The Sharper Image Hones In on I-commerce

BUILDING ON the strength of its order-processing system, The Sharper Image updated its Web site and capitalized on several new features to prepare for not only the rush of online shoppers during the holiday season, but also for the company's expectations of growing online commerce in 2000.

A purveyor of gadgets, gizmos, and handy products ranging from in-shower CD players and Ionic Breeze air purifiers to model cars, The Sharper Image was an early entrant into the world of electronic commerce, launching its original Web site in 1995.

According to Greg Alexander, senior vice president of MIS at The Sharper Image, the move from retail and catalog sales to online sales -- and the continuing additions to online services -- would have been difficult without an accommodating order-processing system to handle all those orders.

"It would have been far more expensive to get out onto the Web [without the order system already in place]," Alexander says. "This is definitely a homegrown system that is very tailorable. It doesn't end up requiring a lot of change because it was designed and written in such a way as to provide maximum flexibility for whatever sales channels might come down the road."

With the order-processing system as a solid foundation, The Sharper Image prepared for anticipated increased online traffic by changing Internet hosting companies and making sure site features added during the year were ready for the holiday shopping season.

"We were so concerned about the volume of business that we were going to do this year that we moved to Exodus [Communications]," which is larger than previous provider Evergreen Internet, Alexander says. "When you're doing six times the business, you need the bandwidth, the disaster-recovery capabilities."

The company still uses Evergreen's ECential e-commerce software, which was modified to add virtual gift certificates, user registration, and gift address capabilities to SharperImage.com.

In February and March 1999, an auction room and 3-D product viewing were added to SharperImage.com, both of which were spruced up for holiday shoppers.

"The auction site gives [us] a class of customers that might not usually be Sharper Image customers," Alexander explains.

"Could we just have put the goods on sale? Sure. But I think the auction is much more interesting to a typical customer," Alexander says.

SharperImage.com auctions include refurbished and returned products certified to be in working order and with the same return privileges as their nonauction counterparts -- a feature Alexander considers attractive for buyers used to retail stores.

For 3-D viewing, the company uses Shells Interactive's 3D Dreams, which works with Macromedia Shockwave to bring selected Sharper Image products to life.

"The idea was to give the customer the closest experience to actually being in our stores," Alexander says. "It's a great service to a customer to pick up a product, so to speak, and turn it around and open it up, push the buttons, and be able to utilize the functions of the product."

Alexander says that thanks to the preparations made before the holiday rush, everything ran very smoothly.

"Traffic was tremendous, sales were excellent, and Exodus handled the situation well," Alexander says.

In fact, The Sharper Image saw December online sales jump from $2 million in 1998 to $9.7 million in 1999. And as of December 1999, year-to-date Internet sales were ringing in at $25.7 million vs. $4.4 million in 1998.

The company expects to remain on the cutting edge with its products and Web site, thanks in part to the solid order-processing system that keeps track of copious product orders from The Sharper Image's catalogs, retail stores, and Web site.

"We don't want to just be flashy," Alexander adds. "We want to be flashy and functional at the same time."

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