August 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

The New Look and listen to their customers when they redesign their sites.

Sometimes even a retail web site that is doing its job can leave a merchant feeling the site could be a lot better, more focused on what customers want in the way of a pleasant and rewarding shopping experience that will keep them coming back. But where does a merchant start to act on that hunch? A good place is with the customers themselves.

That’s the approach that two major retailers undertook in redesigning their web sites this summer. But the fact that each redesigned and relaunched its site is about all they have in common. One retailer set out, at customers’ request, to create sensory overload for shoppers. The other sought to streamline its site and take shoppers directly to the merchandise they wanted. Each claims that the redesign boosted sales-further evidence that the web market is not, as was once thought, homogeneous. It’s becoming like the real-world market: Retailers need to define their audiences and go with what works for each one.

“Many things contribute to this customer perception of our brand, including store visits to interact with our products and our weekly ad,” says Barry Judge, vice president of consumer and brand marketing, Best Buy Co. Inc. “Our goal with the redesign of was to better leverage that brand equity. The redesign allows us to move into a multi-channel space where we can offer customers seamless shopping both online and in-store.”

Before it relaunched with a completely new design in late June, Best Buy asked customers what they liked about shopping at the consumer electronics retailer. Their answer: They liked what the brand stood for-a fun, hands-on shopping experience with a lot of sensory stimulation.

Playing up sensory overload

“During focus groups consumers describe us in positive terms such as dreamland, high energy and sensory overload,” Judge says. So Best Buy delivered what customers wanted, he says. Its new web site provides a slew of new ways to research, find and buy a product, such as a new home-page research center that provides answers to questions about products highlighted for sale in an adjacent section on the same page.

Federated Department Stores Inc.’s is also responding to customer input, but through a more subtle approach of emphasizing product images on its home page and category pages without slowing down site downloading or navigation, president Kent Anderson says. “We added larger images because our customers asked for them,” Anderson says. He expects a near-term return on investment through increased sales stemming from the redesigned presentations, he adds.

Best Buy’s site redesign, launched June 27 with a boost from a limited advertising promotion and a temporary free-shipping offer on all orders, was a hit with shoppers, Judge says. “Initial response from customers was very positive and we observed a significant number of existing customers stopping by to check out our biggest store, our web site,” he says. Best Buy has not promoted the redesign in other ways.

The redesign, which was developed in-house, goes beyond making the site more fun and useful as a shopping channel. For one thing, Best Buy beefed up its web product assortment so that virtually everything available in stores is also on the web. Now it’s not only packed with more information, but it also fills a significant role in the retailer’s multi-channel marketing and merchandising strategies. “Our goal with the redesign of was to better leverage our brand equity,” Judge says. “The redesign allows us to move into a multi-channel space where we can offer customers seamless shopping both online and in-store.”

Mimicking the ads

The new design also mimics the content and appearance of Best Buy’s Sunday newspaper advertising supplement, as well as including an electronic version of the weekly ad. Now whether customers read the paper supplement, view the web site or walk through Best Buy stores, they’ll get a consistent shopping experience with identical offers in all channels. “Design elements that appear in our weekly ad are familiar to our customers, so it was only natural that we would extend their use to our online channel,” Judge says.

The site redesign also supports the fact that 60% of Best Buy’s in-store shoppers research their purchases online. “Before, there was no real connection between our store and our web site,” a spokeswoman says. “But now if customers remember mid week that they saw a camera they wanted in the Sunday store ad, they can go online and find the same offer. We wanted to create an online customer experience similar to the look and feel of our stores and ads to make sure they all work together.”

To view the weekly ad, shoppers key in a Zip Code to call up the appropriate ad for the nearest store. Placing a cursor over the image of a product in the ad will pop up a window with product details. Included in the current printed weekly ad supplement is a promotion for the redesigned site, including call-outs to a temporary free-shipping offer on all orders and the ability of the new site, which has improved site search and navigation, to help consumers “find what you want fast.”

The redesign also provides improved functionality between the site and back-end systems, supporting several new features for an improved shopping experience, the spokeswoman says. A new site search function, for example, provides a drop-down list showing the number of search results from each site section, allowing shoppers to narrow down the results. It also lets shoppers sort the results by relevance or brand. Best Buy built the unique sort function on search technology provided by Verity Inc. New site navigation features include drop-down menus of products from a row of category links on the home page.

A new shopping cart suggests complementary products with links to their buy pages. It also provides links for adding a product to a wish-list, connecting to an application for financing, and purchasing a product service plan.

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