It's All About Trust

With shoppers feeling jumpy, reliability is the e-factor that will lure them this Christmas

This year, I'll be plunking my entire gift budget down at Mom, Dad, kids, cousins, you're all getting flannel. It's not because of a coupon or shipping giveaway or sleek features on the site.

It's because Bean has been in business since 1912. The company likes to hire the same folks back every year to work the phones and staff warehouses. The grandson of the founder runs the place.

And it has been online more than a year. I trust that the company knows what it's doing. And this year, that's all I need.

Trust has emerged as a crucial factor in the holiday shopping season. Consumers, rocked by economic woes and war terrors at home and abroad, are looking for a feeling of safety and security in their annual holiday buying binge. E-tailers hoping to lure holiday shoppers will need to incorporate this mindset into their marketing messages to drive traffic to their sites. It's not enough this year to tell consumers that you'll be cheap or convenient or even on time. This year, you need to be clear that you are untouched by the madness--that your shipping partners are safe, your warehouse is secure, your vendors are old friends, and you're not so close to fiscal ruin that you'll disappear before the season is over.

E-tailers should be using their ads to make that trust pitch this season. Online merchants have a unique window to connect with shoppers this year. Plenty of experts have pointed out the obvious potential for e-tailing. Nervous consumers, looking to avoid the real or perceived dangers of public shopping malls, may opt for the safety of the virtual store and the private package-delivery service. In a survey of 400 shoppers conducted Sept. 17 by Vividence Corp., consumers said their top concerns this holiday season were safety and family, and that those emotional issues topped the reasons they would consider shopping online. "The fallout from the tragic events of September 11 may provide an unexpected opportunity," says Jeff Greenfield, CEO of Vividence.

To seal the deal, e-tailers will need to reach out and make the case to consumers that they are, in this age of uneasiness, trustworthy. Established traditional retailers have an edge here, given their long track records. Take J.C. Penney Co. (JCP ). A recent Web ad for its online store reads: "J.C. Penney: Security. Trust. Quality." But Internet companies can trade on trust, too. Newly relaunched (ETYS ) devotes a section of its Web site and its e-mail ads to the 80-year-old history of its new owner, KB Holdings Inc., parent of KB Toys. Beauty site hopes to encourage trust in its site by piggybacking on the marketing of its well-known cosmetics makers. Pitches to visit the Web site will be included in print and e-mail advertising of the brands it carries, including Clinique. The tactic taps an important consumer emotion, says Gloss President Peter Hirshberg. "We want to create a trust relationship. That's suddenly a lot more top-of-mind for consumers," he says.

Not everyone has noticed. So far, most Internet merchants are clinging to their old standby marketing tactic: cheap deals. (AMZN ) is offering $5 off a $50 purchase. (JWN ) has a free shipping offer. touts a gift with purchase. It's marketing based almost entirely on price and it's off the mark with consumers. New Yorker Patti Aliventi will spend most of her holiday budget online this year, but she doesn't plan on trying out any newbies or scouring the Net for the best deals. Instead, she'll focus on e-stores with solid reputations. "These days, trust is a big factor. I like to know that Internet retailers know what they are doing." Consumers like Aliventi are in a more emotional mood--one that e-tailers have to embrace to make a success of the season.

By Ellen Neuborne

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