March 1, 2011, 12:00 AM

Designs of the Times

Times are changing—for the better—and e-retailers must keep improving their web sites to benefit from e-retail growth, said speakers at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference.

There was barely a backward glance at the recently ended recession as several hundred e-retail executives, web designers and developers gathered in Orlando last month to dig into how they could improve their web sites and appeal more effectively to increasingly online-focused consumers.

That sense of optimism was captured by the keynote speaker who opened the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference 2011, Hal Lawton, president, online, for home improvement chain Home Depot Inc.

"We want to be an e-commerce growth engine for Home Depot," Lawton declared in his presentation. By offering 350,000 SKUs at Home Depot.com, more than three times the selection of a typical Home Depot store, extensive product information, easy access to do-it-yourself experts and plenty of information about the inventory and events in a consumer's local stores, Lawton said HomeDepot.com has become the 11th most-visited retail site.

The site now has a 22% share in online appliance sales, double the 11% offline share of the chain's stores, Lawton added.

Success stories were not limited to retail giants like Home Depot. Web-only retailer TheMedicalSupplyDepot.com explained how by radically reducing the number of site features that required links to vendors' servers it decreased page load time dramatically—and increased conversion 50%.

"Always choose the speed of your site over the features," advised Meir Tsinman, president of TheMedicalSupplyDepot.com. "If a customer cannot land on that page, you can have all the beautiful features you want but no one will use it."

Summing up the three-day conference as the final speaker, creative director Richard Ruggerio of digital marketing firm Resource Interactive said the key takeaway was that retailers must understand what their customers need today and are likely to need tomorrow.

Evolve, Ruggerio advised attendees. "Don't stay static," he said. "You've got to get out there and try things, because if you don't your competition will, and you'll get left in the dust."

Free tools
Many retailers are heeding Ruggerio's advice, as the presentations made clear. Speakers described design initiatives that ranged from site overhauls to tweaks as minor as changing a color or font. And one presenter after another emphasized the importance of testing at each step—and the availability of surprisingly inexpensive testing tools.

The references to free and low-cost tools were one sign that e-retailers have not completely forgotten the recession. Another was the advice several speakers offered to break design projects into phases rather than proposing soup-to-nuts redesigns that are difficult to get approved and can lead to big disappointments.

If any online retailer has taken the testing imperative to heart it's TheMedicalSupplyDepot.com, which removed every piece of code from an outside vendor from its site, then reintroduced them one by one, testing to see how each snippet impacted page load time, said Andy Lloyd, general manager of e-commerce products at the e-retailer's software vendor, NetSuite, who spoke with Tsinman. The retailer ultimately rewrote the site's code, downsized images and made better use of data caching to make the site load faster.

Inexpensive tests with just a few consumers can yield dramatic results, explained Lynn Stetson, senior director of e-commerce marketing and merchandising at e-retailer OnlineShoes.com. One test she conducted with UserTesting.com revealed that four of five testers who added a shoe to the shopping cart, then tried to check out were forced to backtrack because they hadn't selected a size. Analytics confirmed that was a problem for many shoppers on the site, Stetson said.

Her team quickly added a pop-up that pointed out that the shopper had failed to select a size before she left the page. The e-retailer also added text next to its Add to Cart button that emphasized its key selling points—free shipping, free exchanges and 365-day returns. That change led 20% more visitors to add items to a shopping cart.

Several speakers pointed to small changes that yielded big results. Green Mountain Coffee Roasters found that adding the VeriSign security seal to a checkout page boosted conversion by 4%. Adding a second Submit Order button to the top of the confirmation page of WineoftheMonthClub.com reduced the number of consumers who clicked off the page without completing the order because they hadn't seen the Submit Order button at the bottom of the page.

'On the downlow'
While UserTesting.com only charges $39 per tester, there are other valuable tools that are free, speakers explained. Online artwork retailer CanvasOnDemand.com employed a free Yahoo tool called YSlow that analyzes why a site runs slowly and suggests improvements. That led to the e-retailer downsizing images by 25% and reducing page download time, said Joe Schmidt, co-founder of CanvasOnDemand.com, which was recently purchased by CafŽ Press, an online retailer of custom products.

He also uses a real-time analytics tool called Clicky, and suggests e-commerce managers that find their analytics specialists are slow to extract data from complex commercial packages quietly use free tools like Clicky to do their own guerilla analysis. "You can use these on the downlow so that you can get what you need," Schmidt said.

Facebook provides another way to get quick feedback, advised Justin Perdue, web manager at online neckwear retailer Beau Ties, which shows Facebook fans styles it's considering for the coming season and monitors their comments. "You can spend countless time and money getting focus groups together," he said. "Or you can spend five minutes to get feedback from your Facebook fans who can provide an instant focus group."

And before you add a feature that you see on competitors' sites, test whether it appeals to your customers, suggested Sarah Payne, senior manager of user experience and analytics for online foot products retailer Footsmart.com. The e-retailer's customers are mainly 45 to 65 years old, and tests showed features like zoom aren't important to them. Consumer reviews and detailed product information do matter to them, and providing more of that content and displaying it more prominently boosted conversion on product pages by 19%, Payne said.

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