May 31, 2001, 12:00 AM

K.I.S.S. Keep It Simple for the Shopper

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Proflowers doesn’t disclose profits, but so far, its keep-it-simple strategy seems to be paying off. Industry analysts like what they see on the site. The company was rated the top web floral site twice last year in Forrester’s Power Rankings, and received top honors in its category from Biz Rate as well. In May, Proflowers.com signed a deal to become the exclusive provider of flowers on Amazon.com, a choice largely based, Strauss says, on the quality of shoppers’ experience with the site.

 

Focus on a few things

 

Deleting the extraneous and devoting resources to things like high quality images and fast downloads are examples of the type of usability enhancements that actually drive sales, says Mary Brett Whitfield, an analyst with PricewaterhouseCoopers. But other features now becoming commonplace on retail sites barely justify their place on the page, PricewaterhouseCoopers found in a recent consumer survey. Few customers surveyed said they’d ever used features like wish lists or related online content. “The bottom line was that e-retailers need to focus on a few things-search, detailed product information and detailed product images,” Whitfield says. “Consumers are saying, ‘Make it an easy, streamlined shopping experience for me, with all the information I need. The other features are icing on the cake, but don’t expect them to be the thing that gets me to buy’.”

 

But streamlined doesn’t mean barebones. While Proflowers offers fewer than 100 SKUs, other retail sites ask shoppers to choose from thousands. For these web merchants, boosting usability means helping shoppers narrow a big field to find the right product-whatever it takes. So keeping it simple for their customers takes sophisticated search tools that offer multiple routes to the products to capture different shopping styles. “The trend is toward more and more search engine functionality to try to accommodate the wide range of consumers and how they like to shop and search,” says Paul Ritter, managing director of e-retail consulting group Strategic Research Advisors.

 

Outfit selections

 

Take JCPenney.com, which launched a major redesign of its site this spring. The site beefed up its search engine to go deeper and return “smarter” results. In addition to category and brand, shoppers can now search by special size, which means plus-sized women needn’t plow through petites to find what they want, or vice-versa. Following a trend established by Landsend.com and others, the redesign also added a “buy this outfit” feature that lets shoppers click and buy an outfit solution rather than pick and choose among pieces. “It can be challenging for customers to shop for pants or a skirt and match up the right blouse. We have great resources in the company in people whose entire job is to watch trends,” says the J.C. Penney spokeswoman. “We’ve gathered up that information to use in putting the outfits together for people on the web.”

 

Features that increase purchasing most are those that simplify online shopping by making it more like shopping in a store and less of a mental leap from the offline world, says Whitfield. “People want to see products up close,” she says. In fact, close-up product images that let shoppers see almost the same detail they would in a store ranked number one in influencing shoppers to buy in Pricewaterhouse’s survey.

 

The company was a consultant on JCPenney.com’s relaunch, so it’s no surprise that the new site improved high-resolution magnification on apparel product images to let shoppers inspect details like weave and texture. And JCPenney.com isn’t the only one to get onboard that train. Walmart.com took its store completely offline for a month last fall while it switched to a new technology platform and made design improvements that bypassed major bells and whistles that would have been too graphic-intensive. Making the cut, however, was zoom technology that can enlarge product images big enough to fill the screen.

 

If giving shoppers detailed product information is one of the cornerstones of usability, still other trends in web site design show that e-retailers aren’t stopping at zoom technology to put it out there. Recent site additions at Eddiebuaer.com and Gap.com prove there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or in this case, wriggle into a pair of jeans. Clothes can’t be tried on online, but Gap’s online Pantfinder and Eddie Bauer’s pants fit guide offer the next best thing: side by side comparisons of jeans and khakis that drill down to details of how each style fits. On EddieBauer.com, shoppers can view the bootcut jean, for example, alongside the five-pocket capris, with details on the slimness or fullness of the cut at the hips, knees and ankles posted next to each style. Gap.com’s Pantfinder even lets shoppers rotate the pants to see how they’ll look from the front, side, and rear.

 

Eddie Bauer’s pants fit guide is one of several new features rolled out in connection with or since a major re-launch last July, says Sally McKenzie, vice president of interactive media. Others include an instant outfit feature-”We’re not all fashion geniuses,” McKenzie says-the ability to view clothing in each color in which it’s offered, and more. All of the new tools and features have one purpose: improved product presentation.

 

Going up

 

EddieBauer.com may not be the flashiest site out there, says McKenzie--a theme that the latest web site redesigns reflect-but Eddie Bauer is after more than just eye candy. “We’ve tried to establish best practices for web sites in terms of giving people a lot more detail about what they’re buying,” she says. With the relaunch and with each new tool, page views, conversions and time spent per page have all risen, McKenzie says. “We can’t tell how much of the increase is attributed to which tool,” she adds. “But the numbers are going in the right direction.”

 

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