With Friends like Sony . . .

It's bad enough for stores competing with each other for consumer loyalty—imagine how retailers must feel when the largest consumer-electronics company in the world decides to compete with you as well. This grim reality came true for dealers around the world last week, when Sony Electronics outlined its plans for SonyStyle.com, which the company describes as "an information-rich e-commerce website." The site is scheduled to be launched this fall.

This is not entirely new ground for Sony, which in the past has opened its own retail outlets in several major cities. But Sony's aggressive move online signals competition for every Sony dealer anywhere a consumer has a Net connection. Forrester Research's Carrie Johnson brings the point home: "Their retailers are scared, and Sony hasn't yet outlined their plans for cooperating on referrals." The only other major manufacturer so far to offer products online is Thomson's RCA.com.

According to Sony, beginning the week of July 24, a beta version of the SonyStyle.com site will be online with approximately 600 products available immediately for sale. Ultimately, nearly all of Sony's consumer audio/video and PC products are to be made available for sale. Sony says the site will provide comprehensive information on Sony products, including manuals, warranty information, and "help-me-decide" guides. Also included will be a dealer locator for customers to search for the nearest retail outlet for Sony products.

Sony's Robert Ashcroft defends the contentious move, stating that "in a digital world, there is more of a need for an ongoing, direct relationship between Sony and its customers. As digital devices become more prevalent, consumers will increasingly turn to the Internet for information on how to integrate products into their personal and home networks, and to access digital content. SonyStyle.com will meet the demand for information and support in the digital era, ultimately providing a platform for connected devices and a destination for everything Sony."

Ashcroft adds that "offering e-services is just the beginning. . . . We expect to launch an ISP for networked devices and a portal for complementary services later this year." Further out, Sony expects that its site will become a place where Sony customers can load up on all forms of content, including music, movies from Sony Pictures, and other software.