A New Beginning for Sears
Big retailer Sears Holdings Corp. is turning its flagship Web site, Sears.com, into a shopping site that could offer more merchandise, more categories and more features than its legendary Big Book.
In the past few months, Sears has added more than 250,000 music offerings, movies and video games to the site; opened an online software boutique for downloading programs for taxes, graphics, finances and computer security; and recently began selling books online for the first time.
"We wanted to round out our assortment in the entertainment category, and in order to provide a complete experience, we want to make sure that we are offering the complete assortment of not only music and movies, but also books," says Imran Jooma, vice president of e-commerce at Sears Holdings, which is based in Hoffman Estates, Ill. "We want to be a one-stop destination for our entertainment customers."
In addition, Jooma says, as the company adds more products, it also is enriching the site with new features and functionality.
"Since we have so many new products on the site, we want to make sure that our customers can find the right product," he says. "So we've enhanced the site with new tools, features and functionality."
Sears.com definitely is on a roll. In fact, according to Jooma, "For the past year and a half there has been a very concentrated effort by Sears to make sure its online and e-commerce functionality is as easy to navigate as possible, and over the last few months we've been trying to make Sears.com more engaging."
A campaign for the prom set
An example of that is a prom-dress campaign -- dubbed Prom Premiere 2008 -- which was launched in March.
The campaign, created by Sears and WhittmanHart Interactive, a Chicago-based digital communications agency, involved the launch of a Prom Premiere Web site that allows girls to share photos of dresses with family and friends via e-mail and Facebook applications.
The site -- which is available through May and can be reached via Sears' homepage or Sears.com/prom -- offers an interactive "red carpet" experience, greeting visitors with music and virtual photographers. Visitors can clickthrough the online gallery of dresses from the Short & Sassy, Glitter & Glam, Ball Gowns and Slim & Sleek collections, then can share one of the more than 70 styles online with their Facebook friends or via e-mail.
The site also offers one-click links to shoes, purses and other accessories from Sears.com to complete the prom-night ensemble.
"We wanted to create an application that captured the essence of prom within a transactional experience," Jooma says. "Prom Premiere 2008 is about girls becoming the star on their biggest night. It evokes celebrity and [a] movie-premiere [atmosphere] with music, red-carpet visuals, camera flashes and romanticized product displays. The experience allows girls to quickly browse through selections and share their favorite dresses with friends on Facebook or through e-mail."
Jooma says the social component of the campaign was introduced "so girls could seek feedback from their circle of friends before making their purchasing decisions."
It also allows Sears to take the shopping experience outside of Sears.com to other channels where younger consumers - and prom shoppers in particular -- are congregating, Jooma says.
"This is the way younger consumers communicate today," he adds. "And we felt it was a great way to be able to sell these red-carpet looks to this group for an affordable price, which really is the key."
Sears supported Prom Premiere 2008 with an ad campaign on Facebook that ran mid-March through April and targeted Facebook's 2.4 million 15- to 17-year-old girls who are registered users of the site. (It also ran in-store displays and signage through May to promote the campaign. As of late April, Sears.com already sold out of some of the 70-plus prom styles, according to Jooma.)
While Prom Premiere 2008 is Sears.com's latest Web 2.0 effort, it's not the first. For last fall's back-to-school season, for example, Sears.com created its "e-Me" experience, which allowed tween users to create a customizable avatar that looked like them, Jooma says.
"The avatar could be dressed in Sears' apparel, which the user could then save and use externally on other social networking spaces, such as Facebook, instant messaging environments, etc.," he explains, adding that Sears is using the program, along with Prom Premiere 2008, to test whether the approach is the best way for Sears.com to combine e-commerce with social networking.
"This is what I'd call a learning experience," he says. "We are rolling this stuff out and measuring customer engagement, and we will continue to evolve all these programs.
"Because social networking is in its infancy right now, everybody is trying to experiment with it, and this is our way of getting our feet wet," he adds. "We are really working to understand the behaviors and engagement, and modifying [the programs] and making changes based on what we have learned."
Earlier this spring, Kmart -- the retailer that is also a wholly owned subsidiary of Sears Holdings -- launched an online initiative called Kmart Style Showoff at Kmart.com/style.
The initiative is Kmart's nationwide search for the country's next fashionista to serve as a fashion ambassador for the Kmart brand.
"What we did was create a platform that would show people that you don't have to spend a lot of money to have great style," says Amy Dimond, a spokeswoman for Sears Holdings. "Anyone over the age of 18 can go online, submit a photo of themselves in clothing purchased from Kmart, upload the photo of themselves to the site and provide a ‘Style Statement' that explains the inspiration for their designs."
Entries will be categorized and judged within four style segments -- casual, classic, trendy or sporty -- and then judged again by a celebrity panel on both style and substance.
The celebrity judging panel features high-profile stylists and influencers in the fashion industry, including actress, model and designer Jaclyn Smith; style guru Jorge Ramón; Kmart executive vice president of apparel and design Lisa Schultz; fashion expert Kiersten Geiger of Glamour magazine; and Barbara Bundy, vice president of education at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising.
The grand-prize winner will receive a chance to appear in Kmart's national advertising campaigns, as well as spend a day working with the brand's private label designers in its New York City-based design center.
The winner also will receive $10,000 in Kmart gift cards and a trip for two to New York City, which includes theater tickets.
The competition began on March 9. Finalists were to be judged May 6 in Los Angeles and the winner to be announced May 13.
"It's been a really interesting way for people to tell their stories by using an online channel, and the site created a lot of excitement and a lot of engagement with the customer," Dimond says.
Digital marketing initiatives
Social networking isn't the only marketing technique in Sears.com's arsenal. The site also relies on what can be considered more traditional interactive marketing techniques such as e-mail, search engine marketing optimization and Web analytics.
"We do have an e-mail file both with Sears.com and Kmart.com that we utilize, and we have a contact strategy where we communicate with our customers weekly through e-mail," Jooma says.
"[E-mail is] a better media because our customers have provided us with their e-mail addresses and given us permission to contact them, and they want to hear from us. And in some cases, it is our customers' preferred method of communication," he explains, adding that the company regularly uses natural search, search advertising and online display advertising, as well.
"We believe in using all of these in some combination in order to have an effective campaign," Jooma says. "Search, in general, is critical for Sears.com."
Sears.com also does A/B testing -- where a baseline control sample is compared to a variety of single-variable test samples -- on a regular basis to test online advertising campaigns and landing pages.
In addition, Jooma says, "We use Web analytics on a daily basis to measure all the key attributes on the site, including traffic, conversion, average order value and engagement metrics."
Tips for Entering the Social Media Space: It's All About Human Nature
eM+C asked Chad Ciesil, executive vice president of client services at WhittmanHart Interactive -- which helped create Prom Premiere 2008 -- to offer tips on what to think about before taking the social media plunge. Here are his responses:
1. People like people who listen and get to know them, and they want their brands to do the same. “Listen to your consumers, and let them be your guide,” Ciesil says. “It’s funny how often we forget this basic tenet when exploring new forms of media.”
Ciesil adds that if you haven’t already, define your consumer. How so? By creating online personas, or specific and concise target definitions. “Don’t try to create an experience that will please everyone,” he warns. “You must narrow your focus. Who represents your best opportunity for growth? Who are your heavy users? Who are your influencers? Create experiences that are unique and personal for each of your target segments.”
Next, Ciesil recommends getting involved yourself. “If you want to truly understand what your consumers want in the social media world, you need to be there with them,” he says. “As marketers, this is part of our job. Experiment, explore and investigate. Be a part of this world.”
Once you’ve immersed yourself in social media, Ciesil says it’s critical to understand how your consumer lives in this space. How should you go about doing that? Ciesil recommends conducting research and figuring out what your consumers need, what motivates them and how they are using social media throughout each step of the transaction/purchase process. “Uncover the insights that will allow you to understand your consumers’ rational motivations, and then move beyond those to understand how your brand can connect on an emotional level,” he adds.
Then, go where your consumers lead, Ciesil says. “You don’t have to create your own social media site. And many times you simply shouldn’t,” he says. “There are plenty of existing communities where consumers already live and where you can begin. For example, if you have a health-focused brand, become a ‘valued participant’ in the Yahoo Health community.”
2. People like people who have something valuable to contribute, and brands are no different. People are tired of marketers intruding on their daily lives. “When you’re in the way, you risk becoming a nuisance or, even worse, irrelevant,” Ciesil says. “Instead, become a valued participant in your consumers’ social media experience. Know them intimately, like a best friend, so you can intuitively offer them helpful information or tools.”
With or without your involvement, Ciesil says your brand’s equity is being modified by consumers -- especially through communities. “By becoming a valued participant, you not only get to know what is being said but also engage (as appropriate) in the dialogue to positively influence consumer perceptions of your brand. You must become invaluable, connecting people to the most relevant information at any given time,” he says.
A good conversation should seem easy, so speak to your customers in a relaxed, friendly way. “By doing so, your consumer will discover your brand in a new, more powerful way. The best brands facilitate conversations, enhance interactions and create unique experiences to which your target consumers say, ‘You know me.’”
3. People like talking to people who are a good time. “At every possible turn, remember to make your brand experience enjoyable,” Ciesil says. “Be friendly. Be fun. Be interesting. Be unique. Be yourself.”
This also is your opportunity to identify brand mavens/enthusiasts and pull them further into the brand, giving them updates that they can spread influentially, Ciesil says. “You can encourage interaction from the community at large and have fun along the way by periodically giving out awards or incentives for well-written product reviews,” he adds.
The experience you provide for your consumer becomes representative of your brand, “so make it worthwhile and have a good time,” he says. “Let go, and give your consumer control. Chances are you’ll both have some fun.” -- M.C.