May 27, 2010, 3:31 PM

Silver's Secret Ingredient

King Arthur Flour's e-commerce chief mixes common sense with tech know-how.

Halley Silver is a veteran Internet techie. She started her web career as an intern at Organic Online in 1994 and went on to become a freelance web developer and a software engineer manager at Internet portal Excite.com.

So when the idea popped up to widen the e-commerce site at her current company, e-retailer and baking products manufacturer KingArthurFlour.com, to take advantage of the wider computer monitors many consumers use today, Silver could have been expected to be all for it. Not so.

While the wider screen would allow the baking products retailer to display more text and pictures above the fold without scrolling down the page, Silver didn't view this as a question of bytes and pixels. Thinking of her company's customers, she realized many King Arthur shoppers are older. More content wasn't necessarily better, she determined, and a busy site with too much in-your-face content could overwhelm a grandmother looking for a July Fourth cake recipe. Not to mention older shoppers likely were accessing the site via older, smaller computer screens.

And so, Silver and her team decided to actually decrease screen dimension from a width of 968 pixels to 780 pixels. "This ensures that 95% of visitors see the entire width of our page without resizing their browser window," Silver says.

Now, with the launch of Apple Inc.'s iPad, which has only a 9.7-inch screen, smaller than even a laptop screen, and the increasing popularity of notebooks with a typical screen size of around 10 inches, she's glad her staff made the choice to stay slim. "I just got my hands on an iPad and our site is flawless," Silver says.

A rare combo
That decision illustrates Silver's people-first approach to technology. "Technology doesn't always need to be the latest and greatest," she says. "It needs to be usable and provide great content first."

Silver's mix of creativity and technological know-how is hard to find among e-commerce directors, says Tom Funk, vice president of merchandising at web site design firm Timberline Interactive who knows Silver as a fellow Vermont-based e-commerce professional.

"You don't often see Halley's energy and ability to talk to all the people that an e-commerce director needs to—someone who has the creativity of a marketer with the technical know-how, too," Funk says.

That combination of talents is especially important for a smaller web retailer like King Arthur Flour that doesn't have a massive e-commerce staff. As e-commerce director, Silver works with a team of about seven among the company's approximately 160 employees.

Silver is an example of an e-commerce veteran who knows how to get a lot done with a little, one who has both the technical expertise to mine the web for new ideas circulating among the technerati and a down-to-earth view of what to do with those ideas.

Change of pace
Silver, 37, came to e-commerce through a circuitous route. A math major at Wesleyan University, she moved through a string of posts centered around web technology, including international project manager at Internet security firm VeriSign. When she joined King Arthur Flour nearly three years ago, however, Silver says she took to the new job quickly, in part because she has as much passion for baking as the culinary connoisseurs she markets to.

"This is quite a change for me and I love it. I love food, I love to bake, and I love merchandising and selling products," she says.

To do a better job of merchandising and marketing, Silver uses her technology chops to scout out new features that will give King Arthur the biggest bang for its buck. One way she gathers new ideas is through Twitter where she follows tech blog Tech Crunch, design and web development publication Smashing Magazine, and a number of web design firms. "They offer great sources of news and information and do a good job at getting past the hype," Silver says.

In fact, a recent tweet from Smashing Magazine helped Silver and her colleagues solve a problem.

They were looking for a better way to merchandise King Arthur products, particularly products hard to display online, such as bakable paper pans that chefs can fill with a mix, bake, and bring to a party or give as a gift without ever taking the cake or pie out of the container.

Silver's staff didn't want to use Flash to display the pans because consumers must download and install Flash on their PCs, and, without Flash, some King Arthur visitors would not be able to view the images. And King Arthur wasn't convinced an online catalog was the best way to go. A Tweet from Smashing about product carousels that used JavaScript to create a scrolling bar of images was just what King Arthur needed to illustrate what the bakable paper could do.

"There was no monetary investment, simply an investment of time and internal resources," Silver says. "We designed, developed, and released our first carousel in a matter of weeks. Since then, we've been able to add more with only a few days of design and development."

And the carousels are spinning out great numbers, Silver says. Visitors spend twice as much time on pages with the feature than the retailer's directory pages, and the pages have a 75% lower bounce rate of visitors leaving after viewing just one page.

Finding the freebies
Silver regularly uses her technical expertise this way to find low-cost solutions and design features. She gets color palette ideas from Styleboost.com, which tags other sites by color and hosts a gallery of unique web sites.

A feature on Myfonts.com called WhattheFont, lets her upload an image of a font she's seen but can't identify. The feature can recognize and identify the font in many cases; when it can't, there's a message board where the font can be posted for identification by other designers. And Silver turns to Bittbox.com and Urbandirty.com for royalty-free background textures with themes such as concrete or peeling paint.

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