July 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

BIG...and getting bigger

(Page 2 of 3)

A big obstacle to buying appliances and other large products online is that the major business-to-consumer delivery services like UPS and FedEx won’t handle them, forcing retailers to ship via freight carriers that are less consumer-friendly. Improvement Direct has tackled that by creating a video explaining what will happen when a freight carrier handles a delivery, including how to inspect an item upon delivery and what to do if items are missing or damaged.

Several speakers described how they redesigned sites to better serve customers. Among them was Neel Grover, keynote speaker June 11 and CEO of online general merchandiser Buy.com, whose new site includes predictive search that provides likely choices as visitors type query terms in search boxes and presents related products consumers might want on search results pages. The new site also includes a forum that enables visitors to post questions that Buy.com experts answer.

While video is hot, it’s not a panacea, attendees learned in a session entitled “The Best of Retail Video.” “There’s not a screaming demand for video,” said analyst David Card of JupiterResearch who noted that only a minority of consumers find video useful on retail sites. Shoppers should be able to turn videos off, added co-presenter Laura Evans, executive studio director for marketing agency Resource Interactive.

Site design

Some online retailers reported going through multiple site redesigns as they learned more about selling online. Action Envelope, for instance, has designed its site four times since it began selling online in 2000.

Action Envelope spent more than $200,000 on its latest redesign that features a new Made-to-Order tool that allows customers to create customized envelopes by size, color, stock and window.

This redesign, completed this year, took the retailer and Alexander Interactive Inc., its New York design firm, almost 8,000 programming hours to complete. “When we redesigned the site in 2004, it took us 2,160 hours and this last time the total was 7,657 hours,” said CEO Seth Newman.

The retailer credits its latest redesign with generating web sales of about $985,000 the first month after it launched.

Getting site design right is crucial because visitors decide in a fraction of a second whether to stay on a site they’ve landed on, especially for the first time, said Sacha Loughton, creative director at design firm FastPivot, speaking with Newman in a session entitled “The Basics of Web Site Design and Content: Engaging the Shopper for More Sales.” That’s why it’s important that the site be clear about what it’s offering, well organized and credible, she says.

Customers told CPA2Biz.com, which sells publications and products to accountants, that the site was hard to read and products hard to find, reported Melissa Rothchild, vice president of marketing. After redesigning the site to feature a bold and prominent left navigation bar throughout the site, traffic and sales went up 20%, Rothchild said.

Making sure search engines can find content on a site is also increasingly important to retailers. Nowhere was that more in evidence than in the session “Web Site Design Spotlight: Live, On-the-Spot Critiques of Retailers’ Sites.”

Attendees in a jam-packed room offered their sites for critiques by Stephan Spencer, CEO of search engine marketing company Netconcepts, and consultants Lauren Freedman, president of The E-Tailing Group, and Amy Africa, president of Eight by Eight. The three displayed sites on projection screens.

While many sites did a lot of things right, none did everything right. The most common problem were redirects that shunt a user from a site with one URL to another site where the actual content resides and transactions take place. If not done properly, such redirects prevent sites from ranking high in natural language search engine results.

Other problems ranged from too much white space- “ If you saw this white space on a TV screen, you’d probably turn it off,” Africa told Bulbtown.com-to odd placement of standard elements, such as a Checkout button on the home page before a customer even starts shopping, or having a search box in a hidden location.

New ways to connect

Among the many marketing initiatives discussed, perhaps the most radical was iFloor stopping all online marketing efforts for a few weeks to see what would happen. Site sales dropped by 30% and store visits attributable to Internet leads plummeted 60%, reported Theron Andrews, chief marketing officer.

Online marketing techniques can be more effective than traditional methods, but they have to be tested, Andrew said. “When in doubt, cut it out,” he added. “Test the impact of eliminating certain elements and evaluate the return.”

In another session on marketing through social networking, Dell Inc. reported on its ReGeneration.org site designed to build relationships between the computer maker and consumers concerned about the environment. Visitors can post information on the environment and Dell reports on its eco-friendly initiatives.

Thousands of visitors have posted content, said Sean McDonald, Dell’s director of global online. When Dell posed the question, “What does green mean to you?” 7,900 individuals posted responses and there were 1 million votes on the value of those responses.

Several other major online retailers are recognizing that web users are spending more time on social sites like MySpace and Facebook, noted Heather Dougherty, director of research for Internet traffic measurement firm Hitwise. Sears Holdings Corp. enables consumers to exchange comments and to buy prom dresses on a Facebook page, and more than 350,000 consumers have been attracted to Victoria Secret’s PINK page on Facebook, Dougherty said.

There were many other tips from online retailer speakers on a variety of topics.

Taking the view that a relationship with a customer begins with the end of the first sale, Julie Swatek, president of online scrapbooking site ScrapYourTrip.com, includes a handwritten thank-you note with every order. To deal with customers complaining of missing items, computer retailer CDW Corp. takes digital photos of the contents of every box, and makes those photos available to both customers and customer service agents, said Doug Eckrote, senior vice president of operations.

The mobile future

A final day workshop focused on the next frontier of electronic commerce, selling to consumers through their mobile phones.

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