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For Better or For Worse

For Better or For Worse

Brick-and-mortar stores are cosying up to grooms with in-store scanner guns for zapping gifts into registries as smart retailers are taking advantage of new technologies to make a lucrative sector even more profitable.

Playing the Field

WeddingChannel.com CIO Greg Franchina says that getting Federated and his company to work together is definitely reminiscent of planning a wedding. "The actual production process has been coordinating a joint effort between those organisations," he says. The two companies had to integrate their IT teams "so that we were hitting schedules on time in a coordinated manner. Their expectation was that we would deliver information on this date, in this format - in this way, it would interact with it that way.... We were making sure we were able to circumvent the idiosyncrasies of one partner's systems to interact with our system."

WeddingChannel.com started in 1997 in Pasadena, Calif., and quickly became one of the Internet's leading bridal resource sites. The company generates revenue through commissions from gift registry purchases off retailers' bridal registries, commissions from sales of other bridal goods such as wedding accessories and invitations, and sponsorship revenue from companies hoping to reach WeddingChannel.com customers. In 2000, roughly a year after partnering with Federated, WeddingChannel.com merged with the online wedding gift registry Della.com, which brought with it a bridal party of a number of other retailers.

While WeddingChannel.com is most deeply involved with Federated, it has other partners such as Tiffany & Co., Crate & Barrel and Neiman Marcus, all with varying degrees of integration. WeddingChannel lets the other company determine what level of interaction it wants to have with the website. "The organisation we interact with has to determine why they want an interaction with us and how deep do they want that relationship to be," says Franchina. "That then drives the process for having that relationship, planning it out, effecting it."

An Open Marriage

Click on a Bloomingdale's or Macy's link on WeddingChannel.com and the presentation is seamless. However, click on Williams-Sonoma, the San Francisco-based home-centered specialty retailer, and a new browser window opens.

Shelley Nandkeoylar, vice president of Williams-Sonoma's e-commerce division, readily admits that partnering up with WeddingChannel was a reaction to the pressures to get Williams-Sonoma more widely known online. "It was the heady days of dotcom, a year and a half ago," he says. "We felt that, OK, this is a piece of business that we don't have a lot of experience in, and here's somebody who is focusing into this area. Maybe we can learn something from them and jointly partner to grow." With that attitude, the company has made WeddingChannel.com a very thin client or channel for itself.

Williams-Sonoma, which started in 1956 as a single store and exploded with a catalog business in 1971, launched its own website in June 1999, but it wasn't until its relaunch in January 2000 that it had full gift registry capability. In order to avoid the synchronisation problems from having multiple databases, the Williams-Sonoma team took the database that already existed at the retail point and put a front end on it that lets customers access it from the Web. Having a single database interface sounds easier than it was. "It took us a year and a half to figure it all out before we implemented it," Nandkeoylar says.

However, the system can suffer from some lag time in updating the database. "Because stores upload every night," says Nandkeoylar, "occasionally there could be a delay of six to 12 hours before your registry is updated between the time the purchase may be made in the store and what is being viewed online." (By contrast, the Federated system of stores is wired to do continuous, real-time updates of its database.) Maybe We're Just Not Right for Each Other Even retailers that aren't sold on the Internet think Web registries are good for business. Target Corp., which operates the Target discount store chain, as well as Mervyn's and Marshall Field's, has taken a "prove it to me" attitude toward Internet retailing, and the Minneapolis-based company has been criticised for not putting more of its wares on the Web. That's because Gerald Storch, the company's vice chairman, whose responsibilities include technology services and catalog and e-commerce businesses, first wants to be convinced it's worth Target's while.

"We'll only use the Web where there's a significant value added," said Storch, speaking in March at the Milken Institute's global economic conference in Los Angeles. For Storch, one place where that value is proven is in the bridal registry, which enhances the relationship potential with Target's customers, or guests as the company terms them.

Through the bridal registry - named Club Wedd - Target is holding a dialogue with its customer. "I'm talking to her about stuff. I don't care if she buys it online. The ability to communicate is what matters," Storch said. "I want her to know my brand and love my brand."

Taking the marriage business high-tech has had its ups and downs. Federated's Stockett reports that the real-time updating capability of his new databases was so popular that the stores now offer it via kiosks on the sales floor. However, although the number and kind of wedding websites are growing, users report mixed results. An informal survey of newlywed CIO staff produced a range of reactions to Internet bridal registries, with most of the feedback leaning toward aggravation.

However, it's the wave of the wedding future. Getting married is a frustrating maze of conventions, rituals and details. "There's a couple of wedding sites that almost every single bride knows - WeddingChannel.com and Theknot.com," says Kimberly Shea. "If you don't have any idea what to do, you go to those and they guide you." And that's got to be worth something.

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