This hardware has an ice maker

Appliance and consumer-electronics makers move their products to the virtual store.

First it was books, then toys and drugs. Now the consumer electronics industry is taking on the Internet.

But will consumers buy a refrigerator online as easily as they order the latest Thomas Harris thriller?

Two Web sites launching in the next two months hope to convince consumers that it's OK to shop for VCRs and refrigerators online. And the major retail chains have announced plans to begin selling their wares online as well.

"We seem to be picking up all kinds of categories that nobody has established a clear lead in: consumer electronics, furniture, food," said Forrester Research analyst Seema Williams. "Everybody's seen the valuations of companies like and they want to play. And for the traditional retailers, it's become wildly apparent that they need to play."

Appliance search
One of the new sites,, has some big names behind it. The company is backed by Whirlpool Corp. and the Hearst Corp., whose Good Housekeeping Institute will provide testing and ratings services.

The Brandwise site will not sell products, but instead will help consumers track down particular models and features. Once they've selected a product, consumers will be referred to retailers -- online and offline -- for the purchase.

Consumers will be guided through decision trees that help them figure out which product is best for them. For instance, washing machine buyers might be asked the features they're looking for, or which brands. If they're not sure, the site will ask them "lifestyle" questions, such as "which is more important to you, a quiet machine or a powerful one? How often do you do wash?" The site will use that data to help narrow the search.

Brandwise will receive commissions on sales, and flat fees for listing the retailers.

For men and women
Once they've picked a few products, they can look at and compare ratings produced by the Good Housekeeping Labs.

The site will launch with guides to large appliances like refrigerators and washing machines, and consumer electronics. Eventually, the company plans to add guides to categories such as fitness equipment and lawn and garden products.

The mix is designed to appeal to both men and women, hoping to take advantage of the surge of women coming online.

That's also the market that hopes to grab when it launches its site in September.

The company is focusing mainly on consumer electronics and small appliances, like toasters and blenders.

The company will function as a traditional merchant, working with third parties to do distribution and fulfillment.

President Brad Terrell said he decided to start the company after his wife wanted to buy her father a DVD player, but didn't want to have to deal with traditional consumer-electronics retailers.

The company is hoping that by making its site less focused on technical details and adding more "personal features," it will attract people who are put off by traditional stores.

Traditional retailers jump in
"It isn't that women haven't heard of [stores like] Circuit City, it's that they just don't want to shop there," said Amy Adams, director of marketing at ElectricWish.

Some of the personal features include experts who will work on each product category, posting news and information and personally answering questions submitted by consumers.

But traditional retailers aren't jut sitting around waiting for Net companies to come take their business away.

Sears Roebuck, & Co. (NYSE: S) has already set up shop online, selling appliances and power tools, and it plans to launch a home and garden site later this year.

Circuit City Stores Inc.'s (NYSE: CC) electronic store will launch later this month.

The company hopes that by integrating its electronic store with its 605-store chain, it will lure consumers who are uncomfortable with buying products sight unseen. Consumers will be able to place orders online and pick up their products at the store, and take them back to the store for returns and repairs.

"Most people do not want to have a computer or television sitting on their front porch when they come home," spokesman Morgan Stewart said last month. "Seventy percent of customers who purchased computers through our build-to-order kiosks in the stores preferred to have them delivered to the store. Not only do you get the immediate gratification of purchasing it online and picking it up in 15 minutes, but you also avoid shipping costs."

On and off
William agreed, saying that having both an offline and online presence may be one of the deciding factors in the battle for consumer dollars.

"Especially when you think about higher end purchase, the Net is great to help you decide what to buy, but it's nice to have a store to walk into and touch the product," she said.


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