September 30, 2004, 12:00 AM

Cleaner, Faster

Circuit City and OfficeMax customers play a key rolein new site designs.

Never underestimate the value of a cleaner, more helpful shopping atmosphere, retail experts say—especially on a web site where shoppers are left to their own wits to find what they need.

Retailers know all too well, of course, that poorly designed web sites can frustrate shoppers who may be accustomed to the convenience of being able to ask a store clerk for assistance. And online merchants have often learned the hard way that frustration can quickly send a shopper clicking to a competitor.

So where else could be better to look for help in redesigning sites than among one`s own customers? That`s the tactic that both Circuit City Stores Inc. and OfficeMax have taken in recent redesign projects.

Before launching a redesigned site last month, had built a reputation for providing extensive information about its products, as it sought to extend the service-oriented nature of its stores to its web site. But too often, the information on the web was lost to shoppers, because the site had become overloaded with information and features and difficult to navigate, says Fiona Dias, president of Circuit City Direct and senior vice president of parent Circuit City Stores.

"We did a lot of research with customers that indicated our online shopping experience was not good or intuitive," Dias says. "We had added a lot of features, but that made the site unwieldy. So our goal with the redesign was to make the site easier to shop."

After conducting extensive research with customers, the redesign launched last month makes it easier to find, research and compare more than 1 million items, she adds.

Two of the most important new features are new systems of comparing products and of writing and reading customer reviews, which focus groups revealed were in high demand, Dias says. While these features were difficult to find on the old site, they`ve been made more conspicuous on product pages and loaded with additional features.

Single comparison interface

Shoppers can now view more products in a single comparison, up to five items, and information is better organized by categories, such as details on separate characteristics of TVs. "The old site would just randomly list technical TV specifications, but now we organize information on sound specifications, on picture quality and other individual categories," Dias says.

In providing a more useful and easier-to-find product comparison feature, Circuit City has addressed a crucial element of online shopping for consumer electronics retailers, says Jim Okamura, Chicago-based senior partner with retail consultants J.C. Williams Group. "For online consumer electronics retailers, comparison shopping has become almost the price of entry," he says. "It`s what consumers expect now."

The new site now also offers a glossary of technical terms. And though has long offered educational articles on the products it sells, it now provides access to them through a "Click & Learn" feature prominently displayed in the top right section of the home page.

The customer review feature can now be accessed from multiple pages instead of in a single, hard-to-find spot, Dias says. "If you`re on a product page, you can pull up the reviews, and the system will ask if you want to write one," she says.

Navigation of products was also made easier, Dias says. A shopper looking for digital cameras, for example, can now scroll down lists of hundreds of digital cameras sorted by price, brand or other attributes. "They now have multiple ways to get to the right assortment of products," she says.

And in a move to better serve the hot, new market of digital music, Circuit City includes a link to its music section in a top navigation bar.

Circuit City also providers clearer information throughout the new site about its fulfillment options, including the option to pick up items in a Circuit City store. This information is intended to be especially helpful when customers are ordering products that Circuit City advises against having shipped, such as larger stereo speaker systems, Dias says, adding that online shoppers can now also more easily see information regarding updated inventory availability in any of 600 stores.

Supporting its multi-channel strategy, the new site has proven to be popular with store employees, who find it easier to use when researching product information, Dias says.

The new site was designed by New York-based R/GA, then developed by BroadVision Inc., Redwood City, Calif., on BroadVision`s newest e-commerce platform. In-house IT staff provided quality assurance. The site took about 11 months from conception to launch, though the first five months involved mostly consumer research, Dias says.

Customers get the last word

At OfficeMax, the site redesign serves its more than 600,000 contract business customers, but has implications for the more retail-oriented as well. OfficeMax kicked off the redesign project by seeking ideas from customers, then hired Forrester Research to review the redesign. It asked customers for a final evaluation before making the site live.

The redesign, completed in-house, coincides with OfficeMax`s plan to migrate its business-to-business brand from Boise Office Solutions to OfficeMax, though the b2b web address will remain until next year. OfficeMax is a unit of office supplies company Boise Cascade Corp., which acquired it last December.

The new site went live after a 3-day trial. "Focus groups analyzed the navigation, functionality, and content, and provided us with valuable insight that led to a few final tweaks," says Jim Carrington, director of e-commerce. OfficeMax conducted focus group meetings at customers` sites as well as at its own location.

Only a click away

In addition to improved navigation that lets shoppers reach any product section of the site with a single mouse click, the site provides shoppers with quick access to records of past orders. It automatically saves shopping selections, preventing their orders from getting lost if they must temporarily leave their computer while shopping.

The new design also lets customers order products for multiple departments in a single order, while arranging for billing to multiple cost centers. Customers can also use the new site to set parameters on purchasing activity for individual departments and personnel.

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