Going That Extra Inch

When Eric Pegureo-Winters visited Landsend.com early this summer, he struggled to find a shirt he had previously seen in a catalog. So he clicked a "help" icon, and a sales rep took control of his browser and led him to a picture of the shirt. Then the rep used instant messaging to describe embroidery not visible on the screen. Pegureo-Winters, a 31-year-old manager at a Covington (Ky.) investment firm, eagerly bought the $50 garment. "I've never received that kind of service online," he says. "It felt like we were walking down the aisle in a store."

Since launching its Web site in 1995, the Dodgeville (Wis.) catalog retailer has blazed the path toward blending people and technology in Web shopping. Its technology is chosen to highlight the aw-shucks mentality trained into 2,500 telephone reps. "They show real sensitivity to striking the right balance between technology and personal contact," says Rashi Glazer, a business professor at the University of California at Berkeley. "They're among the best at it."

Bucking the prevailing dot-com belief that lean staffs and little service--as long as they came with low prices--would be enough to draw customers, Landsend.com has made contrarianism pay. Last year's sales of $138 million were 10% of Lands' End Inc.'s total. And 30% of the site's customers had never bought from a Lands' End catalog. Most telling: More than half the people who put goods in a Landsend.com shopping cart wind up buying them, compared with 22% at all consumer e-tail sites, according to market research firm Datamonitor PLC. "People buying a product want to feel it, understand it, and ask questions about it," says Robert LoCascio, president of New York's LivePerson Inc., which provides service reps for Web sites--but not Landsend.com.

Other e-tailers are starting to learn Landsend.com's tricks. About 2% to 3% of e-tailers offer chat with sales reps. Some have adopted features such as operator browser control and "virtual models," which let shoppers build a cyber-mannequin of their body type--then mix and match styles and colors on it. "Lands' End is very leading-edge, and I salute them," says Paul Onnen, technology chief at Nordstrom.com, which is adding instant messaging.

Online selling is helping prop up Lands' End Inc. in tough times. The company lost $1.6 million in the first six months of this fiscal year, as sales fell 4% to $521.4 million. (Preppy clothes are getting the chill.) Says Credit Suisse First Boston's Richard N. Baum: "[Without] Landsend.com, their core business would have shown more erosion." By Christmas, Landsend.com will add hush-hush personalization features that Senior Vice-President for E-Commerce Bill Bass calls innovative enough to be patentable. "Nobody has anything remotely close," he boasts. That could be the kind of customer service that fits like a glove.

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