May 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

Ironing out challenges at a new web site

When Hancock Fabrics Inc. wanted to upgrade its web site, it faced a unique challenge: Much fabric is sold in odd-length increments.

When Hancock Fabrics Inc. wanted to upgrade its web site, it faced a unique challenge: Much fabric is sold in odd-length increments. “That’s a big deal to customers,” says Ryan Bramlett, manager of online services for Tupelo, Miss.-based Hancock Fabrics. “Some fabric is $40 or $50 a yard. To have to order a whole yard when all you need is a half yard is a significant issue.”

This spring, Hancock Fabrics launched, extending an online selling program it has operated at Yahoo Stores since July 1998. With nearly five years of online tenure, Hancock had long refuted skeptics who thought fabric was unsuited to web sales since it’s such a high-touch product. Thus the challenge was to enhance the web experience so it matched the store experience more closely.

33 quarter yards

And the ability to buy fractional lengths was one of the offline experiences that proved particularly troublesome to replicate online. settled on selling fabric in quarter-yard increments. While that seems a logical solution, Hancock is one of the few if not the only online fabric store that offers fractional lengths.

Further, the decision created problems in other parts of the operation. Pricing, for one. Customers choose the quantity in yards and fractions, say, 8.25 yards, but the pricing in the back end is in quarter yards. So what appears to a customer as one product appears to the order management system as 33 products, each a quarter-yard long. Yet the purchase information must be displayed in a way that customers understand: “8.25 yards” not “33 quarter-yards.” Similarly, if a customer returns the order, the order management system has to make sure she receives credit for returning 33 products. “It seems simple until you break it down,” Bramlett says.

Another challenge was in product presentation-particularly crucial because seamstresses base purchases not just on look, but also on texture, weave and heft. For starters, Hancock does what many online retailers do-it presents four images of each piece of fabric in increasingly higher resolution, from thumbnail up to enlarged view. Further, each image shows the complete pattern repeat. But then Hancock also scanned a 1-inch square piece of each fabric so customers can see the texture and the weave when they click on the More Info button. “We’re trying to eliminate the customer ever being disappointed by the purchase,” Bramlett says.

Hancock also revamped its inventory management system so the web site now has real-time inventory information. The system tracks sales and issues automated alerts if sales spike and shortage is imminent. That was particularly helpful when a host on a home and garden TV show pitched a no-sew re-upholstery kit by June Tailor. June Tailor’s web site referred customers to “Sales went through the roof,” Bramlett recounts. “If you have someone whose job it is to monitor sales, by the time that person notices that sales are going up, you don’t have any time to respond.” receives about 300,000 unique visitors a month, up 50% from the monthly average a year ago, Bramlett says. The average ticket online is more than $50, double the average offline ticket, and its product return rate is slightly over 1%. Hancock operates 430 stores in 42 states and it didn’t ignore the stores with its new site, Bramlett says. The re-design includes a more robust store locator, which can get as many as 6,000 visits a day.

No glitches

Hancock Fabrics worked with design company Multimedia Live Inc. on the seven-month project. With Hancock’s special needs, Multimedia Live re-wrote some of the code, but Hancock now owns the software. While he won’t reveal the cost of the re-launch, Bramlett says the major expense was in staff time. “The Internet store has been profitable since 1999, so we had to get the most for our dollars in the re-launch,” he says. “The in-house cost was more considerable than the software license.”

With its soft launch behind it, Hancock Fabrics started marketing the site last month. Bramlett says the company plans to employ keyword search and pay per click, opt-in e-mail lists and advertising on home and garden TV shows. In August, it plans to launch an affiliate network.

Customer reaction has been positive, Bramlett says. “Of the thousands of e-mails we’ve received, I’ve only seen two negatives,” he says. “We pulled this off without a significant glitch.”

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