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Pulling Kids Into Their Web
Seeking Back-to-School Business, Retailers Expand Internet Strategy

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.

"If the retailer wants to engage that customer segment, it's clear what you need to do," said Scott Silverman, executive director of Shop.org, a division of NRF. "I think a static Web page isn't enough."

American Eagle wanted to be where the kids are. The retailer has a MySpace page with more than 46,000 friends and discussion topics such as "popped collars yes/no?" (The debate rages on with 142 posts and counting.) But Kathy Savitt, chief marketing officer, wanted to go further.

Last month, the chain launched 77E, a reference to 1977, the year the company was founded. The site features original content with subtle references to the retailer. It includes music and videos of rock band the Hourly Radio and video diaries of the retailer's back-to-school season models, dubbed Class of 08.

The main draw is a Web series titled "It's a Mall World" directed by "Heroes" hottie Milo Ventimiglia. The three-minute episodes follow the adventures of two girls and two boys as they explore the wonders of life, love and working in a mall, all while wearing American Eagle clothing.

The first 12 Webisodes are airing weekly on the retailer's Web site and on MTV during "Real World: Sydney." The final installment will appear only online. The Web series is also being promoted on large plasma TVs in the more than 900 American Eagle stores.

Strand said the site's traffic has increased since 77E launched, and users are staying longer and buying more. She said more than 1 million visitors have watched exclusive content on American Eagle's site during the past year.

"The customers are responding well to the looks and the outfits that the characters are wearing," she said. "The characters are so likable, and our customers identify with them so much."

Competing for students' short attention spans is J.C. Penney, which has also launched a back-to-school site and Web series around the slogan "Today's the day to mix it up."

This season marks the third year that J.C. Penney has created what it calls a "sitelet" promoting back-to-school. Last year, the theme was teens' bedrooms. The year before that, visitors could create dancing bobblehead characters.

Now the site features a reality show starring designers and twin brothers Chip and Pepper Foster, who, not coincidentally, are debuting a clothing line at J.C. Penney called C7P. The eight-episode Web series titled "Flipped" shows high school students switching cliques -- and clothes -- to see what life is like on the other side of the cafeteria.

Viewers can sign up for text alerts when new episodes are posted. And, as at American Eagle's site, the clothes worn in each show are just a click away.

"It's sticky. They are staying with the Webisodes," said Todd Beurman, national advertising director for J.C. Penney. "I think we're getting some engagement."

Retailers aren't always able to control the form of that engagement, however.

Last week, Wal-Mart created a Facebook group to help college students outfit their dorm rooms. The group includes a personality quiz to determine decorating style -- Free Spirit or Digital Diva? -- a shopping check list, and links to Wal-Mart merchandise.

But below those ads, a controversy rumbles on a "wall," where group members post comments. No one is talking about bed sheets or what they plan to major in. The discussion mainly centers on Wal-Mart's treatment of employees and whether the retailing giant should be unionized.

"All the brands that want to leverage this form of advertising, they've got to be prepared to accept that," Ryan said.

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