September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Intelligent Design

Online retailers are going beyond the “Wow!” factor in web site design.

Internet retailers who think price and selection are the driving forces behind closing sales are only seeing half the picture. While price and selection are important to consumers, they represent about 50% of an online shopper’s purchasing decision, according to Internet retailing experts. The remaining 50% is directly influenced by web site design.

A clunky, outdated site design can turn off customers at any point in the sales process and cause them to abandon their shopping carts, even during checkout. Worse, an uninspired or difficult-to-navigate web design is less apt to convert customers arriving at a retailer’s site through a search engine link or banner ad into buyers. Typically, these consumers are unfamiliar with the retailer’s brand or product line and require more marketing acumen to persuade them into making a purchase.

The 12-month turnaround

Recognizing this trend, many Internet retailers are reevaluating their site designs and planning to either overhaul their site every 12 to 24 months or at least alter the design of key pages, such as the checkout, home and product pages, every six to 12 months to keep their sites looking fresh and able to meet consumer’s rapidly evolving expectations for site design.

"Design and web site architecture are incredibly important to conversion, and when done properly in a redesign, sales go up dramatically," says Ken Burke, CEO of MarketLive Inc., a Petaluma, Calif. web design firm.

Burke recounts that monthly sales volume at one client doubled to $4 million two months after a recent redesign. A big part of the jump, according to Burke, was that MarketLive made the site more intuitive through the inclusion of navigation tools that are easier to locate and use. "Better navigation is part of a retailer’s merchandising strategy," he adds.

Meeting consumer expectations and preferences for shopping over the Internet means more than creating a site with the "Wow!" factor. It means designing sites that deliver richer, more detailed graphic capabilities, customer friendly navigation and lightning fast downloads. These expectations have been instilled in consumers by the expansion of broadband connectivity and consumers’ increasing comfort with shopping online. Hence, Internet retailers are increasingly looking at their site designs just as they would the design of a display window, the layout of their catalog or the floor plan for their store, all of which are altered, if only slightly, throughout the calendar year.

The brand and the breadth

In each of those mediums, retailers must convey not only the appeal of their brand, but also their breadth of merchandise and value proposition. The same logic applies to web site design. "There are only so many pixels to work with on a web page, so Internet retailers need to consider what use visitors will make of each page and make the space on the page work for them," says Harley Manning, senior vice president for Forrester Research Inc. and an expert in site design.

Site design experts agree that any successful site design or redesign must deliver ease of navigation, cater to the shopping preferences of the retailer’s customers and show brand consistency. Ignoring these three basic rules can result in a site design that is dated, cluttered, unappealing, and delivers lower sales.

Norm Thompson Outfitters Inc., which recently redesigned the sites for its flagship NormThompson.com, SolutionsCatalog.com, and Sahalie.com brands added several features intended to make it easier for consumers to find the items for which they are shopping. These features include gift and shoe finders located at the bottom of the home page under the "Tools" sections. The Gift Finder allows the customer to enter information about who the gift is being purchased for, such as adventurers, pet lovers, travelers, etc., the occasion for which the gift is being purchased, and the desired price range. When using the Shoe Finder shoppers can enter whether the shoe is for a man or a woman, type of shoe, size, preferred brand, and price range.

After entering the information into either finder application, the shopper is taken to a page showing suggested gift items or shoes that match the stated criteria. Customers can arrange the items by "What’s New" or "Best Sellers" to aid their purchasing decision.

"Our aim was to make it easier for our customers to find our products and to present our products in categories that reflect the way our customers think about our products," says Debbie Hess, director of Internet marketing for Norm Thompson Outfitters. The company, which last redesigned its sites more than four years ago, is gradually rolling out many of the new features of the site redesign prior to the holiday shopping season.

LampsPlus.com, which began a redesign of its site in March, has focused on making it easier for customers to find the products for which they are shopping by reducing the clutter on its home page. Prior to the redesign, the LampsPlus.com home page was structured more like a portal with more links and less of a guided shopping experience. The result was a home page featuring far too much information, says Angela Hsu, director of Internet marketing and business development for Lamps Plus Inc.

Streamlining

The new home page features a more streamlined look, a stronger visual identity, larger, clearer images, and is focused on the products and features that consumers click on. The redesign has reduced home page exit rates by double digits, Hsu adds. One potential pothole site designers must avoid is creating too many links that can divert customers from their original mission or make it too difficult to find their way back to where they started, according to design experts. "At one point we had over 100 links on our home page," says Hsu. "We kept adding without taking down less effective features."

Making it easier to find the desired product or gift suggestion can certainly deliver a boost to sales, but today’s Internet shoppers are more image-oriented than in the past. For site designers, that means delivering richer graphics, larger type, and product descriptions that shoppers can read at a glance. "Nobody likes to squint to see an image or read text," says Forrester Research’s Manning. "If text and images are larger, it encourages people to scan the page."

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