When Louisa Melcher, age 18 months, lost her beloved doll last month, her mother turned to the Internet for help. The Melchers live in California, but Dolly had been purchased at F.A.O. Schwarz in New York. Louisa's mom figured this would be a quick fix: Log on, order Dolly II, pay extra for Fedex, and maybe only one night of sleep would be lost in the household.
But the Melcher family hit on a practice that is likely to be the undoing of many a retailer with a bricks-and-clicks strategy. faoschwarz.com is not all of F.A.O. Schwarz offline. In fact, it only has a smattering of the toy store's merchandise. And Dolly, a cuddly Corolle babydoll with brushable blond hair, was not among them. "I no sooner finish telling her `Don't worry, Dolly will be back tomorrow' than I find out the Web site is FAO Schwarz.Lite.com," says Louisa's mother, Amanda Biers-Melcher.
This is all too familiar. Traditional retailers, looking for a quick way to get online and compete with the rising tide of e-tailers, are routinely putting up Web sites that pale in comparison with their real stores. They do it, they say, because a smaller selection of merchandise online is much easier to keep in stock and cybershoppers will be less disappointed by inventory outages.
That last statement is wishful thinking on the part of the retailers. In fact, many consumers are quite disappointed when they venture online to their favorite stores, only to find them far less satisfying than the real thing. That undermines the whole purpose of getting a Web site in the first place.
Old Navy Stores' Web site is a prime offender. Granted, Gap Inc., the parent company, is working to add e-commerce. But right now, it's a tease. I see a cute pink tank top. I can learn all about it: the size, colors, 100% cotton, imported, even the price: $8.95. But the motto of this site is: See it online, buy it in the store. Is that supposed to be funny? I'm not laughing. I'm buying my tank top from landsend.com, which has not made the double-barreled mistake of disappointing my expectations and making a joke of its error at the same time.
Limited or no merchandise may make for a more manageable Web operation, but it doesn't advance a retailer's brand. In fact, it can do it damage. Companies that would never dream of letting one store site get away with sub-par performance will let their Web site lag. Most traditional retailers still view the Internet as a side business rather than as part of their core strategy, says consultant Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail. "Just as you would expect consistency from store to store, you expect consistency from store to Web site."
For retailers who stock tens of thousands of items in their bricks-and-mortar stores, managing a similar-size undertaking online is a daunting prospect. But there are certain companies paving the way. Nordstromshoes.com replicates its vaunted shoe selection online by using a blended inventory strategy. The most popular lines are handled by the company's own distribution facility. The other half of the Web site's inventory ships directly from the factory to the consumer. It's a creative solution.
Traditional retailers have spent millions to get their brands online. Now they need to realize that, online, in many cases, half a store is worse than none.