September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

How small misses can add up to big sales losses

Sending search customers to home pages, presenting lists of hundreds of products, failing to provide directions to stores are the kinds of small misses, multiplied by many shoppers, that can equal big sales losses.

It was August, with the Labor Day holiday weekend still days away: the ideal time for online apparel retailers to make the summer’s last big sales pitch for women’s Capri slacks. J. Crew had secured the initial paid position on the term in the sponsored listings panel that runs along the side of the results page on Yahoo’s search engine. Retailer RoyalRobbins.com also saw opportunity, locking in the top-of-page paid spot on the same page.

Only the companies know the sales each got from its paid ad, but anyone could see which one made it easier for people who clicked on the ads to get to Capri pants. And in online retail, that can be half the battle.

A click on the J. Crew link delivered shoppers to a landing page with photos of women’s pants-but no Capris. Micro-type at the bottom of the page offered site search, but typing in "women’s Capri pants" produced a zero results page.

Though it was paying for a top spot on Yahoo, the clicks delivering shoppers to the site weren’t connecting shoppers with the searched-for item.

Meanwhile, one click on RoyalRobbins.com’s listing delivered shoppers directly to a landing page displaying three different Capri pants styles, with a Buy button parked next to each one.

"Off-site marketing campaigns are losing sales," says Jaye Sullivan, director of Internet strategy at online retail design and strategy company MarketLive Inc. "It amazes me that retailers buy very specific keywords, but then drive people to their home page. A searcher who is so specific in their keywords wants to buy something. You don’t want to send them to your home page."

Lots of company

One error, magnified by who knows how many frustrated searchers, can add up to an unknown number of lost sales. And J. Crew is by no means the only online retailer to drop the ball on what seem like easily-fixable glitches that plague sites and online marketing efforts. And those glitches are not just annoying-they result in bailouts by frustrated shoppers, lost cross-sell and up sell opportunities, and who knows what impact on web-influenced offline sales.

Ten years after the dawn of e-retail, the good news is that best practices are emerging that boost conversions online as well as maximize a site’s ability to drive sales in other channels. Implementing them doesn’t have to involve major capital outlay such as changing the site’s entire e-commerce platform. But the bad news is that many sites still don’t engage in best practices.

Here, spied in site spot checks-and easily fixable-are some of the things that online retailers inadvertently do to lose sales.

The unfiltered list. Cosmetics retailer Ulta’s web site, Ulta.com, has a lot to offer and inventory goes deep in broad product categories. Browsing or searching on "skin care," for example, offers the subcategory of "body care." But the "body care" category of products-225 in all-offers no further filtering options. "That’s as low as you can go with that list-there’s no way to filter it further," says Scott Kincaid, Web IQ product manager at technology and usability testing services provider Usability Sciences Corp. "You can’t sort by price, or say, ‘Show me only the ones for dry skin.’" A determined shopper might work her way to end of the list, but with no way to break down the category, the likelihood is that what appears toward the end of the list goes unbrowsed, unseen-and unbought.

Store locators that don’t do enough. The OPI nail collection on Ulta.com (pulled up in a search for "OPI" that delivered 334 products including Opium perfume and other items unrelated to nail polish-but that’s another story) isn’t available for sale on the site, but in Ulta stores. Clicking through on the listing pulls up a U.S. map that shoppers can click on to find Ulta stores in their state. A click on a state with Ulta stores pulls up a list of store addresses and phone numbers, but the directions end there.

"There’s no link to click for a map to the store," says Kincaid. "There is no faster way to lose customers than by not telling them where you are, particularly if you have products that are only available at the store. For the customer, being able to type in a ZIP Code and find the five closest stores is an enormous advantage." In fact, such maps as a part of store locator services are fast becoming standard practice, adds Jeff Schueler, president of Usability Sciences.

Unexplained product specs. Many online retailers, particularly in the consumer electronics category, populate their sites with product descriptions, including technical specifications, provided by the products’ manufacturers. But it can be a mistake to slap that copy up on a retail site without first doing some judicious editing to make it comprehensible to consumers, says Kincaid. He offered as an example the description provided for audio receivers on manufacturer Onkyo’s e-commerce-enabled site and the same product as described on retail site Crutchfield.com.

Shoppers who click on the features tab on the product page of any particular receiver model at Onkyo’s site see a long list of product features with a check mark after the features on the list the receiver incorporates. No other descriptors of what the features are or why they are important is offered. Crutchfield, by contrast, makes each feature on its list clickable to pop up a window explaining what the feature does and its role in product performance.

"A lot of sites will give you a description of a feature, but they won’t explain why you would want it, which is a key differentiator," Kincaid says. Providing that information is one reason Kincaid rates Crutchfield as one of the best online in its ability to upsell-and why providers in the category that don’t go that extra mile with product feature explanations are missing an opportunity, he says. "Crutchfield took the basic information provided by the manufacturer and enhanced it," he says. That’s worth a retailer’s time and resource investment, because once an effective product description is developed it can be re-used in multiple places, he points out.

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