Internet shopping: sales clerks available online

Increased Internet shopping convenience means bringing the sales clerk to you — using technology, of course.

“Click to chat,” uses instant messaging to enable the online customer to ask a sales clerk questions. Another service, “click to call back,” lets customers click an icon that prompts them for their telephone number so a company representative can call them.

Yahoo and eBay have announced that they are developing “click to call” advertising that would allow customers to select a link in a merchant’s ad and immediately be able to text message or speak with someone from the company.

Technologies instantly connecting shoppers with merchants have been used by banks and others online merchants since the late 1990s, when Virginia-based Estara, now the industry leader in click services, began offering them.

Some instant-connect services let the consumer initiate contact by pressing an icon on a business’s Web page. Other services, including Liveperson and Estara, can act preemptively, looking over customers’ shoulders as they shop and dispatching the icon invitation if they seem confused or on the verge of making a purchase.

About 15 percent to 20 percent of people who receive a company-initiated invitation to chat accept, said Zachary McGeary, an associate analyst with Jupiter Research.

According to Forrester Research, people are spending an estimated $211.4 billion annually on Web-based retail, including travel, auction and event tickets.

Through Estara, Sears has “click to call back” on its site, which sells teen clothing and college dorm room gear such as portable refrigerators. The icon is activated if a shopper with goods in their cart abandons a purchase.

Some real estate agents also are taking the plunge.

About 1,000 real estate agents can immediately talk to customers who are browsing house listings on the Web by using realPING, technology licensed from Estara and customized for real estate use.

Liveperson’s technology provides “click to call me back” services to more than 300 small and medium-sized companies.

Not everyone is sold on the idea of widespread use of “click to call you back’’ technology, which comes at an additional cost.

And, companies have to be careful not to over-promise., for example, has both services — “click to text” and “click to call me back” — but only for those encountering problems at checkout.

NRF Foundation focusing on retail careers campaign

With grants from the U.S. Department of Labor, the NRF Foundation is working to promote careers in retail.

The foundation, the research and education arm of the National Retail Federation, has completed its Career Currency and RetaiLearning Leadership initiatives, as well as a Career Awareness Campaign.

The Retail Skills Centers focus on the development of entry-level sales and service and retail management training and include a production DVD promoting the diversity of careers available in retail.

As part of President Bush’s High Growth Job Training Initiative, the foundation created Retail Skills Center Hub sites.

The skills centers offer employer-driven services and curriculum with e-learning resources and leadership for existing and emerging sales and customer service training programs.

“Our hubs play an integral role in expanding the awareness of and access to the Workforce Investment System and our Retail Skills Centers,” said Kathy Mance, NRF Foundation vice president. “With strong support from the Department of Labor and our various partners we have been able to improve the quality of training in customer service, sales and management offered, but also to assist tens of thousands of talented individuals in beginning retail careers.”

Since the creation of the first Retail Skills Center in 1997, the centers have served more than 53,000 individuals. Twenty centers are currently in operation — 12 of which were developed as part of Department of Labor grant. An additional 14 centers have been proposed.

Forecast for retail winners and losers for Holiday 2006

Online merchants are expected to lead the way in holiday sales this year.

Falling gasoline prices are expected to help sustain the growth, but other factors will threaten the growth.

The holidays are crucial for retailers because November and December often provide 50 percent or more of merchants’ annual sales and profits.

The National Retail Federation, the industry’s largest trade group, said it expects holiday sales to be “subdued” this year, forecasting a gain of 5 percent to $457.4 billion, which would fall short of last year’s 6.1 percent increase.

Consumer spending, with the softening housing market and higher interest rates, is very much a threatening factor.

Home improvement stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s will struggle, yet electronics chains like Best Buy and Circuit City could exceed last year’s sales gains.

Clothing chains, with a strong season last year, are expected to have about a 5 percent sales gain, lower than last year’s 8 percent increase.

Department stores will have a tough season, with high-end chain Nordstrom and mid-priced chain Kohl’s the likely winners.

Online sales are predicted to increase 23 percent compared to last year, reaching $33 billion during the fourth quarter.

Joan Johnson covers retail for the Colorado Springs Business Journal.