February 26, 2009, 12:00 AM

Moderate Makeovers

The focus at the Internet Retailer Web Design ’09 conference was on modest changes that won’t bust budgets—but can boost results.

A well-designed web site is more important than ever now that retail sales are slow, but few e-commerce managers are likely to get budget approval these days for a top-to-bottom site overhaul. The good news that came out of the Internet Retailer Web Design ’09 conference is that small tweaks can add up to big results-and have the advantage of not confusing customers.

Speakers presented a wide variety of tips for fine-tuning retail at the conference held Jan. 19 to 22 in Miami Beach. Those tips ranged from strategies for moving up in search results to the most efficient way to organize a photo shoot.

Full audio and visual presentations by the 45 expert speakers at
Web Design `09 are now available on multi-media CD-ROM. Click Here for more details.

And for those retailers ready for a redesign, there were suggestions on how to pick a design agency and reports from online retailers on what they learned from full-scale redesigns.

But the specter of the economic downturn loomed over the 625 attendees, and much discussion centered on low-cost site enhancements, as a strategy of small changes is a necessity for many e-retailers today but the virtue in such a strategy is that it’s less likely to confuse the customer, said keynote speaker Lindy Rawlinson in opening the conference Jan. 20.

“Constantly evolve through incremental changes, without changing too much at once to risk customer frustration or confusion,” said Rawlinson, vice president of web operations and new business at Neiman Marcus Direct, the direct-to-consumer arm of the department store chain. “Let the customer get used to changes to the site one at a time.”

Wider pages

As an example, she cited the new BergdorfGoodman.com site that Neiman Marcus had launched that morning. As it had last fall with NeimanMarcus.com, the retailer widened the Bergdorf Goodman site so that it was optimized for the wider monitors many consumers now own, and used the extra space on the web page to present larger images. Other changes were minor, so the loyal BergdorfGoodman.com shopper should not be perplexed, Rawlinson said.

“Hopefully, she’ll explore the site and appreciate the larger images, but she won’t be confused because none of the navigation and how she shops the site or how the products are categorized have changed at all,” Rawlinson added.

Rawlinson also emphasized testing constantly to make sure new features are pleasing customers, and listening carefully to what they tell you. “At Neiman Marcus Direct, everyone receives weekly surveys of every customer comment,” Rawlinson said. “That’s the most valuable information we can get.”

Rawlinson was followed by Ivy Chin, vice president of architecture, design and video at QVC Inc. who described how the TV and web retailer redesigned its site in stages, releasing new features over several months so that customers could adapt. QVC also added video tutorials explaining the new features, updated its Frequently Asked Questions page, added help links on every page and made sure its call center team was prepared to answer questions.

Voice of the customer

Testing all changes was emphasized by several speakers. Jeff Prus, senior director of user experience at online print products retailer VistaPrint Ltd., explained that VistaPrint now views testing as a revenue generator, not a cost center, having shown it can improve sales by millions of dollars a year. He said VistaPrint conducts dozens of A/B tests of one format versus the other, or multiple variants of pages, every three weeks.

It’s not just how you test, but how the decision makers get the information, pointed out Archie Miller, senior manager of web design and development at catalog and web electronics retailer Crutchfield Corp. Crutchfield executives gather on the second Friday of each month to collectively watch live usability tests with consumers. “It’s like watching a scary movie with a group,” Miller says. “It’s more fun if everyone screams at the same time.”

Miller presented a video of a test in which a consumer tried several times to find a compatible audio component for his truck, only to be informed at the end of each try that the selected component would not in fact work in his vehicle. After executives watch a test like that, Miller says, it doesn’t take much to convince them a fix is required.

Sometimes it’s the timing of a change that’s crucial. For instance, when news reports during the 2007 holiday season spread fears that toys made in China could be dangerous, FatBrain Toys took advantage of the flexibility a web retailer has to quickly add to the product information it provides and began identifying the country of origin of each item, easing customers’ concerns, reported Mark Carson, CEO of the web toy retailer.

It’s also important to remember that not all customers are alike, pointed out Mike Ritter, vice president of The HP Home and Office Store e-commerce site of computer and printer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. While HP’s site sells some products, like PCs, that require a step-by-step configuration process, HP created the HP Express Store section of its site where customers can quickly buy off-the-shelf products like printer cartridges.

Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs, described a recent redesign of Scholastic.com that made it easier for teachers to place orders and for parents to decide what to buy. A teacher now can create a personal home page that displays books appropriate for the grade she’s teaching. There is also a “peek inside” feature that displays the book’s inside pages, including the actual type size, an important feature in children’s books.

Two-way street

In addition to speaker presentations, the Web Design ’09 conference included many interactive features, such as free one-on-one consultations that allowed retailer attendees to discuss their sites with design experts. During the conference, 312 attendees participated in 525 such meetings with 34 experts. But that didn’t satisfy attendees’ hunger for feedback, and there were several lively sessions in which retailers volunteered their sites for critiques before the entire conference.

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