The Savvy Side of Sears

News is experimenting with innovative online tools to test new product categories.

During the past several months, Sears Holdings Corp. has pulled out the stops and nearly quadrupled the merchandise on its Web site. In an effort to help shoppers navigate seamlessly through the thousands of new products being tested online (such as art, books, movies, software and music items), the Hoffman Estates, Ill.-based company wisely decided to add additional online tools. It launched a series of buying guides, a search/filter application and an online ratings feature to assist consumers with finding the best products for their needs. All the added features succeed in making the site more user-friendly.

But what’s most intriguing about Sears’ expanded Web-site offerings is that they reflect a bottom-line truth: The cost to expand online is low. Sears is essentially testing new categories online with little inventory investment through partnerships. The retailer first piloted the concept in December 2007, when , through an agreement with Coral Springs, Fla.-based Alliance Entertainment Corp., entered the music and film category, offering more 250,000 music and movie titles searchable by format, genre, artist and release date.

Software programs and computer games followed, via a co-branded site hosted by Minneapolis-based Digital River. The site allows customers to purchase and immediately download software programs, ranging from finance applications and games to security and system utilities, to their PC or laptop.

In April, partnered with Baker & Taylor, Charlotte, N.C., to offer an online book assortment consisting of more than 600,000 items. It also expanded its For the Home Online Store by partnering with online art shop , Fairfield, Iowa, to sell art prints, custom frames and books.

This section is one of the most dynamic features of the site. After finding an art piece, visitors can create a custom-finished product by choosing the mat and frame. The design can be viewed against a wall color, saved in a gallery, or shared with friends—allowing customers the chance to further personalize their shopping experience.

In addition, is using an “add to compare” feature that puts items up against others to compare prices and brand information. A “quick view” feature also allows shoppers to click on the image and receive product descriptions without navigating away from the search-results page. When a consumer searches for a specific item, the site will often point out similar products also available on .

As flexes new techniques, it has successfully and seamlessly tied these additions into its existing content and tools. For example, the revamped product-results page can be used for its “My Virtual Model” feature, which helps shoppers create their own dream rooms online. Users who want to redecorate or enhance a room in their house can view an image on their computer screen and search or browse through a selection of products. As shoppers click on choices, the items can be placed throughout the room.

Online visitors can get the full effect of their room “makeover” by hanging artwork or “painting” their room with a choice of colors and flooring finishes.

Sears is also bringing these online touches into its locations by offering consumers in-store kiosks with Web access.

Shoppers may not associate art or even entertainment-based items with Sears, but the assorted tools and guides on its Web site are truly making it easier for customers to find and purchase these types of products. But as more consumers continue to seek out one-stop shopping destinations, the potential is certainly there.

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