling produce or sneakers. Without it, the dot-com wins.

Just like Zappos did.

The competitive landscape has changed. Forever.

For traditional retailers, the game plan must change too.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at .
KC's View:
Let me take a moment to offer a follow-up thought to Michael’s column.

If there are brick-and-mortar retailers out there under the impression that imposing a sales tax on Internet sales will somehow level the playing field, they are sadly mistaken.

Stories like Michael’s take place every day. If Internet retailers can appeal to middle aged guys like us, just imagine the appeal they have to an entire generation of shoppers with little if any loyalty to the traditional shopping experience.