May 2, 2008, 12:00 AM

Back to Basics

Getting the fundamentals right can boost the bottom line.

When it comes to web technology, Internet retailers are stepping up their games. From captivating flash sequences to mesmerizing videos to social networking, e-commerce sites today often seem to entertain as much as they sell.

But no matter how novel, amusing or visually appealing a web site, if consumers can’t find a product they are looking for, they can’t buy it. If the checkout process is as lengthy as a job application, shoppers will jump ship. And if a site is hard to navigate, visitors will spend their money elsewhere.

While some e-retailers are striving to keep up with the Joneses on the technology front, others are pursuing a different business model-focusing on the basics. From improving navigation and search, to cleaning up cluttered pages, to making what the shopper needs to do next obvious, these Internet businesses say concentrating on fundamentals can make a measurable impact in sales, site visits, and conversions.

Staff and customer complaints

Shortly after the online bookstore for the Hazelden Foundation addiction treatment center began using Oracle iStore to manage its site in 2003, Bob Barrett, executive director, consumer content distribution for the bookstore, started hearing from staff and customers about problems-particularly with search and online registration.

“Our internal staff would go to the search and try to find our products to either to help customers, edit content, change item data or promote the products better,” Barrett says. “They would report back that our search functionality was not working effectively.”

Tasked to improve the site, which offers about 2,500 SKUs such as inspirational books, videos and sobriety medallions, to an active customer base of about 50,000, Barrett met with his team to prioritize updates. Search quickly rose to the top of the list.

To confirm his staff’s conclusions, Barrett turned to customers, asking them to complete a survey in exchange for free shipping. “We asked them how they liked our bookstore, did they use our search functionality, and if so, could they find what they were looking for,” Barrett says.

Sifting through the 2,000 replies, Barrett quickly learned customers could not find what they were looking for. And they weren’t pleased:

? “I found the search engine almost useless. I had great difficulty maneuvering and after a time, I just stumbled onto items,” wrote one customer.

? “I’m no computer expert, but it seems that I had to do a lot of searching to find some of the products that I need. Perhaps a better search tool?” another suggested.

“We already knew search was flawed, but this brought it home,” Barrett says. “People would say ‘You do such a good job treating people, why can’t you get a search tool that works?’”

A new beginning for search

Digging deeper, Barrett learned that Oracle iStore included a search feature that didn’t translate well for a bookstore. For example, shoppers searching for the popular book, “Each Day a New Beginning: Daily Meditations for Women” would often enter the phrase “each day.” However, that partial title wouldn’t return the book-at least not in the first 199 results-because the phrase “each day” wasn’t in the summary copy. The Oracle search feature didn’t scan the title, only the description copy, Barrett says.

“If you type ‘each day’ into Amazon or Google, it’s in the first five results. But people couldn’t find that book, one of our most popular, on our site,” Barrett says.

Barrett says he explored outside vendors but decided it would be less expensive to solve the problem internally. He turned to his IT department for the fix. It took about 300 to 400 hours and a new programmer to develop the new search functionality. Now, Hazelden’s results take book title, description and the metatags-underlying copy in the HTML header of a web page-into account.

The team didn’t stop there. After it revamped how its search function found information about each product, it reorganized its site to reduce the number of steps a customer had to take to find a product.

For example, Hazelden has collected quite an offering of anniversary medallions in its 10-year history, everything from one celebrating 24 hours of sobriety to one celebrating 50 years. As Hazelden added products to its mix, it also added them to its search results. Barrett says it got to the point where customers searching under the term “anniversary medallion” were getting nearly 500 results. Visitors would have to scroll through several pages to find their desired product, Barrett says-a tedious, time consuming-task.

“It was like having a Minnesota Vikings t-shirt on your web site, and then having a separate listing for extra small, small, medium, and so on,” Barrett says.

Hazelden changed the format so that such a search would show one result for each type, with a dropdown menu for specific time periods. Now when a user searches for a medallion, about 90 products appear.

Barrett says search results are more relevant, customer service receives fewer calls from confused visitors and sales have increased about 32% since the changes. What’s more Barrett says better search has the e-bookstore on target to reach $4 million in sales this year, up from $2.5 million in 2006.

Less is more

While Hazelden relied on customers to pinpoint areas that needed a fix, digital photo print retailer took inspiration from other e-commerce sites, such as Apple Inc., when it decided to simplify its web site early this year.

“Call it a convergence of data points. The iPod wasn’t the first digital music player but it was simple and clean and very cool and words didn’t say that-the design did,” says Douglas Keeney, CEO of Inc. “Then I read Business Week’s annual Best of Design issue. If there was one thread it was clean, simple and functional.”

But more than sleek and streamlined being the latest fad, Keeney observed firsthand that customers at simply weren’t getting it. Keeney, who aims to spend an hour each day with his customer service team, says he saw patterns hinting the web site was not clear. “Customers were asking questions that were answered on our home page. If your home page isn’t communicating, watch out,” Keeney says.

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