February 28, 2008, 12:00 AM

Internet Retailer Web Design ’08

Internet Retailer presents a wrap-up of its first-ever web site design conference, where the art and science of e-commerce converged.

The Artful Home is all about selling original artwork and crafts. But it took a scientific look at how customers were searching its web site to figure out why so many were having trouble finding the items they wanted.

By poring over search logs, Dawn Wayt found as many as 30% of customer searches yielded no results, in part because the site presented no alternatives when customers misspelled an artist’s name or a word like “jewelry.” By enhancing the search feature so that it returned results for the most likely correct spellings, the site reduced null results to 8%.

The lesson: “Focus on your customers. Know why they come to your site, what they’re looking for and help them find it,” Wayt, vice president of online marketing at The Guild Inc., parent company of The Artful Home, told attendees in January at the Internet Retailer Web Design ’08 Conference in Miami.

It was a theme repeated by other online retailers who spoke at the conference. Like Wayt, many have learned to use customer data to fine-tune their designs in ways that turn browsers into buyers. That includes learning when to use-and when to avoid-such newer technologies as Flash graphics and video.

The conference, the first Internet Retailer event to focus on web design and navigation, attracted 850 attendees and featured 22 exhibiting companies. In addition to the conference session, attendees engaged in more than 500 30-minute one-on-one consulting sessions with 18 technology vendors and advisory firms.

In the sessions, online retailers described how they refined their sites, tested the changes and further tweaked them. A prime example came from online jewelry retailer Ice.com, which created promotional videos on 200 of its best-selling items last year. The e-retailer took the plunge after a $1,200 investment in a video posted on YouTube turned into $400,000 in sales, according to founder and president Mayer Gniwisch.

Once the 200 videos were created, the company tested two versions of the site with video, one in which the video played automatically and the other in which the visitor had to hit the play button, against a site with no video. The automatic-play version won, and was implemented in December. One unexpected result: returns for some products dropped 20% or more, which Gniwisch attributed to customers having a better idea of what they were buying.

Another example came from bookseller Borders, whose soon-to-be-relaunched site features a Magic Shelf displaying books facing out as they might be seen in a bookstore, and allowing the visitor to click through a book’s contents and view the back cover.

Borders turned to a social networking forum that matched its customer demographics, Gather.com, and invited forum participants to comment on the beta site, Kevin Ertell, vice president of e-business at Borders Group Inc., told the conference. Most of the feedback was about Magic Shelf: forum members mostly liked it, but some complained that it was slow to load and difficult to navigate.

Borders engaged site development firm Allurent Inc. to improve the user experience, with the result that Magic Shelf now loads more quickly and offers new features. For instance, mousing over a book cover produces a “quick look” box that provides a summary of the book, shows its price and allows the customer to directly add it to a shopping cart. The user also can now drag the entire shelf from one side to another to see more titles.

“The difference in response has been tremendous,” Ertell said.

The Wal-Mart way

Wal-Mart Stores also tested alternatives last year as it added a feature to Walmart.com that lets visitors check the availability of an item in a nearby Wal-Mart store. Customers told the retailer they wanted to see the address of their favorite Wal-Mart, which Walmart.com added as a mouseover feature to save space on the page, said Debbie Kristofferson, vice president of creative and user experience at Walmart.com and the conference’s keynote speaker.

In addition, customers wanted to see addresses of other nearby Wal-Marts. Kristofferson said the retailer had to carefully consider every word to keep the most important information visible on the page without scrolling.

Besides surveys and focus groups, there are other ways web retailers can get feedback from site visitors, including by watching what they search for. In his presentation to the conference, Glenn Edelman, senior director of online marketing and merchandising at Wine Enthusiast, reported a spike in searches for a particular wine glass one Saturday morning, a day after a column in the Wall Street Journal had praised the glass. “In 24 hours, we had an e-mail going out saying, ‘We have this glass,’” Edelman said.

The retailer, which sells everything to do with wine except the wine itself, didn’t sell coasters. But after seeing lots of customers get “no results” when typing in that term, the retailer added coasters to its product mix, Edelman said. Many customers were entering “decanter” into the search box, apparently unaware that the item was included in glassware; now there’s a Decanting tab on the top navigation bar.

Eyes have it

An even more sophisticated way of learning how customers navigate a site is eye-tracking, which shows how a shopper looks at a web page by capturing the reflection of the individual’s cornea and retina from light emitted by a specially designed monitor.

Eye-tracking showed test subjects viewing the site of apparel retailer Charlotte Russe were spending a lot of time looking at lifestyle images on a particular page, but could not click on the image to buy the products portrayed, said Johanna Murphy, senior director of user experience and design at GSI Interactive, a unit of GSI Commerce Inc., which operates the e-commerce site for Charlotte Russe. GSI and the retailer are now working on a new rollover feature that will allow visitors to buy outfits displayed in such images.

More technology is not always the answer to a web site’s problems, as Dan Miller, vice president of product management at American Greetings Interactive, explained. After the greeting cards retailer added lots of Flash-based animation to its site customers complained that the pages were loading too slowly and the abandonment rate went up by five times or more on certain pages, Miller said. The retailer reverted to older graphics technology to speed up performance.

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