January 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Role player

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Kuehn says merchants can make decisions about what to put on category pages based on considerations that would be hard to program into automated rules. For example, he says, each new year typically sparks a wave of resolutions to exercise, focusing consumers` attention on fitness apparel and giving the merchant team a reason to elevate its prominence.

Promotional approach
While King Arthur Flour employs category pages primarily for navigational purposes and Title Nine mainly to feature its hottest products, Diapers.com falls in the middle. The web-only retailer of baby products does merchandise on the category page by way of two panes at the top of the page—a promotional banner that usually revolves around a promotion or new merchandise, and a scrolling display of "featured products" that`s a combination of new, best-selling and seasonal items. The merchandising team populates both panes. Director of e-commerce operations and customer experience Josh Himwich notes that the featured products scroller, not a strong performer, will be significantly altered in a new category page design scheduled to roll out this spring.

In that re-design, Diapers will continue to take care that that promotions don`t get in the way of what he sees as the primary job of category pages: navigation. Most of the category page now is taken up with thumbnails listing products under a particular category heading, making it easier for the shopper to take the next step to the item she desires. For instance, under the category "nursery," the shopper can find a link to "cribs and mattresses" that takes her to those items.

Because it views the category page as primarily a navigational aid, Diapers doesn`t feature the kind of large promotional photos that Title Nine puts on category pages. Hero promotions on the category page are meant to be clicked, so they take the customer away from her intended path, Himwich says. "If her goal was to find a Britax Marathon car seat, we want to make sure she finds it as easily as possible," he says.

Diapers leaves the order of sub-category titles on its category pages to the discretion of merchants. Himwich says the order of sub-categories is largely alphabetical, but that merchants change it depending on what they want to promote.

Diapers does automate the ranking of individual items or brands on sub-category pages with an internally built function that re-sorts them every 24 hours to reflect best-sellers of the past 30 days. But some retailers—particularly those who operate on a larger scale—depend on automation to a much greater extent to determine product display order.

Personal touch
Some e-commerce platforms, for example, can assign different weights to various product attributes—for instance, assigning greater importance to conversion rate on the product and a lower weight to number of items in stock—to calculate the order in which products are displayed on category or sub-category pages.

Some retailers also use personalization and recommendation technology to populate those pages, varying the products displayed based on what the retailer knows about the customer. ATG`s e-commerce platform, for example, can present a slightly different treatment of the category page to customers based on what the system knows about the customers—through cookie tracking or information volunteered by the customer.

The platform can further tailor the presentation to specific customers by combining what they know about the demographic segment the customer falls into with data on his previous behavior on the site, how he arrived at the site and how he is clicking through it. It rolls up that information in real time to put up product suggestions on a category page.

It`s the same technology that is used to suggest cross-sells or up-sells after a shopper has placed a product in his cart, but it elevates those personalized suggestions to the category page, before the shopper has even selected any products, to reach the shopper earlier in the buying process.

Tommy Hilfiger added automated, personalized recommendations from ATG`s recommendation engine to product pages on its web site, Tommy.com. Within a month, those recommendations were deemed to be influencing 16% of the site`s revenue, meaning a shopper clicked on a recommended product at some point during the shopping session before completing a purchase. That prompted Tommy Hilfiger to add the personalized recommendations to its category pages as well.

ATG reports that on average, about 30% of shoppers click to view the personalized recommendations across the sites of retailer customers that use the recommendations on their product pages. Of that number, about 30% purchase a recommended product. Extending the recommendations to category pages, according to ATG, further increases exposure and stands to up the numbers of shoppers viewing and ultimately purchasing the recommended products. For now, only a few of ATG`s clients are using this feature, although the vendor is getting more requests for it, says ATG optimization services marketing director Ryan Hoppe.

That`s an example of the kind of improved technology that can enhance category pages, whether a retailer uses those pages primarily for merchandising or for navigation. Beyond technology, merchants` decisions about their category pages are part of the art of retailing. And as e-commerce continues to evolve, art and science, increasingly, are likely to meet in the middle.

mary@verticalwebmedia.com

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