July 27, 2006, 12:00 AM

Clicking on all cylinders

A new generation of site design probes deep into the consumer mind - and deeper into web pages.

Maslow`s hierarchy of needs? Cognitive dissonance? High-tech cameras that record what eyes see, versus what viewers report they see? These are not the stuff of Psych Lab experiments-they are representative of some of the thinking and technology underpinning a new generation of retail web site design.

Though online marketing tools such as search have attracted much of the money and effort expended by online retailers to acquire customers and sales, they`re only the starting point on the road to conversion. The rest is what happens to visitors after they`re on the site. It`s there, in the art—and increasingly the science—of site design, that retailers are looking deeper to find gains. As a result, new planning methodology, research tools and technology are part of retail site design today, as sites have evolved from brochureware to online catalogs to an increasingly interactive experience.

New directions in site design spring from the same objective: to get at what`s in the online customer`s head and attempt to build that into the customer`s shopping experience on a site. For it`s the customer`s view of what`s important on a site, and not the old paradigm emphasizing what the retailer would like to convey about itself, that is at the center of smart site design now.

It`s that realization that`s driving major site redesigns at retailers such as J.C. Whitney, for example. When the auto parts and accessories retailer planned the new site that went up in May, it took the approach of putting corporate objectives to the side and instead thought like a customer: How could it design a site that would make customers see that it was in their best interest to buy from J.C. Whitney and not somewhere else? To get there, vice president of e-commerce Geoffrey Robertson and his team borrowed from the study of psychology the concept of a customer`s "hierarchy of needs" and built the new site entirely around it. The result: "We are seeing double-digit conversion rates," Robertson says.

Keeping the needle moving

Across retail sites, early design efforts to grab visitors` attention and encourage purchase—such as adding colors that jump out or re-arranging features on pages—moved the needle on sales. But keeping that needle moving requires more today as online consumers grow more sophisticated.

"Since 2003, there`s been a shift in the way consumers respond. A lot of the old direct marketing or manipulation doesn`t work anymore," observes Bryan Eisenberg, co-founder of web marketing services firm Future Now Inc. "Things are starting to affect conversion now that didn`t a few years ago, like consumer-generated content."

And there have been other shifts in consumer use as well that retail site design must now grapple with. For instance, site operators now must design around the fact that home pages get less traffic than in the past as more visitors bypass that messaging and access the site from a variety of entry points. Site design also is looking beyond landing and category pages to pay new attention to pages and functions buried deep within the site.

"More companies are realizing that very minor changes on a product page or even a payments page—what copy is bolded or how many bullet points it has—can make a material difference," says Mark Wachen, CEO of online testing and optimization services provider Optimost.

Site design also is adapting to incorporate site architecture that allows personalized targeting of visitors while they are on the site. "There have always been cross-sells and upsells, but for a long time they have been based on product attributes, not on the attributes of the customer who`s looking," says David Friedman, regional president of interactive agency AvenueA/Razorfish. "But when customers come through your site, they leave a whole trail of information on what they are interested in. So we are getting much more involved now in designing sites in such a way that allows us to customize messaging and offers to particular customers."

The 60% opportunity

When multi-channel J.C. Whitney saw last year that 60% of its new-to-file customers were coming to it online, it realized the web represented a critical avenue to position what it believes makes the company stand out from competitors: its value proposition. A complete site redesign followed.

Surveys suggested the typical customer was a utilitarian shopper, entering the site knowing what he wanted. That suggested a hierarchy of customer needs that the team used to make design decisions. "I knew that at the base level, we had to make sure pricing was right, availability was there, the product information was clear and that customers knew what cars the products could be installed in," Robertson says. With navigation set up to get customers to all of that information quickly, the company then looked for ways to approach the next level of need: how to satisfy shoppers as to why they would want to buy from J.C. Whitney instead of from competitors.

Communicating that message led to some major visual changes in the new site design. J.C. Whitney swapped out some key home page real estate that had been used for general promotions—a feature that appeared to have less influence on its highly-focused typical site visitor—to instead feature a bold "100% Satisfaction Guarantee" banner and logo articulating the value proposition: best prices, fast shipping and easy returns.

Within the site, other changes further addressed the customer hierarchy of needs; for instance, with a new availability tab on product listing pages. Linked to the inventory database, it shows real-time availability and leverages a key part of what differentiates J.C. Whitney but was something the company hadn`t emphasized to customers: one of the strongest in-stock positions in the industry. Among other changes, it recently added product reviews and included a sort by best-seller status in the navigation process, to add another layer of confidence to customers` buying decisions by allowing them to see what others are buying and experiencing with those products.

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