A consumer electronics retail chain based in Western Canada is refining its Internet strategy to get product information into its customers’ hands.

A&B Sound, a 43-year-old organization headquartered in Vancouver with

22 stores located in cities like Victoria and Winnipeg, is in the midst of a Web site overhaul that will see it outsource the hosting of its product specifications database. The hosting firm, Active Decisions Inc., will also offer A&B Sound customers a “”virtual sales assistant”” to help them with their purchases, under a four-year agreement.

The database will also be accessible to staff. While the technology — which Active Decisions describes as “”guided selling”” — will not affect the retailer’s merchandising plans, A&B sound spokeswoman Colleen Gallagher-Hogg said it would supplement the training personnel receive when new flyers come out.

“”Even though our sales people are by and large professionals, just because of the commission structure that we have, there is high turnover,”” she said. “”People forget things.””

Gallagher-Hogg said A&B began rethinking its Web site about a year ago, after receiving dozens of e-mail messages from loyal customers who wanted more online support. The company has made few changes to the site since it launched in 1997, she added, though it has managed to generate some revenue by selling consumer software.

“”We’ve not spent a lot and we are making money. The argument was that we are going to be losing customers if we do not address this need. There are obviously options for them,”” she said. “”People aren’t shy, especially when you’re behind an e-mail address.””

Rina Granofsky, an analyst with the Toronto-based research firm J.C. Williams Group, said many retail firms focused on creating shopping carts and transaction-oriented portals in the mid-1990s. Now the focus has changed.

“”There’s an incredible amount of research that’s telling retail that it’s the research piece that’s very, very powerful; perhaps even more powerful than the sales piece,”” she said. “”I see a ton of product information Web sites and kiosks.””

A&B was well aware of the statistics, Gallagher-Hogg said. She estimated that approximately 45 to 65 per cent of customers want better product information over the Web, adding that there were few security concerns about handing over product information to a third party.

“”All of our competitors know what lines we carry,”” she said. “”Product specs are consistent — our specs are the same as Future Shop’s specs, or the same as Circuit City specs.””

Apart from the product database, A&B plans to upgrade the online ordering system for its software and to improve the overall look and feel of the site, Gallagher-Hogg said. The relaunch is scheduled for this spring.

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