July 31, 2007, 12:00 AM

Internet Retailer Survey: Form and function

Web retailers are busy redesigning their e-commerce sites and adding new looks and features that make it easier for customers to shop online. But they’re also sticking to the basics and implementing new designs that improve product organization, navigation and site search.

By Mark Brohan

Web retailers are busy redesigning their e-commerce sites and adding new looks and features that make it easier for customers to shop online. But Internet merchants are also sticking to the basics and implementing new designs that improve product organization, page navigation and site search, according to the results of Internet Retailer’s latest monthly survey-this one on web site design, content and rich media.

The survey, which includes responses from 243 chain retailers, catalog companies, virtual merchants and consumer brand ­manufacturers, finds that site design is a top priority. The research reveals that 60.3% of merchants have redesigned their e-commerce sites in the past year, including 20.1% in the past three months and 14.3% within six months. Of the retailers planning to overhaul the look of their web sites, 74.7% expect to do so within 12 months and 28.6% within 90 days.

“The pace of web site design is brisk because more retailers know that having an attractive site that makes it easy to find merchandise and make a purchase is a competitive advantage,” says Joey Lechtner, director of e-marketing services for Fry Inc., an Ann Arbor, Mich., web site design and e-commerce development company. “Retailers ‘keep up with the Jones’ and if their competitor redesigns a site, they notice and take action.”

The survey was e-mailed in early July to all subscribers of IRNewsLink, the magazine’s e-newsletter, and all responses were collected and analyzed by Vovici Corp. (formerly WebSurveyor), which has partnered with Internet Retailer in a series of surveys on the e-retailing industry. The survey, which includes detailed answers from 55 chain retailers, 44 catalog companies, 123 virtual merchants and 21 consumer brand manufacturers, finds that better product and page organization is a top design goal for 68.9% of all companies, followed by smoother navigation at 67.3%, faster and more intuitive site search at 53.9%, and more product reviews and ratings at 40.9%. “Customers don’t want to waste a lot of time finding merchandise and more retailers are emphasizing designs that put a premium on clear organization and speed,” says Lechtner. “It’s no good having a flashy site if the navigation takes too long to get the shopper from point A to B.”

Online retailers also are putting a premium on designing web sites that give customers faster access to product content and personal information. 70.2% of retailers taking part in the survey have web sites that allow shoppers to create a personal account and view and update their information and 52.6% of merchants deploy advanced site search tools that shoppers can use to search by product type, size, color, material and price.

The survey further finds that 57% of retailers have designed their main e-commerce sites with programs that allow customers to track their individual orders. Other popular features include “e-mail a friend” at 54.9%, advanced site search at 47.2%, alternative payments at 43%, and digital coupons or rebates at 40.4%.

Design complexity

A typical web redesign will take an online retailer from three months to 18 months, depending on the complexity of the design and the time needed to integrate new pages and templates with an e-commerce platform, according to Fry.

Once the planning is done, the Internet Retailer survey finds that web merchants like doing their own design work. 50.8% of retailers participating in the survey will use internal staff to complete their next site redesign vs. 13.8% that will use their current design firm and 15.3% that will use both their own employees and their design company to complete the job.

Some big online retailers such as Drugstore.com, which operates Beauty.com, and Redcats USA, which operates 17 e-commerce sites, are updating their sites with applications such as AJAX and Flash. With such technology, retailers can implement new design and usability features such as mouse-over navigation, ­streaming content and interactive product reviews.

But the Internet Retailer survey finds that most retailers are sticking to more basic design tasks. For instance, only 35.1% of merchants use rich media. Of the retailers that are, the survey shows 20.7% are using videos, followed by zoom at 16.6%, interactive catalogs at 10.4%, dynamic imaging at 9.8% and color swatching at 7.8%.

“I am surprised that more retailers aren’t using rich media because it’s a good way to boost sales conversions and enhance the customer’s experience on a shopping site,” says Scott Roth, president and CEO of Vendaria Media Inc., a Seattle web design and rich media development company. “If they aren’t using rich media today, they should be.”

Before they embark on a web design project or gauge reaction once work is complete, 56.3% of web retailers gather customer feedback. To solicit feedback, the survey shows 29.7% of merchants use online surveys as their main form of communication; 29.6% rely on a Contact Us form on a customer service page, 18.5% track comments in calls to a contact center, and 15.7% use focus or user groups.

Online retailers use customer feedback to test and refine their web site designs. But once the new design is in place, most retailers aren’t using A/B or multivariate testing to measure results. A/B and ­multivariate testing can help retailers gauge reaction to two or more versions of a web page, banner ad and other design elements. A/B and multivariate testing can also help web merchants test different groups of graphics, background colors, headlines and product copy simultaneously.

Yet the Internet Retailer survey reveals only 23.3% of web retailers conduct A/B or multivariate tests. Of the merchants that are ­testing, only 34.9% are doing so on a daily or weekly basis vs. 48.8% that conduct monthly tests and 16.3% just once a year.

Added cost

Incorporating a sophisticated third-party application or testing and monitoring service can significantly add to the cost of a site redesign. A small retailer using an outside firm to redesign a web site can expect to pay a minimum of $3,000, while the price for mid-sized retailers can range from $5,000 to $15,000, says Shari Thurow, founder and search engine optimization director of Omni Marketing Interactive, a Chicago web design and search engine consulting firm. Big retailers often pay up to $50,000 for outside creative help for a web design project.

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