Pulling Kids Into Their Web

By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 18, 2007

Not so long ago, online shopping was lauded for being quick and convenient. Now, some retailers are trying to get customers to slow down and watch streaming video.

Retailers are using this year's back-to-school shopping season to create elaborate online worlds that may have little to do with their products. They are employing video-sharing, social networking and even virtual reality to target the teenagers who drove sites like YouTube and Facebook to popularity.

The goal is to alter the solitary nature of online shopping by building communities -- and serve as a reminder that school supplies have moved well beyond No. 2 pencils and spiral notebooks.

"This is where the Internet really gets interesting," said Paul Miller, senior vice president of direct commerce for Sears. "It's like all the great things about shopping in person are materializing on the Web and in a virtual world."

Department stores and specialty retailers alike are experimenting with these new venues. At Sears.com, visitors can create avatars, or virtual versions of themselves, outfitted in the chain's latest styles. Wal-Mart started a Facebook group about dorm room style. J.C. Penney and American Eagle Outfitters developed short films to air in weekly installments on their sites.

"If we're successful at entertaining them, then the brand loyalty and the emotional connection will follow," said Jani Strand, spokeswoman for American Eagle. "From there, sales will also follow."

Tracy Ryan, associate professor of advertising research at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, said national retailers have been slow to experiment with new technologies. Short Web films called Webisodes, for example, have been around for about a decade. American Express got comedian Jerry Seinfeld to appear in an online video with a cartoon Superman in 2004, and BMW hired Ang Lee and other film directors to direct short Web-only films in 2001.

"Retailers are a little bit behind the times on this," Ryan said. But, she added, "it's not like it's too late."

Online retail is becoming increasingly important for back-to-school shopping, according to a survey by the National Retail Federation, a trade group. It found that 21 percent of parents plan to buy merchandise on the Web this year, up from 15 percent last year.

Overall, the NRF predicts that the average family with school-age children will spend $563.49 this back-to-school season, up 7 percent from last year. Total back-to-school sales are expected to reach $18.4 billion.

Although teens do not buy online as often as adults, 43 percent have made such purchases, according to a 2005 report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which said that the figure "represents about 9 million people and signifies growth of 71% in teen online shoppers since 2000."

Online time has only increased since then. A study released this week by the National School Boards Association and Grunwald Associates found that 96 percent of students with online access use social-networking technologies, including chatting, text messaging and blogging, and visit such online communities as Facebook, MySpace and Webkinz. Teens who use these sites spend almost as much time on them as they do watching television: 9 hours per week online, 10 on TV.

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