March 3, 2014, 11:31 AM

Redefining e-retail

Consumers' big shift to mobile devices is forcing retailers to rethink web design, reported retailers at last month's IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce event.

Lead Photo

Two statistics sum up how online shoppers' behaviors have changed in the past three years:

  • The amount of time U.S. consumers spend online doubled from 2010 to 2013, web measurement firm comScore Inc. says, a product of all the time shoppers spend on smartphones and tablets.
  • The number of screen sizes shoppers use to visit retail web sites has increased nearly two and a half times, from 97 to 232 in the same period, according to online marketing firm Monetate Inc. That shows consumers are trying out, and shopping on, all kinds of new devices, from smaller tablets to larger mobile phones and even web-connected TVs.

These big shifts and the breathtaking pace of change are forcing merchants to quickly adapt, a theme speaker after speaker emphasized last month at the IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce conferences that took place side by side in Orlando, Fla.

As Todd Sprinkle, vice president of content and platform innovation for TV and web retailer QVC U.S., put it in a keynote address: "The power of technology and the explosive growth of mobile are redefining the world of retail."

But redefining it how? And what should retailers do about it? Make it easy for mobile consumers to shop? Certainly, speakers agreed. A question debated at both conferences was whether the best way to do that technically is via responsive design, which allows a single web site to adapt to the consumer's screen.

At the same time, retailers are reacting to other big changes in shopper behavior, speakers said, particularly given how much online chatter is becoming a normal part of the typical consumer's day. Redesigns are increasingly focused on putting the retailer into the middle of those conversations on social networks, speakers said.

Speed was also a common theme: Everything is changing fast, which means retailers must respond quickly. Many speakers explained how they have changed their approach to decision making: whether that's meeting daily, putting designers and developers in the same room, or even visiting a consumer electronics store every week to check out the new gadgets.

The takeaway: Past practice is ancient history, and retailers are shaping future best practices on the fly. The IRCE Focus events provided many examples of what that looks like today, and how it may evolve into tomorrow.

For example, when CafePress Inc. redesigned its e-commerce site last year the e-retailer assumed consumers were shopping differently online than they did a few years earlier, explained Sumant Sridharan, president of the web-only retailer of customized T-shirts, mugs, caps and other products. Instead of searching on Google or Bing, clicking to a retail site, browsing items and buying, the shopper today is more likely to expect retailers to know what she wants and inform her when it becomes available, he said in a featured address to the web design conference.

Aware of the simultaneous shift to smartphones and tablets, CafePress used responsive design techniques so that its site would be easy to shop on any device. "But that just gets you into the game," he said. "It's not the be-all and end-all."

Personalization is essential, he said. CafePress assigned four engineers last year to focus exclusively on tailoring the site to the individual visitor. To do that, the e-retailer collects data on what a consumer has viewed and bought, what consumers like her buy, where she's from, what she's searched for and what she's revealed about herself on Facebook and other social networks. "If today we have five variables, tomorrow we're likely to have 20," Sridharan said. "We're in the business of collecting data about our customers."

The redesigned site also makes it easier for artists to personalize the CafePress pages they use to sell the designs customers apply to their T-shirts and mugs. When a designer makes a sale, CafePress sends him a message so that he can thank the customer; the site also lets designers create widgets that enable them to easily display their work all over the web, on social networks, blogs and other sites.

That's all well and good for a T-shirt site, but is a site like QVC.com, which sells the items hosts promote on the QVC TV shopping channel, under similar pressure to adapt to new technology? Even with a core demographic of relatively affluent women ages 35 to 65, the answer is yes, Sprinkle said in his keynote address at the mobile commerce conference. "She's an early adopter of technology, as long as it enriches her life," he said.

That shows up in the financial results: in its last financial quarter 32% of QVC.com's sales were to consumers using mobile devices, Sprinkle said.

But most QVC customers use each of their mobile devices in a particular way, he added. A mom waiting to pick up her children at school may use her smartphone to quickly purchase an item she saw earlier on TV; she has to be able to buy easily. But when curled up in bed with her iPad, she may want to view a show she missed, and send comments to her favorite host, so QVC designs its iPad app with engagement in mind, Sprinkle said.

Recognizing that consumers use all kinds of devices to connect to the web, and that those devices come in an ever-increasing variety of shapes and sizes, QVC began redesigning its site last year using responsive design techniques. That means there is a single set of web site code, and instructions in the software adjust the display to the size of the screen the consumer is viewing.

QVC is the largest online retailer by web sales to go the responsive route, and Sprinkle described the decision as a reaction to the proliferation of consumer devices.

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