September 30, 2003, 12:00 AM

The new realism of web site design

From knowing how the placement of every element creates sales to monitoring customer questions to making sites more usable, retailers are taking site design to the next level.

A shopper looking for a talking pedometer is different from a shopper looking for a leaf-and-pinecone wreath. That’s why specialty stores create atmospheres to reflect what their customers are seeking-and why web retailers today are doing the same. “Demographics really make a difference in how you design a site,” says Greg Sweeney, vice president and general manager of direct marketing at multi-channel retailer Brookstone Inc.

Differentiation based on customers or products wasn’t always the case when it came to retail web site design. Retailers adopted what the early industry considered best designs and applied them to their sites-whether they were retailing best designs or not. Today, though, retailers are focused on who their market is, how their web sites serve that market and what that means in sales, whether online or offline. “Site design is not about the wow! factor any more,” says Bridget Fahrland, executive creative director of Fry Inc., which designed the Brookstone sites.

Brookstone knows: The market for its flagship brand Brookstone, which sells talking pedometers, is different from the market for its subsidiary brand Gardeners Eden, which sells leaf-and-pinecone wreaths.

Thus the company adopted a much different design when it re-launched GardenersEden.com last month from the design it has used at Brookstone.com for going on two years.

Prompting the call to action

A few of the differences that the two audiences dictated: Brookstone has a more robust site search engine, Gardeners Eden has a broader array of categories to guide shoppers to the right product. Brookstone has a high-tech, innovative look; Gardeners Eden has a softer, warmer, homey feel. “Brookstone is more about the individual and how to make life more fun; Gardeners Eden is more about home comfort, how to make the world more secure and comfortable,” Sweeney says. “The designs reflect those differences.”

Brookstone’s sites are one example of the new care that retailers are bringing to their site designs these days. It’s all aimed at increasing conversion rates and sales. “Everything in design has to be a call to action,” says Scott James, director of marketing for PuraVida.com, an online seller of fair trade coffee and operator of a foundation that works in the Third World. “Everything has to be pushing people to put something in the shopping cart or to make a donation.” Pura Vida recently re-launched its site with help from design consultants NetConversions.

In addition to understanding their customers, as Brookstone is doing, retailers pay close attention to how the web site presents their brand and their products. Cataloger Miles Kimball, for instance, kept its brand uppermost in mind when it re-designed its site. Launched in July and created by Multimedia Live, the new MilesKimball.com mimics the brand as presented in the 55 million catalogs the Oshkosh, Wis.-based retailer mails annually. “We’re known for our catalog and we wanted to make sure the web site was very consistent with the brand,” says Joel Schunter, marketing manager. “The new site gives a clean, clear branding message.”

Among the elements that reinforce the brand is a navigation bar with categories that change colors as customers mouse over them. “All the categories in our catalog are color-coded and we wanted to reinforce that with the nav bar on the web site,” Schunter says.

Although it hadn’t launched the reporting mechanism for its new site by early fall, Miles Kimball was certain the new design has resulted in greater sales. “Based on the feedback we are getting from customers, we believe we have increased conversion rates,” Schunter says.

Thinking inside the box

At Godiva Chocolatier Inc., a large part of the focus is on the product. While Godiva.com has always contained gorgeous shots of candy, Godiva, in a modification of its design last fall, enhanced its product information by increasing detail about the contents and the appearance of gift boxes. The site includes a section where customers can view descriptions of the pieces of chocolate and find boxes that contain those pieces or they can view the contents of a box and learn more about the individual pieces. “You can find the pieces you like, then find a box that contains those pieces, or you can find a box you like and see what pieces are in it,” say Kim Land, vice president of Godiva Direct. “The guide is very important because people like to know what’s in a box.”

Godiva’s re-design by Fry also incorporates additional information about product packaging, including the ability to zoom in on details such as the bow or the ribbon on a box. “We saw conversions increase,” says Land, declining to provide details. “It’s hard to pinpoint it to one piece of functionality, but a lot of customers use that capability.”

Godiva’s re-design is also part of the trend toward more information on retail web sites, Fahrland says. “A couple of years ago, everyone thought it was not smart to have too much information on the web site,” she says. “But today customers are going to the web site for all the product information.”

For instance, Graco Children’s Products Inc.’s GracoBaby.com includes information about dimensions, weight, appropriate age, suggested uses and even a downloadable manual for baby strollers. “It’s not exciting, but it’s critical for people to get over the hurdle of buying online,” says Fry Inc. president David Fry.

More science

Today’s approach to site design is more of a science than it was in the past. For one thing, many changes are based on customer feedback. The changes at Godiva.com were the result of reviewing customers’ comments and questions coming into Godiva’s call and contact center. “Very often, people were asking for recommendations,” Land says. “We found it better to provide tools at the site so customers could make their decisions rather than have them call in or turn to live chat.”

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