December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Dressed to Sell

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The streamlined site is obvious to customers, too. Catalog customers trying out the simply enter item numbers to call up their selections. And because the new site is linked to Spiegel’s mainframe inventory system, what’s visible on the site is available in the warehouse. A real-time inventory system, scheduled for installation in the first quarter, will replace today’s batch processing and lead to further improvements. That way, a woman ordering a silk blouse will only see the colors available in her size.

Better-integrated systems also allow Spiegel to play to its strength as a marketer of lifestyle solutions by featuring entire rooms of home furnishings or complete wardrobe ensembles. Such merchandising strategies, common in paper catalogs, are complicated on the Web by the fact that unrelated goods not only come from different vendors and warehouses but require precisely structured calls to the database to organize and retrieve merchandise.

Annual exercise

With these and other advantages in the offing, most Internet stores are now putting a major redesign in the works every 12 to 18 months. Right on schedule, has revamped its site four times since its launch in 1996, most recently at a cost just under $1 million. “It’s a pretty significant investment, but definitely worth it,” says Lisa Sharples, vice president of marketing and cofounder. “As soon as we finish one relaunch, we’re already talking about the next.”

And for good reason:’s latest makeover, a six-month project completed in September, cut the rate of abandoned shopping carts on the site by 25%. In fact, says Sharples, the rate is a closely watched metric that launched the entire project. After studying click streams, conversion logs and feedback from customers, Sharples and her colleagues decided the problem lay with the site’s navigation. In the four years since its debut, the e-retailer’s product offering had grown by a factor of 10-from 2,000 to more than 20,000. The site had simply outgrown its navigation footprint, making shopping difficult.

“Navigation is really tricky for Net companies in general and something that’s always evolving,” Sharples says. “All those people with master’s in library science should take jobs at Net companies, because organizing the navigation is really an art.”

Changing’s navigation started with the home page, which the redesign team concluded was too much of a jumble. “We really looked at how we present information,” explains Sharples, “what’s at the top of the fold versus what you have to scroll down to see.” Above the fold, customers now get a navigation bar containing the site’s four main sections, a separate list of services for members, search and browse functions, and two seasonal promotion boxes. Below the fold, the site is just as clean, with a plant finder rounding out the search engine, teasers promoting the quarterly magazine and monthly discussion topics, a few more promotional boxes, and a link to customer service information.

Sharples sees other e-retailers undergoing similar less-is-more redesigns. “Simplicity is definitely taking over. It’s so tempting to put more and more on the home page, and yet that isn’t the answer.”

Dropping crumbs

The home page is just the first layer. As shoppers move into, what Sharples calls a “crumb trail” travels with them. Designing this level of navigation was complicated by the fact that it could not simply read the code for the last product a customer happened to click on. Lavender, for instance, is both an herb and a perennial, so it’s housed in both departments. The trail had to be different for each product, based on how the customer got there.

Before and after the redesign, checked in with customers to make sure that changes worked as intended. Using a system of focus groups, e-mail panels and one-to-one usability testing, the site’s redesign team gathered both general feedback and specific details about how customers experience the site.

About 20 customers participated in usability tests, which asked them to search for products, browse special promotions, place an order, and carry out other tasks. Sharples considers the tests both a reality check and a valuable pipeline for ideas. “Usability testing allows us to see new perspectives, and it vividly points out where the site is inconsistent or confusing.”’s latest redesign added a Web chat option for customer service. But usability tests showed that customers couldn’t relate to “chat,” says Sharples. “They told us that anyone who wants help doesn’t want to chat about it.” The solution: rename the feature “Live Help.”

Reactions like that will help prepare for narrow-casting, the next wave of site design. The approach uses personalization data and previous shopping patterns to tailor pages to each shopper’s tastes and needs. A customer from Boston who logs on to browse for flower seeds, for example, will first see an array culled from the database especially suitable to the growing conditions in Boston.

Though Sharples considers narrow-casting a major focus of future designs, she acknowledges it runs the risk of setting unwanted limits for customers. Shoppers new to the Web often complain that e-retailers don’t offer enough merchandise, she adds. That’s sometimes the case, but in others, shoppers either can’t decipher the categories used to organize the goods or figure out how to drill into the selection. Finding the right products to feature-and pointing the way toward more-will pose challenges as e-retailers try to adjust pages to make shopping more intuitive.

“We ultimately want each customer to have an experience that’s uniquely theirs,” says Sharples. “But if every experience is one-to-one, it’s harder to make generalizations about the site’s overall direction. And I don’t want to limit customers’ choices, because they might be shopping for someone else.”

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