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Getting Right To The Consumer

SCI-TECH SCENE | WebCollage helps manufacturers control how their products are presented on retail sites

July 25, 2007

BY SANDRA GUY Sun-Times Columnist

Abt Electronics, the Glenview retailer that has thrived amid brutal competition that has felled bigger electronics stores, is updating its Web site with lifelike demonstrations and detailed advice about what to buy.

"This technology gives customers the ability to see 3D modeling, video clips on a product's benefits, and the ability to zoom in and out to look at products," said Jon Abt, of the family-owned and operated Abt Electronics.

"We want our Web site to be more interactive, and feel more like a store experience," said Abt, whose family's Glenview store is anything but a typical retail store. Customers are served cookies and coffee on weekends, and treated to bubble machines, interactive butterfly displays and a water fountain that bursts with a musical and light show every 30 minutes.

Jon Abt views the company's Web site at the Abt store in Glenview. Visitors to the site can get information from the manufacturers of products they might be interested in, like Sony's e-reader.
Jon Abt views the company's Web site at the Abt store in Glenview. Visitors to the site can get information from the manufacturers of products they might be interested in, like Sony's e-reader. (John J. Kim/Sun-Times)

Abt is using software from WebCollage, a New York-based company, to supplement the content its own designers and copywriters post to the Web site, or

WebCollage extracts the voluminous data that manufacturers keep about the products they make, changes it to suit a retailer's Web site, and automatically uploads into the retailer's site through a single line of HTML code.

The setup saves the retailer from having to maintain updated content on its Web site, and it gives manufacturers an outlet to get their information to shoppers in an attractive, attention-getting format.

"Manufacturers are investing millions of dollars in creating great content on their products, including highlighting features, keeping specifications updated, and explaining the difference in various versions," said Jed Alpert, vice president of marketing for WebCollage.

WebCollage charges the manufacturers $250,000 a year to insert their merchandise content into retailers' Web sites in a process that's invisible to shoppers. The fee can vary depending on the amount of content. Retailers obtain the data free of charge.

WebCollage's revenues doubled last year, and stand at eight figures.

WebCollage counts 75 manufacturers as customers, including Sony, Logitech, Kodak and TomTom, and has seen retailers' online sales jump from 6 percent to 15 percent after introducing the richer content.

Sony's new electronic book, called an e-reader portable reading system, comes alive with a demonstration on the Web site, Jon Abt said.

Online shoppers have started spending more time looking at product descriptions, and in-store sales have increased 1 to 8 percent, depending on the product, Abt said. About 65 percent of Abt's Chicago area customers look at the Web site before their store visits. Three-quarters of Abt's online sales come from outside the retailer's 100-mile-radius delivery area.

Sucharita Mulpuru, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, said the field of companies transitioning manufacturers' product data onto retailers' Web sites is small. It includes a company called SellPoint, which customizes manufacturers' data for retail Web sites.

"It's promising," she said. "More manufacturers are recognizing the value of communicating their information directly to customers while controlling the message as much as possible."

Abt, whose store houses brands such as Sony, Apple and Bang & Olufsen, is building a new design center on its property that's scheduled to open this fall. Eight retailers in the center will include faucet-maker Kohler and Viking Appliances, as well as as-yet-unnamed cabinet, granite and lighting companies.

How does Abt remain successful?

Jon Abt said, "It's an old-fashioned policy of treating the customer right, and using technology that assists us in doing that."

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