February 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Testing 1, 2, 3

Testing services can identify online pain points, letting e-retailers smooth the path to purchase.

Lead Photo

The Container Store Inc. aims to make it easy for customers to shop across its multiple channels, in its physical stores, on the web and through mobile commerce. A consumer can configure a closet or home office space using the online elfa Design Center at ContainerStore.com, then walk into a store and share that configuration through her iPhone with a designer expert. For the finishing touch, she can complete the configuration project on an in-store elfa Design Center screen.

"We try to make it seamless for customers to start online and finish in the store, or plan something in the store and finish online at home," says Brad Schneider, who is head of The Container Store's web development team and oversees the retailer's quality assurance department. "This is not just an afterthought for us. We make sure from the launch of design tools that they can be multichannel. We want to make sure customers can start in one channel and finish in another, or do it any way they want."

In order to be sure its web site is playing its part, The Container Store employs several testing services so that it can verify that promotions are leading to sales, that customers can figure out how to use the elfa Design Center and that all the features of the site are not slowing down page load times, a problem that can not only drive away shoppers but lead Google to penalize a retailer's site in search rankings.

That kind of comprehensive testing program can make a big difference in a retailer's financial performance, particularly if a retailer is on a strong growth curve and experiencing sharp growth in traffic volume, experts say. "Running performance testing on a regular basis will uncover bottlenecks and give time to improve performance before the event occurs and your business and/or infrastructure is unable to scale to demand," IDC Retail Insights says in a report it issued last year.

The good news for e-retailers is that testing does not have to be expensive, and that they can sometimes get results in a matter of days, or even hours.

More shoes, please

At The Container Store, comprehensive testing showed the retailer that its elfa design tool wasn't showing all the options customers had available to design a customized closet space—a void that wasn't uncovered until pointed out by experienced testers participating in a uTest testing program.

The retailer works with uTest, a company that provides access to more than 50,000 testers in 180 countries who, typically in groups of 20 to 50 for a single project, will access a retailer's web content from different web or mobile browsers, then post comments about any bugs to a uTest-hosted portal. A retailer client can click a comment to send questions to a tester to better understand any problems he reported. UTest can cost as low as about $500 for a single test, but large retailers can pay $3,000 to $5,000 per month for an ongoing program of extensive tests, a uTest spokeswoman says.

Now in its second year of working with uTest to check the functionality of web site features, The Container Store learned from its testers that its online elfa Design Center closet configuration tool wasn't showing users all of the available options for including shoe racks of various sizes, leaving out what can be a crucial selling point for some shoppers, Schneider says.

In addition to pointing out such missing features, uTest testers typically will also provide a detailed review of how they navigated through a retailer's site and where problems cropped up. "UTesters usually provide more value to their bug findings than just 'This doesn't work,' they provide some explanation of how they got there," says Jerry Welch, manager of the software quality assurance group at The Container Store. "It provides an explanation of what our customers might have been doing."

Where's that store?

The retailer also found that a new store locator wasn't working properly on some mobile browsers. "UTest found out that particular ZIP codes weren't returning results, so we caught it before going live with it," Schneider says. He adds that The Container Store can get a team of uTest testers on a project quickly.

That came in handy when the retailer was about to launch a new mobile site last spring but its marketing team raised questions about whether it was ready to release. The Container Store arranged for 20 testers within moments, Welch says, and within 36 hours they had identified 60 issues with the new site. The retailer was able to work with its mobile developer, Usablenet, to ensure a fully functional mobile site within a week, including product research, social media links and checkout.

The Container Store also works with several other performance testing providers, including Compuware Gomez for monitoring web server uptime and downtime, Neustar Inc.'s BrowserMob for testing the ability of web pages to handle heavy traffic loads, Usability Sciences for checking site usability by consumers, and Tealeaf Technology Inc. for viewing site visitors' online sessions and analyzing, for instance, what might have led to site abandonment. The retailer also gathers feedback from site visitors through OpinionLab, which enables consumers to enter ratings and comments on a retail site.

Godiva's gifts

Even with business unusually brisk during the holiday shopping season, Godiva Chocolatier Inc. makes time to test the best mix of product images in its web site's merchandising displays, says Mahender Nathan, vice president of Godiva's direct business.

A recent test of multiple displays of a new 18-piece Parfait Chocolates Gift Box, for example, produced a winning combination that resulted in a 9.4% conversion rate lift, compared to an alternate display.

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