Retailers are quickly embracing "Web 2.0" technologies popularized by such sites as MySpace and YouTube.
The term is a loose one and has come to mean any kind of user-generated content, from blogs to social networking to video.
Such technologies are moving surprisingly quickly out of the realm of do-it-yourself media and into the commercial world.
For instance, Gap, Shopbop, Lisa Kline, Ron Herman, Hayden-Harnett, GenArt and others on Monday will launch "hives" or branded social networking and shopping sites within Stylehive.com. Stylehive, like similar Web destinations ThisNext, Kaboodle, Wists and others, offers "social shopping," where users can bookmark and blog about their favorite products, such as jewelry, clothing and home design.
"It's really fun for consumers to be able to connect with the people behind their favorite magazine or store," said a spokeswoman for Stylehive.
The hives will be communities branded with the name of the retailer. When a shopper goes to the Ron Herman store, for example, she will see the Stylehive logo on selected products. She can click through to the Ron Herman hive on Stylehive, where she can see profiles of others in the Ron Herman community and their shopping picks. Items can be from anywhere, not just the host retailer.
The retailers will pay a small monthly fee to Stylehive to set up and maintain the hives, comparable to the cost of advertising online. The total cost will run no more than $5,000 a year, said the spokeswoman.
The list of online apparel retailers who have tried or plan to experiment with Web 2.0-type content is long. FigLeaves and Bluefly have long-running blogs, for example, that feature their own products as well as related news. Urban Outfitters last month started a music-focused blog.
Macy's, Cabela's, Evogear and many others have added user reviews to their site. J.C. Penney plans to add user reviews and social networking to its online store later this year, said Rich Last, director of new business development for jcp.com at J.C. Penney.
Since Macy's added reviews to its site in September, customers have been posting an average of 225 reviews a day. The comments are screened only for profanity and relevance. "We find a lot of value in customers being able to share information with each other. There is a lot of credibility in a customer to customer exchange," said a Federated spokesman.Amazon.com was the first to make extensive use of user-generated content in retailing and built its book business around user reviews, lists and wish lists. This year, the retailer went all-out and now shoppers can post profiles, network with other readers and discuss books and related issues. Authors can also blog on their book pages.
Neiman Marcus has been looking at social networking and thinking about adding live chat with designers and store executives, said Brendan Hoffman, president and chief executive officer of Neiman Marcus Direct. "Potentially, there's a lot of value with that," he said. "It just has to be done within the Neiman Marcus experience."
Content should not be too self-serving or controlled, however.
"If there's an authentic way of trying to make the shopping experience more social and more interesting, retailers should do that," said Sharon Lee, co-founder of youth marketing firm Look-Look Inc. of Los Angeles. But they should not try to become the next MySpace or censor what people say. "If it turns into this whole 'We're just trying to push our agenda,' kids will hate that," said Lee.
A recent survey of 100 leading Web stores by technology company Cisco Systems found that 30 percent allow shoppers on their sites to talk to each other on forums and message boards. Sixty-three percent host customer-written reviews, up from 33 percent in 2005. Almost half the sites allow shoppers to e-mail product information to a friend.
A related development is Web sites that give consumers a say in product design. For instance, at Threadless.com, visitors can vote on which T-shirt design they prefer, and the company produces the most popular looks. The Cisco study found that 63 percent of retailers surveyed allowed shoppers to do some kind of customization of products.
And if that seems too much to bite off, retailers and brands can simply post a profile on one of the many social networking sites or directories, such as Glam, Iqons and BrandHabit.
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