February 12, 2013, 11:36 AM

Rakuten.com Shopping’s new look, explained

Keep things simple, be connected, be human--lessons from IRWD 2013.

Lead Photo

Bernard Luthi speaking today at IRWD 2013.

Keep things simple. Be connected. Be human. Those were the tenets a core team of six e-commerce professionals used to guide the redesign of Buy.com into Rakuten.com Shopping, said Bernard Luthi this morning during his keynote presentation at the Internet Retailer Web Design and Usability Conference 2013 in Orlando.

Luthi is the chief marketing officer and chief operations officer for Rakuten.com Shopping, the U.S. marketplace extension of Rakuten Inc., a Japanese company that claims to be the third-largest e-commerce company globally by sales. In 2010, Rakuten acquired Buy.com, then a direct-to-consumer e-retailer with a small but growing marketplace operation where other merchants could list their products for sale.

Luthi joined Buy.com a little more than a year ago, just as it was diving into its redesign and rebranding process to become Rakuten.com Shopping.

Elements of the redesign had to respect Buy.com’s heritage as a deal site, but also encompass the marketplace model Rakuten is moving toward with its global operations. That model is to have online shopping be friendlier and more interactive between shopper and merchant—something Rakuten believes is missing from today’s e-commerce model. “There’s a certain level of humanity we want to embrace,” Luthi said. “This is the way people used to shop. This is how bricks-and-mortar Main Street was established. You used to know who you were buying from, and that is something we are trying to bring back.”

That approach means visitors to Rakuten.com now see an image-driven home page, featuring a blend of product promotions and merchant profiles, rather than a host of listings that emphasize rock-bottom pricing, as Buy.com did. Consumers who visit the site can also click to enter featured sellers’ storefronts from the home page. Merchants manage the look and content on their own storefronts. Rakuten.com Shopping is encouraging them to add profiles about who they are along with product information and rich media assets that’ll give consumers a sense that they are buying from another person, not a faceless business entity.

Following the “keep it simple” mantra meant keeping the team responsible for the redesign and rebranding small. The six-person team included Luthi, a manager from the information technology team, two business directors and the head of customer service. The redesign also included the buy-in from the CEO, who was looped in as needed as the redesign progressed. All work was done in-house, including testing and research. “We tested everything that we did,” Luthi said. “We had to align ourselves with certain metrics from the beginning and we tested against those every step of the way.” Ultimately, data drove the final design directions, Luthi says, adding that metrics improved for all key performance indicators, such as bounce rate and time on site.

But not all direction came directly from analytics. Following the “be connected” mantra, the team hosted several focus groups at its California headquarters, bringing in about 10 merchants and consumers to get their takes on the redesign. “Customers and merchants were very open to giving us feedback,” Luthi said, adding that it was important for the redesign team to conduct the research themselves rather than a market research vendor. “We didn’t use a third party to conduct the research. It was us sitting in the room talking with them.” The only real expense Rakuten incurred was buying lunch, and the “information we gleaned was invaluable.”

Time will tell how receptive consumers are to Rakuten.com Shopping’s new approach. The fully rebranded web site debuted Jan. 31.

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