October 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Retailers Go Shopping

The economy may be tanking, but online retailers are still looking for the latest e-commerce technology that can help them prosper.

With the spread of broadband Internet access in recent years, along with developments in technologies like rich media and Ajax-powered online merchandising, there’s never been a better time to go shopping for e-commerce applications. “Now that high bandwidth is out there in consumers’ homes, e-commerce tools are finally catching up to where technology can take them,” says Jack Kiefer, founder and CEO of web-only retailer BabyAge.com Inc.

The economy may be tanking, but there are plenty of retailers implementing new technology and approaches to keep the customers they have and snare new ones. “Retailers should communicate with customers to see how they can best serve them, then figure out how to do that with the right technology,” says Danielle Savin, a former e-commerce executive at Playboy’s Shop the Bunny site and at Frederick’s of Hollywood and now vice president of multi-channel marketing and retail specialist at Fit for Commerce, a consulting firm that helps retailers find the right e-commerce technology for their particular needs.

Watching others

To keep up with all the changes in the market, Kiefer keeps his eye on other innovative online retailers, particularly those serving young, technology-friendly customers, he says. From teen fashion site Karmaloop.com and footwear merchant Journeys.com, he’s picked up on blogs and links to social networks as methods of engaging consumers. And from the relatively sedate but highly innovative Endless.com, a footwear site from Amazon.com Inc., he’s gone to school on how to use technology like Ajax to make it easy for shoppers to find the information they need to make a purchase without getting lost in the process.

Kiefer is not alone in keeping on the constant watch for innovative applications for his web site. Among the new technology applications recently developed or in the works on retail e-commerce sites are:

 A new site search and navigation feature BabyAge.com developed with Ajax to better organize product images and details.

 An interactive and more user-friendly shopping cart at UrbanOutfitters.com designed with Flash technology.

 A new 3D application on Sears.com that lets shoppers search through images of products, then virtually try them on using a personalized, spinning avatar.

 A new AnswerBox on Evogear.com that adds a new traffic-driving question-and-answer feature to the site’s consumer reviews application.

 A customer-service application that has cut by 20% the number of customer inquiries into the Drugstore.com contact center.

Shooting for the moon

Sorting through all the options, meanwhile, challenges e-commerce managers to make tough decisions on what’s most important.

“We have lists of projects that would probably take five years to get them all down, so we shoot for the moon,” says Dmitri Siegel, managing director of Urban Outfitters Direct, the online and catalog division of the Urban Outfitters brand of Urban Outfitters Inc.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean opting for the flashiest rich media or much-hyped tools like behavior-driven personalized product offers. While balancing out the costs and benefits of each potential project, a retailer must decide whether a planned new technology application is worth the headache of integrating it with the existing e-commerce platform, he adds.

“Retailers should ask if they can in a non-intrusive yet cost-effective way introduce functionality to a site to improve the user experience without going through a major overhaul,” says Bill Mirabito, former director of online operations at BJ’s Wholesale Club who is now the principal analyst and founder of consultants B2C Partners.

Urban Outfitters decided the headache of integration was worth it when it recently deployed a new Flash-based shopping cart from Allurent Inc. With fewer clicks and pages involved in the shopping cart, shoppers can instantly pull up extra details on carted products, view cross-selling items, and, from any site page, single-click the cart icon to view the cart’s contents-features that support Urban Outfitters’ image of providing a slick shopping experience, he says.

Too many page views

At BabyAge, Kiefer determined that one of his customers’ biggest challenges was having to click through too many page views per shopping session. The retailer’s in-house I.T. team worked with Ajax technology on a .Net e-commerce platform to develop a site search and navigation feature that helps to shorten the product search.

Type “crib” into the BabyAge search window, then mouse over the search arrow to instantly pull up a list of baby cribs with thumbnail images, prices and other basic details. Go to a product category page, and without leaving the page click the “Quick Info” button that appears on each product to call up a window with an enlarged image, product details, shipping information, an add-to-cart button, and features for e-mailing the product information to a friend or adding it to a gift registry.

Product category pages also include buttons to further refine search results with a single click by criteria such as brand, price and style. Sliding navigation bars show views of more products without leaving the page.

Deploying any new technology, of course, can have unintended results and require constant review and updating. While BabyAge is pleased with the 25% boost in conversion rates from its new search and navigation technology, it had to tweak things with search experts from Google Inc. to ensure that the Ajax-supported pages got properly indexed for Internet search, Kiefer says.

Engaging customers

At outdoor sports gear and apparel retailer Evo, which sells online at Evogear.com, an ongoing challenge is to further engage its passionate community of skiers, snowboarders and other outdoor enthusiasts, says head of e-commerce Nathan Decker.

Having deployed a customer reviews application from PowerReviews Inc. three years ago, Evo wanted to make it more community oriented and deployed in August the vendor’s new AnswerBox application, which adds a customer-driven question-and-answer feature. The AnswerBox invites customers who enter product reviews to also post questions and answers about Evo’s products in a forum shared by other customers as well as by Evo’s merchandise experts.

The new feature’s multiple purpose is to further engage customers, to learn more about what customers want and need, and to provide more efficient customer service and lessen the load on inquiries to customer service reps. It also provides a more customer-friendly interface for entering comments, plus an easier way for Evo managers to run reports on what customers are saying about their products.

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