Seeking fresh ways to breathe life into their visually flat offerings, online retailers are taking a literal page from catalogs and using narratives to sell their goods. A look at four creative retailers that are doing it well.

In 1997, at the National Retail Federation’s Big Show, futurist Alvin Toffler forecast that in a generation or so we would all be able to point to products on a television program (he referenced something on “Seinfeld”), click a button, and voila! It would soon arrive at our homes.

Online retailing had yet to get its marathon-like legs at the time, so Toffler can be forgiven for getting the concept correct but the channel wrong. Now, nearly 20 years later, we indeed can point, click and order – but from digital stories as told by online retailers.

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Several merchants, including Patagonia, Kit and Ace and Anthropologie are breathing life into their online stores by incorporating narratives such as product back stories, customer anecdotes and social media-like newsfeeds. In ways they are taking a literal page from retail catalogs that have been doing the same for decades – telling stories.

Think the J. Peterman catalog, which has made storytelling an art.

“The challenge has always been that a product can be flat when it’s online,” Braden Hoeppner, head of e-commerce at the online merchant Kit and Ace, told Strategy Online. “The strategy is to give the product context and enliven it a bit with content so users can experience it more fully.”

Whether the shopper will feel enlivened to stay with such digital storytelling is yet playing out, but it makes sense in a time when social media has enabled all consumers to share their own narratives, as well as read others. What I do believe is that engagement of any kind hinges on relevance and execution, as well as context and content. Following are examples of digital retailers that are doing it well.

Patagonia: A brand that distinguishes itself through its passion for the outdoors, Patagonia has a website that is less an online store than a company mission statement. To this end, it sprinkles a variety of tales throughout the site, with topics ranging from recycled clothing to the origin of its fleece (soda bottles) to its “Footprint Chronicles” – a global map that provides glimpses into the fair-trade factories with which Patagonia partners, complete with gender mix and products produced. Also notable are the short films the Patagonia website features, including one about hemp farming.

Kit and Ace: This Canadian retailer has been offering social media-like content since it was launched two years ago. More recently it has made its clothing, from crop tops to trousers, purchasable from the story page. A long-form Q&A with YouTube celebrity Sunny Lenarduzzi about becoming a media consultant features photos of her wearing a Kit and Ace tank and slacks. Each product can be purchased off the page. Similarly, its online magazine stories, which range from style to travel to clean eating, include images of products that can be bought with a click. Still, some stories, such as one describing the three types of people one would meet in recreation-league athletics, feature no products at all. The images are all illustrations, underscoring Kit and Ace’s commitment to content as an engagement tool.

American Girl: With dedicated pages for both children and adults, the maker of high-end specialty dolls has designed its website like a magazine, with recipes, book recommendations, activities and short-form films. Its “Adventure Awaits” feature, anchored on the home page, leads viewers to the ongoing story of its limited-edition doll Lea Clark, the 2016 Girl of the Year, and her trip to the Amazon rainforest. With one click to meet Lea, all of her American Girl products, including the necklaces she and her human friend wear, are available to order. Stories for parents include “How to Tackle 10 Tough Conversation Topics with Your Girl” and “Building Blocks of Learning,” about construction sets – not dolls.

Anthropologie: This retailer known for uncharacteristically stylish rompers, platform shoes and household items asks its shoppers to create its online narrative. The merchant invites customers to post images of themselves, along with personal captions, in natural settings wearing their Anthropologie clothing or accessories. A shopper in Chicago, for example, shows off her white flared jumpsuit while climbing the walls (with hands and feet) of a narrow hallway. Details about her Anthropologie outfit, and how to purchase it, are available by clicking on a thumbnail image.

Like American Girl and Kit and Ace, Anthropologie maintains a short distance between engagement and purchase, enabling shoppers to embrace the lifestyles they are reading about. If the stories are told well, I believe shoppers, at least some shoppers, will take notice of the narratives and even return to learn more about the brands that “think” like they do. This attraction to like-minded cultures could energize shoppers to share their own stories, or at least to read on.

Consider, for example, the eponymous J. Peterman mailer that epitomizes the retail narrative.

Yes, the quirky catalog has a website, and it still tells stories: “We’re sitting at a table along Rue Es-Siaghine in Petit Socco,” begins the story about its brightly colored Aztec Caftan. “Sultans and foreign ambassadors meandering these cafes and shops. She’s from Finland, lives in Paris, speaks hoarse, beautiful French. Tall, taut, full of energy, black-eyed, blonde.”

Curious? You’ll have to visit the site to learn how that story ends.

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