February 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Cleaning up the store with Ajax

Some retailers using Ajax design technology to enhance customer experience have reaped higher conversion and lower page-error rates.

Coastal Contacts Inc., which does about $80 million a year selling contact lenses throughout the world on 20 web sites, invested in a state-of-the-art online shopping feature two years ago--single-page checkout. Built with ColdFusion, a software development tool used for building dynamic web pages, the new streamlined shopping service helped to decrease shopping cart abandonment and boost sales. "We know the one-page checkout definitely cuts abandonment and improves visitor-to-sales conversion rates," says Nancy Morison, vice president of product management.

But the slick new checkout wasn`t slick enough, Coastal Contacts soon learned. If a _customer purchasing a set of clear lenses decided during checkout that she also wanted those green-tinted lenses after all, she`d have to leave the checkout page, backtrack to a merchandising page, and maybe--or maybe not--make it back to the checkout to complete the purchase. "They might just say, `Where did the checkout page go?` and forget it, figuring they`ll just come back another day," Morison says.

As everyone in online _retailing knows, however, deciding to come back another day may result in a sale lost to a store or online competitor. So to kick its single-page checkout up to a new level of performance, Coastal Contacts re-launched it last month after rebuilding it on an e-commerce platform designed with Ajax--one of the hottest new tools for providing an easier and faster shopping experience on retail web sites.

Happier customers

Now, when a Coastal Contacts customer is about to complete checkout and decides to make changes, not only can she instantly update billing, shipping and order information on the same screen, she also can modify content in her shopping cart without leaving the checkout page. "Ajax allows the customer to remain on the page, with other data propagated back and forth," Morison says. "Single-page checkout definitely has improved conversion rates, and we`re expecting Ajax to improve them even more."

And if the shopper wants to keep shopping, the data on her checkout page will be automatically saved as she closes it. The shopper then can view other pages, and later retrieve the checkout page with an updated cart by clicking a link from any page.

Providing that kind of customer-focused flexibility in the online shopping experience is one of the best steps e-retailers can take to get shoppers to complete a web site visit with a purchase instead of an abandoned shopping cart or a call to a contact center for help, many experts say. "This is all about improving the customer experience," says Jeffrey Hammond, an analyst with research and consulting firm Forrester Research Inc. "Web retailers are moving forward with Ajax because it improves the user experience, producing better conversion rates, lower page-error rates and fewer calls to the customer support center."

Ajax--an acronym for asynchronous JavaScript and XML--also makes content instantly appear on web pages or "on top of" web pages in a conventional or translucent window when a shopper clicks on or just moves a mouse over a page`s existing content. This does away with the conventional and time-consuming method of clicking on an item or feature and the site having to generate and download a different web page. So new content--enlarged product images, paragraphs of detailed text, or rows of color and sizing options, for example--shows up with the slightest touch of a mouse.

Loose diamonds

Amazon.com Inc. helped _popularize Ajax a couple of years ago by incorporating it into its product recommendation engine and continuing to deploy it in new ways. Among Amazon`s latest Ajax projects is the loose diamond finder in its Jewelry Store, where shoppers move sliding bars with their mouse to choose among six diamond _characteristics--shape, price, carat, color and clarity--then see in near real time the number of available diamonds that meet all of their chosen attributes. All without requiring any other pages to be downloaded.

Other retailers using Ajax to build a faster, easier shopping experience include Gap Inc., whose redesign a year ago introduced an Ajax-driven QuickLook feature that pops up a detail window for each product. And just as Gap is helping to raise the online merchandising and shopping experience standards among apparel retailers, other _retailers are likely to do the same for their segments. When the first retailer in a segment deploys Ajax, experts say, rivals are likely to follow.

In the online movie rental business, for example, Blockbuster Inc. uses Ajax to let online _customers use a mouse to drag and drop chosen DVDs into a shopping cart. Shoppers also can mouse over DVD images to automatically trigger pop-up windows that provide more details on the selected movie. Rivals Netflix Inc. and Hollywood Entertainment Corp. also offer Ajax-powered mouse-over features on their sites, though it isn`t clear which of the three retailers was first to market with Ajax.

Other retailers using Ajax include Abercrombie & Fitch, Crate and Barrel, and Rampage Clothing Co.

Risky business

For all its benefits, though, many retailers have yet to deploy Ajax out of concerns about its complexity and the change it brings to traditional development processes, says Mark Fodor, a partner at Brulant, an Internet marketing, site design and web application development company. In a recent survey of more than 200 online retailers, Brulant found that fewer than 20% were using Ajax _technology and only 6% use it for more advanced techniques like increasing functionality in shopping carts.

"We`re not seeing more retailers doing Ajax now because it`s still a complex development," Fodor says. Ajax can provide the appearance of single-page checkout, for example, but that still requires seven to 10 steps behind the scenes to provide the proper flow of data in a way that doesn`t confuse shoppers, he says.

Moreover, there are some 130 or more versions of Ajax toolkits, many with widely different capabilities. Some are known to have poor support of certain types of web browsers--failing, for instance, to support back buttons for site navigation--and some are better than others in supporting search engine optimization by making page content noticeable by search engine spiders.

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