September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

Intelligent Design

(Page 3 of 3) addressed brand consistency in its site by using a template for each page. Prior to this, the retailer had pages within the site created over several years with different visual layouts.

The only rule

Given the complexities of web site design, retailers are certain to test several variations of the site while in the design stage and even after the new design is up and running. It is not surprising then that many design experts see the process as evolutionary, rather than as a project that can be left idling in neutral for 12 or more months once it is completed.

"There is no rule on how often a site needs to be redesigned or tweaked," says David Fry, CEO of Fry Inc.

Other than to say the job of site designer is never done.

Peter Lucas is a Highland Park, Ill.-based freelance business writer.

10 steps towards better online merchandising

Conversion rates at online retail stores-the rate at which visitors become buyers-slipped last year from 2.6% to 2.4%, according to Forrester Research. There are many reasons for the slippage, and they can be reversed with some sound approaches to web site design and content, says web design company Molecular Inc. Here’s what Molecular suggests:

1. Provide an online version of your print catalog/local flier

According to Forrester, 73% of online consumers have browsed online versions of print fliers and catalogs. Of those users, at least 30% say these tools are "very" or "extremely" useful. Molecular believes such fliers are successful because they provide a familiar way to shop online to less sophisticated web users and retailers know how to design catalogs and fliers to sell.

2. Guide users towards what’s important-don’t overwhelm them with options

Customers still need a simple and clear mental image of the store. Too many options on a site can cause customers to feel confused and distracted.

3. Refresh, renew, revise

Customers perceive the web as constantly changing, and they expect to see the latest content and information each time they visit a retailer’s web site. Sites that rarely change give customers the impression that the inventory is stale and provide few incentives for customers to return to the site.

4. Test alternatives and measure results

Test alternative designs, layouts and feature sets online as well as offline-not just in usability labs and focus groups, but also live.

5. Ask customers what works and what doesn’t

The majority of customers are less likely to provide unsolicited feedback, thus having "Contact Us" on a web site isn’t enough. Don’t wait for feedback; solicit it.

6. Being channel agnostic is a path to mediocrity

Channel agnostic means ignoring the benefits of the various distribution channels, including the store, catalog, call centers and the web. Differentiate among channels by explaining to customers the benefits that each channel offers. But that does not mean retailers can’t guide customers to specific channels. Cost structures, copy placement and return instructions can all serve to direct customers toward preferred channels, but don’t penalize customers for using the "wrong" channels.

7. Encourage word-of-mouth

Word-of-mouth is one of the most effective ways to distribute products and services on the Internet. According to Jupiter Research, 69% of consumers who receive a web site recommendation from a friend pass it along to at least two to six friends.

8. One size does not fit all

Shopping carts are technically infinite in size, but tend to behave the same whether customers choose to purchase one item or 20. If a customer has only one item, don’t ask whether multiple "ship to’s" are needed. The online shopping cart and checkout process should be adaptive.

9. Knowledge equals power (and profits)

Good retail salespeople are invaluable to a retailer because they develop a rapport with customers, make suggestions and notify them of sales and new merchandise. Retail web sites should act the same way by allowing customers to look back at all their previous orders, personalizing customers’ visits and offering suggestions based on previous purchases.

10. Bring the personalized offline experience to your online channel

Retailers should re-create the best parts of the store experience online, including the services of a great salesperson. Give your online customers the same personalized shopping experience as they would find in retail stores by delivering an experience tailored to their individual needs and preferences.

"Retailers do not need to overhaul their entire online strategy or redesign all aspects of their online channels," says Manivone Phommahaxay, user experience consultant for Molecular. "With small adjustments, retailers can make continual and significant changes that result in increased customer satisfaction, loyalty and profits."

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