- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The most desirable up-and-coming retail space isn’t necessarily in the mall. It’s in your list of favorite Web sites, right between your best friends’ blogs.

A growing number of retailers have started blogs, or Web logs, this year, hoping that an account of the company’s newest ideas, explanations of big decisions and stories of employees’ lives will show the human side of their shops and create some buzz.

“For any company, blogs are the most efficient way to get people talking about your Web site,” said Andrew Sernovitz, chief executive officer of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, a Chicago trade group.

While blogs have been around for years, it wasn’t until this year that retailers really got interested. This Christmas season, about 42 percent of retailers are using blogs or RSS feeds — a feed of constantly updated information sent to blogs, podcasts or Web sites — according to a recent study by Shopzilla and Shop.org, the online division of the National Retail Federation.

Blogs are mostly the domain of neighborhood stores such as Garden District (gardendistrict-dc.com/blog), where owner Joe Carmack posts gardening tips, and Olsson’s Books and Records, which offers a variety of blogs.

But a few large companies publish blogs, too. General Motors Corp.’s top executives write about topics such as why the minivan is no longer popular at gmblogs.com. Kodak employees post photos and personal stories at 1000words.kodak.com.

Other retail companies with blogs include Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (walmartfacts.com/lifeatwalmart), Lands’ End Inc. (hisanta.landsend.com), Neiman Marcus’ Cusp chain (blogonthecusp.com), Gap’s Piperlime (piperlime.com) and Ice (blog.ice.com)

Each blog has a different objective: Wal-Mart’s, for example, is a listing of comments from employees about how Wal-Mart has helped them out — presumably to counteract negative press about how the retailer treats its employees. Lands’ End’s holiday blog comes from Santa Claus himself, and Cusp’s blog is about fashion.

“It’s definitely an opportunity to hear from customers who do want to communicate with you … and it’s just another link to [the retailer’s] Web site to drive some more traffic,” said Sucharita Mulpuru, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in New York.

Some retailers see their blogs as similar to walking into the store and asking questions.

“It’s the equivalent of a really well-informed store clerk without having to go to Tysons mall,” said Josh Greene, who runs the Discovery Channel Store’s blog at discoverystore.typepad.com. “You can find out what’s going on a lot more easily.”

But for other companies, such as General Motors, a blog is an opportunity to get insight into executives’ decisions.

A recent entry by GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz explains that the company hasn’t permanently killed the minivan, but it has pulled the model out of its latest lineup.

“Look, the minivan was a great idea, and a fine product,” he wrote. “It pulled Chrysler out of the frying pan during some desperate times. But obviously in recent years a stigma has attached itself to the minivan and won’t let go. Same thing happened to station wagons in this country before the minivan came along.”

The entry is more personal and frank than a press release, and it allows customers to respond — in this case, 94 persons left comments, many disagreeing with Mr. Lutz.

“This is not directed at marketing or advertising efforts,” said Bill Betts, manager of Web services for GM communications in Detroit. “We take it out of the realm of a news release and … put it into a first person, diary post from anyone who writes them. It’s their stories, feelings, observations and in the case of Bob Lutz, plans for a new product, in a more folksy style.”

Blogs are effective when they list insider scoop, how-to tips or special features such as classes, Mr. Sernovitz said.

“A blog is how you add personality to a business,” he said. “The more people reading about you, the more people are talking about you.”

But don’t expect too many, or any, company secrets. Typically, large companies often have a hard time making a blog work, Mr. Sernovitz said.

“Good blogging doesn’t fit in the corporate marketplace. You have to be willing to talk to people … outside of the corporate-crafted message,” he said.

For small retailers, blogs can be a major time commitment, depending on how frequently the blog is updated. Mr. Carmack, owner of Garden District, spends a few hours a week posting gardening tips. He gets about 400 visitors per week.

“I think people should know where my ideas come from,” he said. “It’s a way to get people to know what our business is about and to say who we are.”

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