February 3, 2014, 11:14 AM

Challenging web design

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However, a retailer needs savvy developers to go responsive and overcome hurdles such as mobile performance hits. Most retailers with I.T. staff who keep up to date could build a responsive site without much studying, Falkowski says. "All you need is a generalist I.T. skill set; the only fairly new technology in responsive is media queries," he says. Media queries allow web designers to tailor how web content appears to a range of devices without having to change the content, a key to responsive web design.

Tom Smith, a software engineer at Fathead, says he had to do some research when first starting work on the responsive design, but that the Fathead I.T. team was able to build the site without much trouble. Fathead built a framework for responsive web pages based on column layouts, and senior web designer Tim Edwards and staff designed the grid system into which content would flow.

"The chief marketing officer, the chief information officer and I sat down with Tim's grid and laid out every type of page, all of them in column views," Layne says. "Because marketing built the site in close collaboration with I.T., going forward marketing can be far more independent from I.T. as a result of going responsive."

For example, in November, when Layne, the marketing chief, concluded Fathead needed a stronger call to action on category landing pages during the e-retailer's Black Friday sale, he adapted those pages for smartphones and tablets by changing the size of the call-to-action page elements to allow for additional copy and a button that was easy to tap. Layne says it was easy and done entirely from his home office using the merchant's in-house design interface, which requires only a modest knowledge of HTML. "It's not coding by any means," he says. Before responsive design, such changes would have required I.T. staff to develop new coding, he adds.

Responsive web design requires input from various departments at a retailer. Fathead's "speed team" worked on the site. The team included members of the technology, marketing (home of the designers), call center and quality assurance departments. When switching its 46 sites to responsive design, CPO Commerce made sure its merchandisers had their say in the new design. "They helped figure out the look and feel of the site and how products are merchandised," Emmons says. "We held biweekly meetings and included representatives from merchandising, marketing and site operations."

Last year, responsive design got a big boost from Google, which began recommending the technique as the best approach for presenting web pages on mobile phones. Google did not say that a responsive site would show up higher on search results pages, but it did say it would keep all of a site's content on a single URL, making it easier for Google to see, and that a responsive site generally makes it easier for Google to rank a site's content.

Though Google has specifically said it does not give added credit to sites just because they are responsive, proponents argue that responsive sites will rank higher than non-responsive sites. That's because, they say, a responsive site presents Google all content via a single URL per page versus three or more URLs for a retailer that maintains separate sites for PCs, smartphones and tablets. That means Google can give all ranking credit to the one URL rather than split ranking credit among sites.

Falkowski is convinced this is what's responsible for his Skinny Ties' natural search traffic soaring 96% since it launched its responsive site, while organic search revenue has jumped 73%. That's a big deal because around 80% of the e-retailer's business comes from natural search results.

That kind of increase in search traffic, if in fact a product of the switch to responsive design, can help pay for the cost of building a responsive web site, experts say. Emmons at CPO Commerce estimates it cost around $150,000 to make his 46 sites responsive; it cost progressively less per site as each was built because later sites benefited from the work done on earlier sites. Falkowski of Skinny Ties says a responsive site today costs between $100,000 and $300,000. For Fathead, it took 10 staff members 1,500 hours spread over more than three months to create the responsive site. The cost? $250,000. Fathead had a higher price tag and more complex implementation because its lone site handles around $40 million a year in sales, according to the Internet Retailer 2013 Top 500 Guide, whereas Skinny Ties and the individual CPO sites don't even register in the Internet Retailer Top 1000. CPO Commerce, all 46 sites combined, generates around $70 million in annual sales, the Top 500 Guide says.

"It's important to remember that a responsive site does the job of multiple separate sites," Falkowski says. "You can replace a smartphone site and tablet site, and roll the budgets and costs of those two sites into your one responsive project."

Responsive design, however, has its detractors. Take Jay Dunn, chief marketing officer at lingerie e-retailer Bare Necessities, who recently waded into responsive design to explore how BareNecessities.com could apply it. He concluded that responsive design is not an ideal solution for retailers.

"I've not seen a world-class responsive site executed for a SKU-heavy retailer in a design that improves sales and the user experience," he says. "Pure responsive ignores and fails to capitalize on user behaviors on different devices, which is where the true opportunity for retail remains. With responsive design, retailers would like to think there is a new mousetrap, but they're chasing the wrong leprechaun."

Dunn contends that the secret to online retail design success can be found in mobile apps. "App design will increasingly appeal to consumers and force retailers to redesign," he says. "We should take this idea of simplicity and usability in apps and put that into our web platforms."

Even some responsive design proponents admit the technique has shortcomings.

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