Dressed up for Christmas

Amazon is setting a brisk new pace for e-tailers by introducing a host of extra features

Amazon is setting a brisk new pace for e-tailers by introducing a host of extra features

I have a feeling that Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon.com, believes in Santa Claus. After all, he has to: if Father Christmas doesn't deliver this year, then sales won't be magical during this critical period, and his company will lose some of the favour it has regained recently.

Perhaps this desperate need to succeed explains why Bezos and his elves have been so busy on the Amazon.com1 site - unfortunately, the UK version at Amazon.co.uk2 remains rather staid. Whatever the reason, the main site carries even more features designed to boost sales, and everyone in e-tailing should pay a visit to check out some of Bezos' latest wheezes.

The old Gold Box, which I wrote about a few months back, is still there, but has now increased to 10 offers. Alas, the Gold Box contents don't seem to have changed much: together, they form the ultimate gallery in objects of conspicuous consumption that only a real one-click junkie would buy.

Related in spirit is the Win your Wishes3 competition, where Amazon will "randomly select a customer each week - from the pool of all customers who have created or added items to their Wish Lists - and award up to $350 in items they wished for". Amazon is obviously hoping to plug into everyone's secret desires here - but only if they cost less than $350.

The "new for you" page4 now sports a message centre5, although these communications turn out to be yet more things to buy. Even cheesier is the "too low to display" price on some items, which is only revealed when you place an item in your shopping basket. You can remove it immediately, but the theory is presumably that once it is there, taking it away is harder.

A rather more substantial addition to the Amazon.com fold is the new clothes section6. In a way, this is a return to the bad old dotcom days, when Amazon.com seemed to add new stores every week. The result was a hugely expensive inventory and a dissipation of both its cash and its key strengths - like existing user loyalty.

Although the introduction of the clothes section is slightly worrying from this point of view, the actual experience turns out to be comfortingly close to that of the core business of books and music. There are the invaluable customer reviews, the day's top sellers and such like, all of which build on the basic Amazon model. This new section will be particularly valuable for others in the e-commerce sector wishing to see how a master of the art addresses the kind of issues faced by those e-tailers selling "everyday" goods.

But in many ways the acme of Amazon-ness is represented by a promotion that occupies pride of place on all the site's pages. Billed as an Amazon exclusive, the Segway Human Transporter7 is being offered for delivery starting March 2003. And if that isn't enough of a disincentive, the price may be. It comes in at a whopping $4,950, with a non-refundable deposit of $495.

But who cares about the machine? Just enjoy the extraordinary Amazon Web page devoted to it. It is certainly the longest and most detailed that I've ever come across, and reads more like a paean than a sales pitch.

As well as the usual Amazon.com review there is a section called "The Science behind the Segway". Here you can learn everything you wanted to know about the device's Balance Sensor Assembly, motor, gearbox, wheels, batteries and controller boards.

The overall effect is really quite striking - and interesting - and it suggests another future avenue for Amazon: as well as selling some of the latest gadgets8, the e-tailer might also become a kind of online magazine reviewing them. Amazon probably has the clout to pull this off, and the result, judging by the Segway extravaganza, could potentially make every day as special as Christmas - at least for Bezos.

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