November 30, 2011, 10:35 AM

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What rulebook? Innovative e-retailers are making up their own rules to keep up with the rapid evolution of the web.

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Conventional wisdom holds that online retailers should have, in addition to their web sites, mobile commerce sites so consumers can easily shop via mobile phones. But a few retailers are already breaking with convention in order to provide an even better experience for shoppers on the go.

Moosejaw Mountaineering Inc. and King Arthur Flour Co. Inc., two of the Internet Retailer Hot 100 retailers profiled on the pages that follow, have redesigned their e-commerce sites so that they can recognize the device the consumer is using, such as a smartphone or tablet, and present a display that looks good on that device—while keeping back-end systems like inventory and product details unchanged.

With 60% of Moosejaw's customers opening at least some of its e-mails on mobile devices, the retailer of outdoor gear wants to be sure that when they click on the e-mail offer they see the correct inventory and that any promotion code works properly, regardless of whether the consumer is shopping from a PC, phone or tablet.

"When you open that e-mail, you're going to the regular site, but on a mobile phone it will look better and the promotional codes will be right and the inventory will be there," says Eoin Comerford, senior vice president of marketing and technology at Moosejaw. "The consumer expects to be able to buy something from you at a store, on a mobile site, a regular site, a catalog, and do it the same way with the same promotions."

King Arthur Flour was also responding to its growing cohort of mobile shoppers—14% of King Arthur's traffic comes from mobile devices this year, versus 2% last year.

Those retailers reacted quickly to this shift in consumer behavior, and that combination of agility and imagination typifies the retailers on this year's Hot 100 list. Cookie-cutter sites are out and clean sheets of paper are in. The world is changing rapidly and so are these Hot 100 retailers. (For a full list of the Hot 100 and Mobile Top 10 click here.)

New ideas abound in the pages that follow. The e-retailers highlighted in this issue are rethinking site design, navigation, content and informational tools. Some innovations are complex, and others so simple other retailers will wonder why they didn't think of them first.

Social commerce

And no development is as prominent in the Hot 100 profiles that follow as the many ways online retailers are connecting with consumers via social networks like Facebook and Twitter. With two-thirds of U.S. consumers participating in at least one online social network, according to a report released last month by the Pew Research Center, e-retailers know they must take social into account—and Hot 100 retailers are at the forefront of this trend.

Among the most aggressive Hot 100 retailers in the social realm is Express Inc., a retail chain that sells apparel for 20-somethings and that's been online only since 2008. The retailer organizes big public fashion events, such as one in Times Square in New York in July, and brings the event to Express.com via live video streaming. Eight bloggers took front-row seats so they could blog as models strutted down the runway and Express chief marketing officer Lisa Gavales tweeted her own views and responded to comments from her more than 38,000 Twitter followers.

"Lisa tweets that she loves that coat, people answer and Lisa tweets back. We have a lot of that interaction," says Jim Wright, senior vice president of marketing at Express. Express features photos of a Facebook fan of the week wearing Express apparel, and designers comment on the latest fashions on the retailer's Facebook page.

Fans of ShoeDazzle.com can see other shoppers' favorite ShoeDazzle purchases on Facebook, comment and buy from those collections. Apparel designer Tory Burch offers her more than 256,000 Facebook fans sneak peeks of upcoming fashions, deals and free shipping offers; Burch herself shares her views on Twitter. Employees in the 65 Tory Burch stores carry iPads so they can bring that online content into the store.

Web-only retailer Buy.com's home page features many social elements. A shopper signed in to Facebook sees what his friends have bought and Liked on Buy.com; a What's Shakin' bar displays the products that have moved up most in sales rank in the last 24 hours; and consumers can log into Facebook to shop with their friends.

Other retailers' sites solicit consumers' opinions, such as gift retailer Uncommon Goods, which lets consumers vote on whether a new item should be sold on the site and notes the number of favorable votes when items make the cut. AbesMarket.com, which sells natural food items and handicrafts, features more than 250 videos on product and seller pages, and offers a chat box for visitors to comment. "We want to let the web be a great conversation piece," says co-founder Richard Demb. "It's a way for our customers to interact and get to know the people behind the scenes making the products they buy."

New ways to navigate

Navigation guides are an established part of e-commerce sites, but several Hot 100 retailers are moving away from the standard design of main tabs across the top and more detailed options down the left side of the home page. At JayBirdGear.com, for instance, the primary navigation cues are images of four products across the bottom of the home page. The e-retailer also solves the problem of what to put above the fold by eliminating the fold, formatting the site so each page completely fits in the browser window.

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