January 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

The dollars are in the details

With design budgets cut during the downturn,e-retailers found small changes that yielded big results.

By Mark Brohan

Research Director

Lead Photo

Howard Wyner, CEO, Scentiments.com

Their expertise may be in selling perfumes and colognes online, but, of necessity, executives at Scentiments.com have developed a keener eye for web site design in the past year. When the sales of designer fragrances slipped last spring, Scentiments.com dug deep into the details, identified the problem and then made straightforward design changes to its main shopping pages. The result: better conversion rates on designer brands and a 7% increase in the average ticket to about $70.

"We pored over the details to find out what we were doing wrong and then fixed our design flaws," says Scentiments.com CEO Howard Wyner. "We looked at every aspect of what we could do better and then fine-tuned the details."

Scentiments.com had compelling reasons to redesign its product pages: flat sales on some key items and declining conversion rates. In a tough economy, online shoppers weren`t buying as many luxury items. After the sale of some higher-end perfumes went flat, Wyner took a closer look at buyer behavior and then updated the product pages on Scentiments.com with a new look and features that highlighted the top brands and best prices. "By looking at our design weak points and making corrections, we gave ourselves a better opportunity to connect with our best customers," says Wyner.

Sweating the details of design helped Scentiments.com put its business back on track even during an economic downturn. Spotting and fixing even the smallest problems before they drive away customers is also the new reality of retail web site design and usability.

A microscope
When the online retail market was growing in excess of 20% annually, a complete site redesign every couple of years and the periodic rollout of a new feature or function might have been enough to boost sales. But these days, when retailers are battling economic headwinds, they are more frequently putting web site design under the microscope. They are using the insights they gain by analyzing on-site customer behavior to troubleshoot and fix basic design problems such as inconsistent navigation, poorly laid out images and text, and hard-to-find icons and buttons.

"They may have sweated the details during their last big redesign, but then many online retailers slip into a plug-and-play mode and don`t make obvious improvements that can really prevent their e-commerce business from losing sales," says Tom Funk, vice president of marketing for Timberline Interactive, a Middlebury, Vt., web site design firm."By spotting and fixing even simple design problems as soon as they crop up, a retailer can see a double-digit lift in conversion rates."

Not every problem has to be fixed with a complete site redesign, says Funk. Web retailers can attract and retain more customers simply by eliminating such elementary design mistakes as having too many confusing elements on the home page or letting the Add To Cart icon slip below the fold on category and product pages. "If the links and buttons don`t change to a slightly different color or become bolder when a customer goes to mouse over them, that`s just one small example of how a merchant is missing a valuable click-through opportunity," says Funk. "By just adhering to the basics of good web site design and solving small problems before they become big ones, a retailer is going to convert more sales."

Although Scentiments.com had redesigned its web site just two years earlier and added major new features such as product ratings and reviews, the online retailer in spring 2009 noticed a fall-off in sales, especially from pay-per-click ad campaigns. After visitors clicked on search ads and landed on a product page, it took too long for them to find specific items and complete a purchase.

Drill down
The merchandising pages on Scentiments.com featured general product images and text, but not enough content focused on specific brands, says Wyner. The site search button did not stand out. Even when shoppers did use the site search engine and clicked on the results, they still had to visit as many as four pages to locate a particular product. A typical query began on the search page and finished four clicks later on a specific product page. "The content wasn`t detailed enough and the site search box and shopping cart button were too hard to find," says Wyner. "The design was clunky and needed to be updated."

To fix the problems, Scentiments.com made several simple-but effective-design changes. First, it moved the site search box to the top of each shopping page and made it bigger. To get customers more quickly to a particular fragrance, Scentiments.com also created separate site search boxes that let visitors search by brand name or by keyword, made the shopping cart button bigger and more distinctive, added more merchandising details, and built tables updated with real-time data that allow visitors to compare prices on Scentiments.com and other retail sites.

A round of A/B testing confirmed that shoppers liked the new design. With new pages that made it easier for shoppers to find, research and purchase brands such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, the conversion rate on certain higher-end fragrances stabilized, and in some cases doubled to about 6%. "Our old design made it too hard for shoppers to make a quick and easy purchase," says Wyner. "Our new pages are much more effective."

Scentiments.com dug deep into web analytics data and site search keyword patterns to understand why shoppers weren`t buying. But other retailers are identifying the problems they face by listening directly to their customers. "The data analysis can help to pin down an issue, but the best way to make the small changes that can really count is hearing what customers are saying firsthand," says David Wertheimer, director of strategy for Alexander Interactive Inc., a New York web site design firm. "A great design flows from having an intuitive understanding of how customers shop a site. Retailers of all sizes can do a better job of listening to who is shopping their site and why and then creating a design that exceeds expectations."

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