December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

The Mood Behind the Merchandise

(Page 2 of 3)

To prevent such misfires, some retail site designers convene focus groups to test the functionality of their sites. That’s what Silver Plum, an upscale home accessories retailer, did before launching its site last summer. The input proved invaluable in developing a site both aesthetically pleasing and brand-supporting, but also easy to navigate, according to CEO Andrew Breen. His aim: A sophisticated design that made sense without stripping away decorative touches consistent with Silver Plum’s merchandise.

What Breen clearly didn’t want was a site as basic and mass-marketed as “Some of the most useful feedback came from naive and inexperienced Web users whose expectations hadn’t been dumbed-down by the Amazon model,” Breen says. “One group member group called our site visually impressive but didn’t necessarily know we were selling a product.”

In revising the design consistent with what he calls “the theatre of sales,” Breen and his developers emphasized a clean, concise focus on the product. It’s a mistake to overlook the role of non-product content in providing a richer shopping experience, Breen insists.

Silver Plum does that on two levels: by telling the story behind some products-many are crafted by independent artisans-and by showing merchandise in settings that help shoppers understand how products might fit into their lifestyles. For example, various place settings are used to display tableware in modern, traditional, Asian or other decors.

The content connection

Non-product information also contributes to the ambience at, which launched its site in 1996. REI and other retailers catering to consumers interested in skiing, mountain climbing and other pursuits often become informal gathering places and information exchanges, and REI has created a virtual gathering spot online. “Our customers expect great information and inspiration about getting involved in the outdoors,” says Matt Hyde, the company’s vice president of online sales. “In the physical world we have classes, clinics, and knowledgeable sales people. Online, we provide extensive product information, a section about outdoor activities, and community bulletin boards-people who aren’t necessarily out to buy a tent, but want to learn more about backpacking or snowshoeing.”

Organizing the site in a clutter-free, accessible fashion can be a challenge, Hyde acknowledges. “The key is listening to our customers and making incremental changes based on that input,” he says. “We’ve made dozens of enhancements to make the site more simple and obvious.”

Web designers preach that creating pages rich in images and content, yet easy to navigate, must strive for simplicity. At Banana Republic, simplicity starts with the home page, which is divided into four quadrants: man, woman, gift and home. In preparing to launch the site last October, the apparel retailer’s creative team focused on “making the customer experience as easy as possible,” says Lex Gemas, senior director of “That drives everything we do.”

That’s especially important as the Web’s demographics change and more women and middle-income shoppers buy online, shifting away from the largely male, wealthy profile that typified early Web shoppers. A recent study by Media Metrix, New York, shows that retail sites already have the largest compositions of women visitors. In addition, the study found that women soon will outnumber men surfing and shopping on the Web.

Meanwhile, Forrester Research foresees more middle-income Americans heading online, bringing their numbers to 35 million by 2003. New Internet shoppers will exert pressure on e-retailers to provide features that keep experienced shoppers coming back without intimidating newcomers.

For Banana Republic, focus groups and other feedback were important in designing a simple, quick site that aims to maintain the contemporary look of its clothing. “We use every means possible to stay close to our customers,” says Gemas. Technology helps, too. The site has added zoom views and 360-degree spinning to give customers a closer look at the merchandise. In addition, frequent merchandising updates support the image of its brick-and-mortar stores.

“Our site will continue to evolve with our customers’ needs,” Gemas says. “Where we are today is not where we’ll be six months from now.”

Dan Emerson is a freelance writer based in Minneapolis.

Hosts with the most


By Nicole Grasse

Shopping in blissful solitude: For consumers annoyed by tag-along salespeople, that’s one advantage of Internet retailing. But now, even on the Internet, they’re not always alone.

In an attempt to enhance customer service and infuse their sites with personality, some online merchants are enlisting virtual hosts. Usually in the form of cartoon characters, these hosts act like salespeople, guiding customers through the site and commenting on merchandise. The ranks of virtual hosts include Miss Boo, the cat-eyed guide of; Phoebe of teen site; and Andrea, host of Italian silk tie and scarf seller Barrett Ladd, analyst at Gomez Advisors, doesn’t find them particularly helpful, especially if they slow down a site. “The challenge is bandwidth,” she says. “If you have a strong graphic and the user doesn’t have the capability to run it, you’re defeating the purpose.”

Doing little more than blinking and swinging her brunette ponytail, Miss Boo is an impressive example of computer animation, but not much in the way of sales help. Her canned comments-“Jazz pants: That’s one way to cure the blues”-offer little real help or guidance, only attitude. Considering Boo’s sluggishness, Ladd and others bet most shoppers would gladly send Miss Boo packing in exchange for speed., home of the suave face of Andrea (in this case, a male), offers more help and less personality. He’s also the muscle behind the site’s search engine. Type in whether you want a scarf or tie and the colors you prefer, along with the occasion-formal or informal-and Andrea churns out suggestions. He even shows you how the tie looks with various shirts. John Cooper, program director of, says Andrea is an attempt to create an exclusive shopping experience for the retailer of custom-designed neckwear. “Andrea has several roles. He greets the consumer and is friendly, but is not intrusive.” He also contributes to the site’s European boutique atmosphere. “He speaks English with an Italian sensibility,” Cooper says.

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