May 16, 2003, 12:00 AM

Hancock Fabrics irons out the challenges in its new web site

Hancock Fabrics launched a new site earlier this month with a redesign by Multimedia Live Inc. In trying to replicate the offline experience, Hancock tackled the challenges of selling in fractional lengths and presenting products in great detail.

Traffic to online fabric retailer HanockFabrics.com has increased 50% in the past year to 300,000 unique visitors a month, Ryan Bramlett, manager of online services for Tupelo, MS-based Hancock Fabrics Inc., tells Internet Retailer.

Hancock Fabrics launched a new site earlier this month with a redesign by Multimedia Live Inc. The site features the sale of fabric in fractional lengths, one of the challenges that Hancock and Multimedia Live had to solve before launching the new site. "That’s a big deal to customers," Bramlett says. "Some fabric is $40 or $50 a yard. To have to order a whole yard when all you need is a half yard is a significant issue."

Hancock, one of the few if not the only fabric retailers to sell in fractional lengths on the web, settled on selling fabric in quarter-yard increments. The decision in fractional lengths created problems in other parts of the operation, Bramlet notes. Pricing, for one. Customers choose the quantity in yards and fractions, say, 8.25 yards, but the pricing in the back end is in quarter yards. So what appears to a customer as one product appears to the order management system as 33 products, each a quarter-yard long. Yet the order information in the shopping basket needs to read "8.25 yards" not "33 quarter-yards." Similarly, if a customer returns the order, the order management system has to make sure she receives credit for returning 33 products. "It seems simple until you break it down," Bramlett says.

Another challenge was in product presentation so customers could judge not just the color or pattern but also the texture, weave and heft of a fabric. Hancock presents four images of each piece of fabric in increasingly higher resolution, from thumbnail up to enlarged view. Further, each image shows the complete pattern repeat. But then Hancock also scanned a 1-inch square piece of each fabric so customers can see the texture and the weave when they click on the More Info button. "We’re trying to eliminate the customer ever being disappointed by the purchase," Bramlett says.

Hancock Fabrics, which operates 430 stores in 42 states, has sold online since 1998 at Yahoo Stores. It launched a stand-alone site so it could undertake more merchandising and other sophisticated retailing activities.

Hancock’s average ticket online is more than $50, double the average offline ticket, and its product return rate is slightly over 1% A typical customer is a 25- to 54-year-old married woman with children at home. True to the stereotype, these moms are seeking convenience. "Often an online customer will live right around the corner from a store," Bramlett says. "It’s definitely about the convenience."

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