June 17, 2002, 12:00 AM

Adding items to a web site takes more than just making them available

Flower and gift sales are booming online, but growth into new categories will require site improvements, says Forrester Research. Among the major enhancements needed: Better search and clearer navigation.

The online flower and gift market is booming, but a recent review of top sites by Forrester Research Inc. shows they’ll need to make significant improvements if they are to expand successfully into new gift product categories. In a test of 25 elements of the user experience at 1-800-flowers.com, FTD.com, Hallmark.com and Proflowers.com in the week before Mother’s Day, none of the sites passed all 25 tests.

Hallmark.com ranked highest, passing 72% of the user tests in the areas of value, navigation, performance, presentation, service, and reliability. But according to Forrester’s review, the user experience at all the tested sites varied widely. Despite the importance of search to e-commerce sites, for example, only 1-800-flowers.com and Hallmark.com offered keyword-based search. Only FTD.com and Hallmark.com passed the test for easily recognizable navigation elements, and only Proflowers.com used easily understood icons and symbols.

Retailers should address these issues now, notes Forrester analyst Carrie Johnson, as expanding into additional gift-related product categories will only make finding products on the sites more difficult for consumers.

Forrester also identified special requirements of online gift buyers that differentiate them from consumers shopping online for themselves. Gift shoppers are far more concerned about assurances of on-time delivery than they are about price, for example.

Gift sales in expanded product categories could increase sales at the specialty retailers surveyed “exponentially,” says Johnson, noting that 56% of online shoppers buy gifts. But the specialty gift and flower sites will be facing new competition from other retailers who’ve also spied this lucrative market. Wal-Mart and J.C. Penney, for example, already are selling flowers online. “When retailers like these begin to tailor site experiences to gift givers, their broad product assortments will make them powerful forces for Hallmark, FTD, 1-800-flowers and Proflowers to reckon with,” says Johnson.

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