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"The site was already quite complicated, and here we were bringing in additional business models that made it more complicated," Ryan said.
Much as Grainger did, Threadless redesigned its site to serve two core audiences: consumers and artists already involved with Threadless, on the one hand, and newcomers on the other. And Ryan provided a sneak peak to IRWD attendees of how the new site, scheduled to go live in a few months, will work differently for each audience.
Newcomers will see quick shopping options, such as for men's and women's apparel, a video explaining how Threadless works and statistics showing how many consumers participate. Artists submitting designs for the first time will be highlighted.
The site becomes much more personalized for the returning visitor. He'll see designs he might like based on his past purchases and the designs he's voted on. The section where members cast their votes on designs will highlight designs currently up for a vote that are similar to artwork the visitor previously has engaged with.
It's all designed to drive engagement, Ryan said. "Customers who are deeply engaged, whether they are artists who submit designs or customers who vote and hang out, are far more valuable to us because they get involved in the process and feel more connected to our brand."
A parka to love
Connection is crucial to retail, because a consumer needs to fall in love with a product a little bit, at least an expensive product, before buying it, explained Young Lee, vice president of product management at Backcountry.com, a retailer of outdoor apparel and gear that is part of Liberty Interactive Corp. "If you think about why people buy, there's an emotional connection that occurs at that point when you touch a product."
On the web, where consumers cannot physically touch a product, that connection must be made on the product detail page, Young said, and each product page must be geared to the kind of consumer who will be looking for that product. He showed a page on Backcountry.com featuring a $450 ski jacket, the kind of item geared to the serious skier. The page highlights technical specifications important to that kind of consumer, such as taped seams on the inside of the jacket that can keep water from seeping through and allow the skier to stay on the slopes longer.
One in a million
Herman Miller Inc., the manufacturer of office chairs renowned for style and comfort, applies the same principle to web site design as to its furniture, said Michael Blum, the company's retail e-commerce channel manager, in another IRWD featured presentation: "Everything in the design should relate to the problem you are trying to solve."
The problem Herman Miller faced on its retail site was to help a customer find just the right piece of furniture, when there are 1 million possible combinations of the 85 products the company custom manufactures. Herman Miller designed its own product configurator that includes color swatches, detail enlargements, and instant displays of the options selected and the price of the piece with those options. Many retailers that sell Herman Miller products have added the configurator to their sites, Blum said. "So it becomes a great customer experience and brand tool, even when the sale registers on their site, not ours," he said.
It also has provided valuable information on customer preferences. For example, Herman Miller expected most customers would want its Embody office chair in black, only to find that few choose that color.
Part of giving the lady what she wants is speaking her language. And that means retailers should study the terms consumers use when searching for products and describe products the same way—for example, hoodie instead of hooded sweatshirt and food processor instead of kitchen electronics—advised Stephan Spencer, a search engine optimization consultant who spoke on how site design is crucial for making sure a retail site shows up high in search results pages on Google and Bing.
Inbound links from blogs and news sites can also increase a site's natural search rankings, Spencer said. Add content other sites will want to link to, even if it's not product-related, he said. For example, a baby products site could feature a section with popular baby names.
Underwear e-retailer FreshPair.com examines its site analytics seeking to spot consumers' pain points, and then tries to understand what's keeping them from buying, explained Matt Butlein, the e-retailer's president, in another session. "We start with the why," he said.
That led to the insight that full-figured women struggle to find bras that fit, both online and in physical stores. In response, FreshPair.com launched this year a service that offers a woman a free telephone consultation with a bra-fitting specialist who then sends her several bras she might like. The customer can try them on at home for a week, schedule another free consultation if she likes, and send back the bras she doesn't want—shipping and returns are free—paying only for those she keeps.
That's an example of an e-commerce site that's giving the lady exactly what she wants.