IQ News: Raising The Bar

Online shoppers want more this year, and AOL is determined to deliver.
While e-tailers large and small dream of cashing in on the expected windfall from online sales this second e-holiday season, the biggest players are likely to enjoy the lion’s share of the business–estimated at $4 billion between Thanksgiving and New Year’s by Cambridge, Mass.-based research firm Forrester Research. Whoever the winners may be, they’ll have to earn their money the old-fashioned way: by satisfying customers.
While last year’s mission was simply getting people into the virtual shops, that’s no longer enough. “Last year, shopping online was a novelty, so users were prepared to put up with a lot of obstacles just to say they actually bought something online,” says Patrick Gates, vice president of e-commerce at AOL, the Dulles, Va.-based online powerhouse. “This year, we knew that people would have much higher expectations.”
In an effort to meet those expectations, AOL has expanded its Shop@AOL offerings to include such new product categories as furniture and software. It also has enhanced functionality with such features as quick checkout and a shopping search engine. Other improvements are in the works. Beginning this week, AOL will roll out a new shopping feature that Gates calls “Live Products,” an interactive pop-up window that lets users test-drive goods ranging from watches to microwaves before they buy. The technology enabling the demos originally was developed for fighter-plane simulations for the Israeli Army.
Despite such innovations, Gates insists that the Shop@AOL experience is ultimately about great customer care, products and services, not technology. “Where our strength really comes from is being able to say, ‘Hey, we don’t want to go after gee-whiz technology that’s way ahead of consumer behavior,’ ” says Gates. “We want to give them things they understand today and can use today.”
So far, AOL’s efforts at satisfying mousepad shoppers appear to be paying off: During the recent Thanksgiving weekend, nearly 4 million of AOL’s 19 million-plus members shopped until they virtually dropped, triple the traffic from the same period last year. Of that group, 600,000 shoppers were e-commerce newbies. Perhaps most telling is the fact that most will be back for more.The Internet Research Group, Wayne, Pa., reports that 98 percent of AOL shoppers say they will shop through AOL again.
Given AOL’s success in the e-commerce arena, it’s no surprise that Forrester Research has dubbed AOL’s online mall “the Internet’s Miracle Mile.”–Kipp Cheng