Despite a number of repeated failures in electronic retailing -- including one at Woodward & Lothrop two years ago -- a handful of retailers are pressing forward, testing a variety of systems.
Sears Roebuck & Co., the nation's largest retailer, is experimenting with two different systems -- one to sell its growing array of financial services; another to display the company's full line of draperies and curtains to consumers.
In both cases, by touching designated spots on a pressure sensitive television screen, shoppers can learn about a wide array of products. In the case of draperies and curtains, a panel of material is hung nearby to give the customer the opportunity to feel the fabric and see the true color.
In some ways, the latter is similar to an experiment conducted by J. P. Stevens & Co. Inc. three years ago when it installed electronic kiosks in three department stores, including Woodies, in an effort to expand its sales. The kiosks displayed items both in and out of stock. If a customer wanted sheets or towels not in stock, he or she could order it directly from Stevens, which would ship the item within days.
"It was not successful from a sales point of view," commented a Stevens official. Among the problems, "the transaction time was too cumbersome," said Jim Wells, Woodies' senior vice president for marketing. "There was not a quick way to get in and out," of the system."
Florsheim's "Express Shop" appears to be one of the more successful experiments, according to its designer ByVideo. Noting that the stores carry only 15 percent of the company's 500 shoe styles, ByVideo developed an electronic kiosk to enable shoppers -- especially those who wear odd sizes not normally stocked -- to still buy their goods -- conveniently. With sales help, a shopper can scroll through the catalogue and then order through a salesperson. Special orders, which under the manual system would take weeks to be delivered, could be sent electronically within hours to the warehouse and be delivered within days.
Although the machine is capable of taking orders by itself, ByVideo said such a system would "alienate the sales force" because it would reduce their commissions. In the 10 stores where the kiosks are situated, ByVideo says sales have increased by 15 percent.
Despite this success, the informational programs that can be used as marketing tools as well appear to be having the greatest success, especially in the sales of cosmetics.
Pantene Co., a manufacturer of upscale hair products, has tried to increase sales by developing an electronic questionnaire asking consumers about their hair and lifestyles. Based on these answers -- given on touchscreen -- the customer receives a print-out recommendation of what products to buy. The system reduces the need to constantly train sales clerks about the products and has increased sales by as much as 400 percent in two test markets. As a result, the system is being rolled out nationally.
Similarly, a midwestern eye-glass store has created an electronic questionnaire to help customers find the right frames for them, asking questions about hair and skin color, nose size, face shape and eye spacing.
Elizabeth Arden has developed a "Miss Elizabeth" beauty consultant that recommends what makeup to buy for work and evening. The system first takes a photograph of the customer and then uses that to photo to erase existing makeup and blot out blemishes. A consultant then applies different colored makeup to the photo on the video screen until the desired look is achieved.