In the early days of the Internet, online retailing itself was an innovation. Online retailers were an amazing departure from catalogs, mail order, and brick and mortar stores, offering consumers a new option for buying goods (sometimes in their pajamas). But the honeymoon has been over for a long time now, and if online retailers want to succeed these days, they have to deliver. Whether it’s through innovative marketing or knock-your-socks-off amazing customer service, these online retailers are making a difference and making things work in a really smart way. Read their stories, and get inspired by their innovation at work.
Some businesses become great by doing one thing, and doing it well. On the other side of the coin, businesses that can transform themselves have even greater potential. Take Amazon.com, a website that once just sold books, but is now a competitor in the MP3, cloud hosting, and e-reader business, and doing quite well in these pursuits. Even better, Amazon has not lost sight of its origins, continuing to be a major competitor in books. BusinessWeek believes that Amazon has done so well by continuing with successful strategies that helped them survive, and even thrive through the dot-com bubble: staying flexible and responding to customer needs. Amazon’s popular cloud hosting was offered not because the company wanted a new sector to break into, but because a wise engineer saw profit in the excess server capacity Amazon kept around for peak holiday times: that’s innovation. And although it might seem like Amazon is jumping around and spreading itself thin, the company does a great job at staying committed to its products and supporting their continued success. For example, The Motley Fool points out that since Amazon introduced the Kindle, the product has been on its front page, taking up precious space that could be used to promote other products, but instead, the Kindle remains heavily promoted. This speaks volumes about Amazon’s innovation and commitment, qualities that have enabled the company to do so well in the long term.
Zappos, and founder Tony Hseih in particular, sure seem to be obsessed with happiness, and that happiness has driven the company to innovation and success. In the early days of online retailing, customers would be lucky to find a customer service email address, much less a phone number. Even now, online customer service is often less than stellar. But Zappos completely dismissed the status quo, preferring instead to make their customers king. In fact, customer service as well as satisfaction in customers and employees alike is what has made Zappos famous, and the company has expanded to launch an outsourcing program that deals with customer service, shipping, and other items for companies. That’s right, Zappos has gotten so much right, that companies now pay Zappos to do business for them. Hseih is famous for his innovation in online marketing, including his amazing ability to connect with customers in a positive way. But even though so much press and love focuses on the happiness culture at Zappos, the innovation doesn’t stop there. At the Zappos warehouse, you’ll find 70 robots that make it possible for the company to ship a pair of shoes in as little as eight minutes, a feat that not only saves the company time, but leads to thrilling moments for customers when they receive their shoes in record time. With this in mind, it’s not the least bit surprising to find out that in 2009, Zappos and Amazon joined forces, presumably because Amazon feels they have a lot to learn from the happiest shoe sellers in the world.
Scarcity and limited time offers are marketing gold, and they lead to an incredibly high rate of closed sales. It’s not hard to figure out why: if you don’t want to miss out on an item, you’ll have to buy it right then, instead of hemming and hawing, and possibly never coming back to complete the purchase. Woot! has done an incredible job capitalizing on this idea, and in 2004, was a pioneer of the “one deal a day” business model. They’re certainly not the only ones doing it today, but they remain one of the most successful, growing from electronics and household goods to include sites for kids, shirts, wine, and more. In fact, Shirt.Woot! is one of the more innovative things about the company. Each week, the site holds a derby in which fans and designers can submit their t-shirt designs, and the best are put up for sale, chosen by votes from site members. This is a great example of customer interaction on multiple levels, customer retention and community, as well as a very smart way to determine the most popular products before they even go on sale.
Who cares about coupons? Although news outlets love to highlight “coupon queens,” the reality is that people often don’t take advantage of coupons even when they’re staring them in the face. In today’s world of modern technology, shoppers just don’t want to have to deal with tiny slips of paper. But Groupon saw things differently, and turned lowly coupons into something cool and even social. Groupon’s innovation has not gone unnoticed, and the company was named the number 5 most innovative company in the world by Fast Company. Groupon also won a Chicago innovation award in 2009, and Illinois Governor Pat Quinn selected Groupon’s co-founder Brad Keywell to be a part of the state’s new Innovation Council, a group formed to find creative economy-boosters.
Like Amazon, eBay isn’t exactly a new kid on the block. Founded in 1995, the auction site has been around practically since the beginning of the Internet as we know it. The site itself was innovative, giving online users an inexpensive place to buy and sell items with almost zero overhead. But eBay hasn’t just sat back on its laurels of seniority. The company didn’t make a whole lot of changes for several years, but in 2007, they really hit a turning point with new buyer tools, including a desktop application, social media integration, and tools for keeping track of auctions. Another great tool eBay has rolled out is its mobile site, giving way to a new era in mobile commerce, and this move landed them on the Fast Company Most Innovative Companies list in 2011. Fast Company also points out the eBay Fashion app, which allows shoppers to visualize purchases before they actually bid on them.
Online travel sites are a hot business, and very competitive. There are so many top performing websites, in fact, that there’s a new genre of travel shopping websites: ones that organize all of the offerings from travel discount sites. With this wealth of resources for shoppers, retailers in this genre have to stand out or get left behind. Priceline.com did a good job with their model of bidding, but many customers have a problem with not knowing exactly what they would be paying. Hotwire innovatively made a great twist on this idea, giving customers the option to pay an exact price, but leaving the booking details a mystery. To reassure shoppers, Hotwire introduced a great idea: a guarantee to rebook or compensate travelers if they make a change in the star rating of a property before, or 60 days after their stay. Additionally, in 2010, Hotwire began to use the Oracle Exadata Database Machine, a tool that allows them to improve productivity, see new patterns in customer engagement, and make business decisions based on analysis in lightning fast time.
A few years ago, people might have questioned the need for a look into the shopping lives of other people. Even now, we’re sure plenty of people scoff at the idea that Blippy even exists. But the fact is, social media makes it possible to share more of your life online than ever before, and Blippy takes that idea and applies it to shopping, allowing users to share every purchase they make on a single credit card. Site users presumably benefit from being able to share things like fashion and lifestyle purchases, but the real winners on Blippy are the businesses: every time a customer makes a purchase and shares it on Blippy, they get free advertising and a wordless personal endorsement.
ThinkGeek sells the kind of stuff that makes the Internet go wild: geek staples of zombies and bacon, clever baby onesies and pretty much everything Star Wars, the site has plenty of fodder for Internet fame. One might sat that this alone is innovative, simply the idea of creating a collection of products that online geeks can’t resist sharing and buying, but ThinkGeek certainly hasn’t stopped there. They know that geeks love to show off their geekiness (in the right circles, anyway), and the site gives them an opportunity to show off not just geekiness, but their love of ThinkGeek products. With Customer Action Shots, shoppers take clever photos, videos, and more that are shared right on the site, right along with their enthusiasm for ThinkGeek and geek culture.
Launched in 1999, Overstock.com is another oldie but goodie that’s stuck around due to smart thinking and innovative changes. At its launch, the idea of selling excess inventory online was fairly new, but it’s not hard to see that now, plenty of other sites have jumped on the bandwagon. In order to survive and compete in the marketplace, Overstock.com had to innovate, or get left behind. The problem with selling excess inventory is often that it’s the leftover stuff people don’t really want to buy, which is a problem if you (in this case, Overstock.com) wants to actually sell it at some point. Instead of simply selling items that no one wants to buy, Overstock.com took a look at the needs of their customers and found smart ways to meet them while still maintaining off-price sales points. For example, they took a look at no-results search terms to find out what customers were looking for and not finding, as well as discovering ways to sell high-demand products (or suitable replacements) that are difficult to find off-price, like Uggs, designer purses, and other luxury items. But perhaps one of the smartest things Overstock has done is use third party fulfillment, using retailers and wholesalers to drop-ship partner products directly to customers, eliminating a huge amount of necessary overhead, and leaving room for more innovation from the big O.
One of the best things about shopping online is the sheer amount of products available to you at once. But what can be a blessing is also a curse, because with so much available, you could spend days working through search results trying to find the perfect item for the perfect price. With all that time wasted, why not just forget online shopping and just go to the store? PriceGrabber recognized this problem, and found an innovative way to make online shopping more streamlined. Using the site, shoppers are able to compare the prices of over 13,000 retailers online, and even see tax and shipping cost information up front to make a fully informed decision.
There’s no shortage of t-shirts for sale online, even those that are powered by customer designs as Threadless is. Shirt Woot! has done a great job, as has Designed by Humans. The customer-designed social commerce model is innovative all on its own, and in 2008, Inc. magazine highlighted Threadless as the most innovative small company in America for that very reason. But Threadless found a way to stand out with innovative marketing. At Threadless, their tees are both the product and the content, and through email marketing, they’ve been able to both retain and entertain customers. In fact, when faced with too many dormant subscribers, Threadless sent out a re-engagement campaign that was pretty bold and risky, but paid off. The confrontational email gave unresponsive subscribers one more chance to engage with Threadless, or “say goodbye forever,” a move that added 2,400 active subscribers back onto their list.