Christmas was a boom-time for local online retailers. A recent survey by researchers AC Nielsen found 13% of New Zealanders with net access have made at least one online purchase.
AC Nielsen's US global internet audience measurement service, Netratings, says the 2000 holiday season will best be remembered for the onslaught of brick and mortar stores. “Strong brand awareness ... loyal customers, and proven retailing savvy led to the success of brick and mortars this year.”
A perfect illustration of this success can be found in the online presence of Auckland's specialist music retailer Marbecks Records. The venerable store - founded in 1934 - has had an online home for about five years: e-commerce aeons. Although the site has consistently attracted visitors and ranked highly in local web awards, its commercial viability has only now been revealed, says owner and manager Roger Marbeck.
"This Christmas was the first time you could say it has really paid off," he says. "We only made the site secure at the end of last year, enabling people to use their credit cards. Prior to that prospective customers had to fax or post through their credit card details."
The site is now certified by Verisign security software. Although the decision to use Verisign has lead to greatly increased sales, it was initially prompted by some unwelcome interest from overseas customers who were running a credit card scam. Marbeck is philosophical. "You have to get stung a couple of times in order to iron-out the holes."
Credit card details are now protected against hacking and interception by Verisign's 40-bit encryption technology, says Marbeck. "And business just went 'wham' when we signed on. You could see a 20% increase, almost by the day after. It went straight up – it was quite stunning. Over Christmas we had to have two people answering emails alone, just going flat-tack."
This personalised service extends to original record reviews written by staff. Their expert "content provision" is time-consuming, (and rare in New Zealand) but adds significant value to the content of the site. Marbeck's reliance on in-house expertise is canny. The site itself - clean, content-rich, easy-to-navigate - was rehauled by a staff member from nuts and bolts upwards, and is hosted by www.netbyte.co.nz.
"We do it in-house because we can get the specifics as exactly as we want," says Marbeck. This approach is cost-effective and allows for a localised dynamism that an external web design firm might find hard to match.
Marbeck's conception of the site is much like the shop's freephone 0800 number. It's an additive to the core of the business. "It's going to be a lucrative clip-on, it's just a question of when," he says.
Will it ever replace the shop? "No I don't think so, but it will be a large part of it, if we build it up from within. We've been here for 70 years, and we want to keep going in the internet age."
For Marbeck, the value of the site is, just like the 0800 number, a means of creating and maintaining relationships with core customers. "Our 0800 business is steady, but now we have a new type of person talking to us," says Marbeck. "In retailing you normally get negative feedback if something goes wrong and you very rarely get positive feedback if something goes right. But interestingly enough with transactions on the net the amount of positive feedback we get is huge. They're very communicative and quick to praise because email is so quick and easy to do."
Ultimately though, it is the core nature of the business that keeps customers. The site reflects the reliable reputation of the business by offering free nationwide delivery, with orders placed before 4pm generally being delivered by the next day, seven days a week.
Marbeck is cagey about even ballpark figures of site visitors and sales. But he is no doubt the website adds value to his existing business. "Totally," he says. "From where I sit and from what I can understand about what people are buying from the record industry, we are probably one of the most successful sites."