Beginning this fall, a new Internet firm launched by Whirlpool and two other companies will offer both retailers who lack web sites and those already online a chance to sell major appliances via e-commerce, as well as providing customer referrals to their stores.
The company, brandwise, LLC, will also provide consumers with evaluations and comparisons of white goods - and eventually consumer electronics and floor care products - through the Good Housekeeping Institute, owned by The Hearst Corporation. Hearst, Whirlpool and The Boston Consulting Group are the firm's founders.
"Formed in response to consumer dissatisfaction and frustration when buying appliances and other major home durables," according to a company announcement, brandwise is described by CEO Kathy Misunas as "the next step in the evolution of e-commerce." Its web site - www.brandwise.com - will allow consumers to search for and compare products and features as well as test results, then either purchase their choices online or obtain a guaranteed price from retailers in their local area.
Retailers will pay a fee to be listed on the site, Misunas told TWICE, but she would not reveal how much.
Full launch of the web site is slated for late September, after a trial period in August. Initially, the site will offer major appliance product data in six categories: ranges, refrigerators, microwave ovens, washers, dryers and dishwashers. By mid-October, consumer electronics products such as TV sets and audio equipment will also be listed.
"We're not going to do PCs and other products already done all over the Internet by others," Misunas said. "And we're not trying to be all things to all people. We are looking at products that are considered purchases where there is a need to compare."
Consumers who log onto the site first choose an appliance category, then respond to questions about brand preference, desired features or lifestyle. Based on their responses, they are shown a selection of models to compare by features and results of product tests conducted by independent labs. Price ranges are given based on manufacturers' suggested retails.
The site will list products from virtually every appliance manufacturer, Misunas noted. And despite its founder status, "Whirlpool will get no preference in terms of product listing and so forth," she stressed.
Once the consumer makes his or her selection, the purchase can be made online or at a local store, using the customer's ZIP code to locate participating retailers in the area. The list of retailers presented includes their own prices for the specific model in question, guaranteed for a specific time period.
If the consumer wants to visit the store to inspect the product, he or she is encouraged to print out a certificate (which shows the retailer's price for that appliance) from the web site to take to the store. The retailer then notifies brandwise if a purchase is made using that certificate.
If the consumer wants to buy online, "we act as the agent for the retailer," Misunas said. The customer provides a credit card number for the purchase, which goes to the retailer, and store personnel contact him or her directly for delivery information.
The site will also offer extended warranties, initially through the same retail network. "But we might sell those warranties ourselves at some point, and perhaps accessories, too," Misunas said.
If the customer wants to return a product purchased through brandwise, "the first line of follow-up is with the retailer, but if consumers feel they are getting a runaround we will continue to have our customer-service door open and intervene on their behalf," she added.
Brandwise will do follow-up with consumers who buy via its referrals, to gauge customer satisfaction. "We want to make sure the consumer has a choice of good, reputable companies to buy from," Misunas said. Also planned is an online bulletin board so consumers can swap stories among themselves about their retail and product experiences.
Brandwise is currently contacting retailers about participation. "We're initially talking with national and large local chains to get a broad enough representation across the U.S. that consumers have a number of choices," said Misunas. The company is approaching smaller independents through buying groups, direct mail and telemarketing.
The retailer's cost to join brandwise.com varies by level of participation, she noted. One option is for retailers to have their own page as part of the site. By tying in with brandwise, "the retailer gets a web presence, for those who don't have it, or an expanded presence for those who do," she added.
In addition, the site will allow retailers to promote themselves on the Internet, will attract the affluent young customers likely to be "surfing the Net" and will differentiate participating retailers from competitors.
Misunas declined to name any retail chains that have signed up so far.
"Brandwise.com is going to revolutionize how consumers, merchants and manufacturers interact with each other," said a Whirlpool spokesman. "We believe brandwise.com will empower the consumer to make more-informed buying decisions, and we are pleased to be one of many manufacturers and merchants to be featured on the site."