July 27, 2006, 12:00 AM

Clicking on all cylinders

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Since going live with the new site in May, JCWhitney.com`s BizRate customer satisfaction scores have risen by 10 points, which Robertson takes as a proxy for being predictive of repeat visitors, pending a more specific future analysis. And though the site`s add-to-cart rate has dropped, a function of the now-visible real-time product availability, the cart-to-order ratio is up dramatically, about 40%. "It really has shifted customer behavior," Robertson says.

Three to watch

Site design doesn`t exist in a vacuum, but reflects consumers` evolving experience and expectations. AvenueA`s Friedman notes that three design issues its retail site customers are increasingly inquiring about foreshadow emerging best practices in site design. He predicts all three will become standard in how consumers interact with shopping sites in the future.

One is the concept of consumer-generated content as people look to peers for product advice rather than to advertising messages. As a result, incorporating the consumer voice in some way is becoming a more prevalent part of web site design. "The customer is going to go out and find information about your product. You are not going to be able to keep that from happening, so you might as well be part of the conversation," he says. "We recommend if possible, host it on your own site. The last thing you want is to let the consumer go off to another site to find it, one where your competitors are selling a similar product or even the same one at a better price." In fact, a recent consumer survey by the J.C. Williams Group, the E-tailing Group and Start Sampling ranked consumer content as the No. 1 aid to a buying decision, cited by 91% of survey respondents.

Another factor fast becoming important is the ability to target messaging and offers based on prior shopping behavior. "If a customer has come back to your site looking for a swimsuit a couple of times, you know they are in the market. So when they come back again, target them with a swimsuit promotion," Friedman explains. What`s new is that much of the same targeting technology that has been applied to e-mail can now be applied dynamically on sites as customers move through the shopping process.

Architecting sites to accommodate personalized targeting can be infrastructure-intensive, requiring software installation and engineering. Friedman compares the process to a move onto a content management system.

"You define merchandising slots and behaviors within the site, and you need to make sure that as you design product pages, or get into checkout, there are places in the process that are available for you to deliver messages," he says. AvenueA has experimented with a hosted technology from a sister company, Atlas, to target offers to customers on retail sites similar to the way Atlas serves up targeted ads on portals and publisher sites.

The third direction that Freidman sees designing traveling is toward rich media. Applications such as Flash are being used to create persistent shopping carts that stay visible throughout the shopping process as the visitor travels through a site. Gap.com, for example, has a drop-down version that displays a running cart subtotal with each new item added.

Flash and AJAX also are being used to enable enhanced previews that let shoppers pick a product size or color without having to leave the product page. "Every time a shopper has to leave the product page to choose a size or color or go to a shopping cart, that risks breaking the shopping flow," Freidman says. "This allows people to stay much more in the shopping experience, without being distracted by the administrative or cart management activities associated with it."

Evolving tools

The research tools underlying decisions about retail site design continue to evolve, becoming more robust, sophisticated and accessible. "Some of the new reporting tools are doing a much better job of showing the impact of various elements on the page in terms of what really drives order size or conversion," says Neil Clemmons, senior vice president of strategy at interactive agency Critical Mass. "When you have data to back that up rather than just opinion, these discussions tend to go a lot faster and a lot easier."

Critical Mass refers to the phenomenon of what design elements and features influence conversion as "convergence," noting that analytics and testing are making online retailers smarter about what levers to pull on pages. To those research tools, Critical Mass adds something new: eye tracking studies, so far used by relatively few retailers to plot site design. The studies managed by Critical Mass for its clients use special monitors from outside technology providers that incorporate cameras to record eye movements. The technology has moved beyond earlier iterations, which required viewers to wear a helmet-like apparatus, into something much less cumbersome.

The data are significant in rating the effect of page elements because eyes don`t always go where the viewer reports they did. "The amount of visual information that someone is receiving from a web site is astounding, and humans` ability to filter out what is unnecessary to their primary objective there is phenomenal," says Arif Hirani, planning director at Critical Mass. "That`s been one of the surprises. I`d imagined there would be a fairly direct correlation between eye tracking data and self-reported behavior, but that`s not always the case."

Harnessing the habits

Eye tracking studies can shed light, for example, on whether viewers see a page`s primary take-action button, and in what order relative to other page elements; or if the eye went first to the primary or left-hand navigation. Such studies can add an extra layer of intelligence to that provided by analytic tools. "Often, the clickstream data you pull from a reporting tool would show that people are not clicking on a particular button. But you don`t know if it`s because of the label, the placement, or because they just don`t see it. With eye tracking, you can quickly see how many people actually saw it, did their eyes even go there, and in what sequence—did they go there immediately or was it after they studied the page?" says Clemmons.

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