July 27, 2006, 12:00 AM

Flying Carpets

Rugs Direct weaves new site search as a way to boost sales and create more satisfied customers.

Two shoppers are looking for the same rug on RugsDirect.com. One hunts for 15 minutes and gives up. The other finds the rug with a mere two clicks of the mouse.

A logical deduction could be that the first shopper has never before heard about this thing called the Internet. But that’s not the case. Actually, the first shopper was searching RugsDirect.com using the multi-channel retailer’s old internal site search engine while the second shopper was using the company’s newly enhanced site search.

Both were searching at the behest of Rugs Direct executives, who last year decided to take action on what they determined was a major problem: a shopping cart abandonment rate far higher than the industry average, which Forrester Research estimates was 48% in 2005. The company hired online customer satisfaction research firm ForeSee Results and, after ForeSee surveyed more than 2,000 Rugs Direct shoppers and customers, concluded that site search and navigation was the most critical component of its e-commerce site and in desperate need of attention.

Hide and seek

“The research was extremely conclusive: The No. 1 complaint users had about our site was their inability to find what they were looking for,” says Randy Kremer, president.

That finding dovetails with a recent survey from consultants J.C. Williams Group, which ranked site search as the second most important influencer (after customer reviews) of online shoppers’ behavior. 71% of respondents to the survey conducted with The E-tailing Group Inc. and Start Sampling said that site search was very or extremely helpful in making an online shopping decision. 92% cited customer reviews; in third place was store locator, with 68%.

“It’s great to offer 60,000 choices, but when faced with too many choices many people opt to make no choice,” Kremer says. “We were losing business as a result of not providing customers an efficient way to narrow their choices to a reasonable number that met their criteria.”

Late last year ForeSee created a pop-up window survey that was presented to Rugs Direct shoppers and customers during visits. The brief survey asked individuals for their opinions on site content, functionality, look and feel, navigation, product information, search, and performance.

Survey respondents sent Rugs Direct a very clear message. Site search complaints left all other measurements in the dust. “The benefit of a huge selection of products fell by the wayside due to the search problem,” says Rex Creekmur, director of marketing. “Shoppers and customers were very happy with price, quality and other factors. Search and navigation simply were off the scale.”

The company has been on a roll and did not want such a glaring problem to dampen sales. Rugs Direct, operated by Winchester Carpet & Rug Co. Inc., sells its wares via the Internet, catalogs and two retail stores. Last year the company reached $22.5 million in web sales, a 70.5% jump over $13.2 million in 2004. Online sales represent close to 75% of total revenue, which in 2005 reached nearly $30 million. The company is No. 250 in the Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide to Retail Web Sites. It predicts greater than 50% sales growth this year.

To rectify the site search problem, Rugs Direct sought outside help, finally selecting Endeca Technologies Inc.’s InFront system. Rugs Direct executives liked the vendor’s surveying and results analysis methodologies and sophisticated dictionary and thesaurus system, while in-house I.T. staff concluded implementing Endeca search technology on the site could be done very efficiently.

The retailer assigned two full-time I.T. staffers to the project who spent several months linking new site search functions with the Rugs Direct product database. The I.T. staff members wrote rules via the Endeca system that lead searches to specific results, then tweaked their product database to ensure the rules matched site content and product descriptions, which were left fundamentally as they appeared on the existing site.

A rule is a streamlined method for telling a search engine what to do. Instead of having to write lines of computer code, Rugs Direct staff used the rules tool within the Endeca system to write, in language form, guidance for site search. For example, the primary default rule for all searches takes a generic product search term like “traditional rug” and automatically creates a search results page that lists the most popular traditional rugs. Simply put, the rule tells the internal engine when a shopper enters “traditional rug” to display the “most popular traditional rugs” based on the company’s database of “total sales.”

Previously, someone who searched for “traditional rugs” would have received close to 4,000 search results-the number of traditional rugs in the company’s collection of 60,000 rugs. At that point, the shopper’s only options were to scroll through those listings or go back and try to focus the search with more search terms.

With the new site search system, shopper who searches for “traditional rugs” is presented with the same 4,000 results; however, the system enables the shopper to easily and significantly narrow the list by selecting via options on the results page color, shape, size, price range, material, manufacturer or any combination of these parameters. In addition, the main search box on the home page allows shoppers to set some broad parameters as part of the initial search.

“This opened up much more flexibility to consumers when it comes to search and navigation,” Kremer says. “For the initial search results page, we wrote rules that enable shoppers to easily search by online access points, which include brands, collections, color, style, price, discounts and others. These new rules for access points helped us point shoppers to product data in ways that we never had before, and with a greatly reduced number of clicks. And by using the standardized rules functionality, we didn’t have to perform much technical work at all.”

The behind-the-scenes work with rules and product access points made for a more in-depth indexing structure to the company’s database, which in turn enabled more useful product searches as well as cross-selling and upselling opportunities, Kremer says. The company wrote separate site search rules for merchandising like cross-selling and upselling. One, for example, takes the search term, and similar variations, “high-end wool handmade rugs” and on the search results page also displays high-end rug pads for that rug as opposed to more common non-skid pads.

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