Online shopping enters comfort zone

Web startups moving into upper echelons of business movers and shakers

If you want to see titans duke it out on a glowing screen, never mind heading to the theater to watch “Godzilla.” Just boot up your computer and go shopping.

There you can witness “earth’s biggest bookstore” taking on “the planet’s biggest movie store.” The two slogans belong, respectively, to Amazon.com and Reel.com, two entertainment-related Internet merchants who may soon become head-to-head competitors: pioneer web vendor Amazon — which recently announced it had become the third biggest bookseller in the U.S. — is making moves toward retailing CDs and videotapes, too.

David Risher, Amazon.com’s sr. VP of marketing and product development, mentions the “sense of discovery” bibliophiles have when knocking around their info-rich Web site, something Amazon hopes to replicate on the vid side with its recent purchase of Internet Movie Database.

Berkeley-based Reel.com chairman and founder Stuart Skorman shares his competitor’s view that “we’re building a business based on information,” pointing to his company’s recently introduced “MovieMap.” It’s a genre-pegging version of an “interactive family tree,” so that people picking a large category, like Suspense, will be directed to more specific sub-genres, like Noir, itself broken down into such distinctions as Sci-fi Noir and the intriguing American Dream Deferred.

The branching continues until customers are presented with films they might never have heard of otherwise — let alone thought to buy. Among Reel.com’s current ten bestsellers are such studio demographic-busting titles like “In the Realm of the Senses” and “Brazil.”

Information is also the name of the game for CDNow. Founded by brothers Jason and Matthew Olim in 1994, when Jason was unable to find a clerk knowledgeable about a Miles Davis title, CDNow currently sells over a quarter-million music-related items on its Web site.

They’ve also announced a deal with Rolling Stone Network that will see them, by month’s end, tapping into 30 years’ worth of rock content from the noted mag, including covers, stories and columns.

Is this depth of information the key to selling on the Web?

At best, Jason Olim thinks product knowledge is merely reason number two. “The breadth of selection,” he maintains — selection now including “Web exclusives,” like early availability of the new Willie Nelson album — “is the most important thing.”

Threshold Entertainment chairman Larry Kasanoff, who sells “Mortal Kombat” tie-ins on the Web site bearing his film franchise’s name, is even more blunt: “I can give you hundreds of pages (of Web content), but the reality is, it’s more convenient.”

He’s hoping that convenience extends to his just-launched “Sunday Comics Store,” which will virtually vend products licensed from weekend funnies.

But there is someone who hopes you both see “Godzilla” and come home to shop on the Web — the film’s executive producer, Robert Fried, whose Precision Entertainment builds industry-related Web sites, including, of course, the store at Godzilla.com. He foresees “more selling of everything on the Web, if they can find a user-friendly way to do it.”

Which means the vast selections, databases and vendor turf wars are just prelude — the big step’s coming when all those potential buyers can finally access the Web from the home shopping comfort … of their television sets.

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