December 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

Standing Out From the Crowd

Unique and innovative e-commerce site designs take center stage at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference next month.

Lead Photo

Much is changing all at once for retail web site designers. But a couple of truths remain constant: A retailer has to grab a shopper's attention and meet her needs in order to close a sale.

How to create an e-commerce site that is both distinctive and easy to shop will be the theme of the fourth annual Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference set for Feb. 13-15 at the Omni Orlando Resort. It will be an opportunity for attendees to borrow ideas from each other and from 46 expert speakers. Sales-boosting tactics from one e-commerce site often work well on another, even if the two sites are quite different, says the event's keynote speaker Paul Miller, vice president of e-commerce at W.W. Grainger Inc.

Grainger sells industrial supplies, a far cry from the tony housewares that Miller used to market as an e-retail executive at Williams-Sonoma.com. But what customers want is not so different at the two sites. Thus, since moving to Grainger, Miller's team has created a customer registry that lets purchasing agents save lists of their favorite products from among Grainger.com's 1 million SKUs—a variation on the gift registries engaged couples create at Williams-Sonoma.com.

"All great designs begin with knowing the customer's intent," Miller says. "It all starts with figuring out who they are and what they want and need." Then the retailer has to meet those wants and needs, which Grainger works on every day, Miller says. "We have daily 'scrum meetings' where we can talk about doable design priorities that we can accomplish quickly," he says. "Agility is what we strive for."

Attendees will not only be exposed to the latest design ideas, they'll also have plenty of opportunity to learn how to execute on them. There will be an Exhibit Hall featuring 50 vendors that specialize in e-commerce web site design and usability. And each attendee is entitled to two free 30-minute consultations with design experts who will critique their sites and suggest improvements.

'Stand for something'

They will also hear in conference sessions detailed reports from e-retailers who have improved their site designs or made their sites easier for online consumers to navigate and shop. Speakers promise to share lessons both big and small.

Among the big lessons is one that Timothy Peterson, vice president of e-commerce at vitamin and supplement retailer Bronson Pharmaceuticals Inc., plans to present in a session about how retailers can derive the most branding punch from their web site content. Take a stand and you'll stand out, Peterson says.

"Being opinionated matters," he says. "If your business doesn't stand for anything in particular, you won't attract anyone's attention. You could stand for value, quality, uniqueness or something else, but your brand has to stand for something." Peterson plans to offer a checklist of steps that lead to brand success—and to enumerate their costs.

Mobile and social commerce are also big ideas and big opportunities. The conference will offer examples of retailers who have decided not to follow the crowd in those areas, but to try something new.

For example, baking products retailer King Arthur Flour has bypassed the typical mobile commerce strategy of first building an m-commerce site and then apps for specific devices, such as the iPhone, Android devices and iPad. Instead, the e-retailer redesigned its web site so that it will identify the device the visitor is using and tailor the display accordingly.

"Instead of building a KingArthurFlour.com for the iPad and a separate one for desktop users, this allows us to have a single site that we know will respond to whichever device users are using," says Halley Silver, director of online services, a featured speaker at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability Conference.

Many retailers have created pages on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, seeking to drive consumers to their e-commerce sites. But Ulla Popken, a midsized retailer of plus-sized apparel for women that generated web sales of about $12 million in 2010, has built a Facebook page with all the functionality of its e-commerce site. Visitors can navigate through product categories, zoom in for a closer look at product images—and complete a transaction, without leaving Facebook.

"We are one of the first small or midsized retailers to do a full integration," says Michelle Richenderfer, director of marketing, who will describe how Ulla Popken worked with its e-commerce technology provider MarketLive Inc. to build a full-fledged web store on the social network.

New thinking

Besides striking out in big new directions, e-retailers are also taking new approaches to the basics of e-commerce, such as optimizing a web site so that it ranks high in search engine results, or search engine optimization.

"It's often said you shouldn't worry about SEO because if you design your web site for your customers then the SEO will take care of itself. That's not always true," says IRWD speaker Tim Elam, vice president and chief technology officer at online party supplies retailer Birthday Direct Inc. "The key takeaway from my presentation will be that you must design your web site for SEO while maintaining the focus on the customer experience."

Keeping search engine considerations in mind, Elam says, will ensure that retailers include useful features they might otherwise leave out, such as links from one page to another within a site, that help the customer while also boosting a site's position in search rankings.

Customers will tell a retailer whether a site is working for them—if the retailer takes time to listen, says another IRWD speaker, Nathan Decker, director of e-commerce at evo.com, a retailer of sporting gear including skis, skateboards and snowboards. "Frequent usability testing shows you where customers are getting hung up and what needs to be fixed," says Decker, who will speak in a session entitled "Beyond Best Practices: Using Innovation to Take Your Design to the Next Level." Decker will argue for usability testing every 30 days, and for extensive testing before introducing any major design feature. Otherwise, he says, "you may be missing the boat on what your customers think about what you are doing."

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