Since the dawn of Internet retailing, one thing has remained constant: Retailers are always re-designing their sites. That is especially true as the medium has gone mass market.
But while re-design is a constant, there has been little to match the flurry of re-designs of major sites in the past year. Many of the leading web-based retailers-click-and-brick, pure-play dot-coms and catalogers alike-have come out with spiffed up sites. They include EddieBauer.com, Walmart.com, which came back up after a whole month offline last fall; BlueLight.com, JCPenney.com, Staples.com, LandsEnd.com, 800.com and Buy.com, to name just a few.
What these sites have in common is a drive to design the site in such a way that anyone will find it intuitive and easy to use. For success in the mass market, a site must make it easy for consumers to buy. Really, really easy. That’s why usability has emerged as one of the guiding themes in web site design. “We built our site on usability,” says Bill Strauss, CEO of Proflowers.com, a San Diego-based web florist.
But usability isn’t the only buzzword buzzing around new and improved site designs. “Emotion” is another one. Catalogers have long known that creating a mood when presenting products can spark sales. Now, web sites are learning that lesson, too, and it’s not just the flower and gift merchants. New looks in photography, color and more are showing up on web sites as retailers seek to tug on shoppers’ hearts. JCPenney.com’s new design, for instance, recently featured exceptionally beautiful photos of mother and child as well as bride and groom-serving up idealized images that tie purchasing to deep rooted ideas about motherhood and marriage (see box p. 19). “Customers wanted to be emotionally engaged and drawn into the site,” says a J.C. Penney spokeswoman.
Usability rests on three factors, says a recent report from Forrester Research:
- helpful organization and solid search;
- content, tools and service to support purchase decisions; and
- a focus on simplicity.
To deliver on those criteria, sites are streamlining navigation, changing search and shopping tools to match shoppers’ natural thought processes, and smoothing the path to checkout by giving consumers information they need to make buying decisions-like shipping charges-earlier in the process. And it’s all in the name of making web shopping as easy as possible.
Like the high-powered engine that chugs along unseen to make your car run, making online shopping seem simple takes a lot of complex magic behind the scenes. Retail sites are sinking big research and technology dollars into delivering a hassle-free shopping experience for consumers. So on the smoothest-running sites, what shoppers see and experience is just the tip of a very large iceberg. “Keeping it simple is incredibly complicated,” says Colin Hynes, director of usability at Staples.com.
The analysis, logic and programming needed to make the systems do searching, sorting, and other tasks for the shopper requires more hardware and software. “Keeping it simple for customers and making the site mirror the way they think creates a tremendous amount of burden for the company on the back end,” says Proflowers’ Strauss. “It’s definitely a lot more support-intensive than if our system made the customer do more of the work. And it’s more costly this way.”
Yet that’s exactly where Proflowers.com has chosen to plunk its money down. The privately held company, which racked up sales of $8.1 million in the fourth quarter of last year, has spent as much as $20 million on its technology platform since it launched in 1998, Strauss says. That platform supports a shopping process Proflowers built in-house after reviewing and rejecting off-the-shelf shopping cart technology.
Delving into the head
To build its system, Proflowers dug deep into customers’ heads to focus on the thought process involved in ordering flowers, and then designed an ordering process that matched. It switched the fields in its order form, for example, to asking for shopper’s billing information last instead of first. “We know from our research that’s not what people think about first when they’re ordering flowers,” says Richie Hannah, director of web strategy. “What comes to mind is who they’re sending the flowers to.” So early in the ordering process, Proflowers asks for the recipient’s address and the card message. That gets shoppers thinking about the recipient, emotionally involved in the purchase, and invested in completing the transaction. “Once they fill out that page, they’ve already completed half the order process,” Hannah adds.
Putting itself further into the minds of its customers, Proflowers looked at but passed on adding major content, community features, or other products. “People just want to see how the flowers they’re sending will look, and they want to purchase them fast, so we focused on that,” says Chris d’ Eon, vice president of marketing retention.
Toward that end, it hooked up with content distributor Akamai Technologies Inc. to speed page downloads, and it stripped away whatever its research deemed nonessential. What’s left is an easy to navigate site offering about half a dozen ways to search, high resolution product images that load fast, and rapid check-out. A simple navigational tweak dreamed up in-house drives more conversions from one page than any other on the site, says d’Eon: a search feature that lets shoppers view thumbnails of the site’s entire collection by scrolling down on one page rather than requiring them to load new pages to see it all.
The rest of Proflowers’ keep-it-simple strategy is Marketing 101, drawn from the previous catalog industry experience of several executives on the management team. “What really increases conversions is putting the right product in front of the customer,” says d’Eon. “In catalogs, you display your best products right up front, because catalogs are about people shopping and not any of those other things.” To select featured products for the home page, the company monitors conversion rates on products and watches the patterns in which shoppers move to and from products on the site.