May 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

SPONSORED SUPPLEMENT: E-commerce Solutions: The Foundation of Successful Retailing

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Integrating marketing modules, employing analytics and enabling data flows across multiple channels with an e-commerce platform is easier today than it was just a few years ago thanks to the inclusion of source code in out-of-the-box applications, as opposed to having the vendor write custom coding. Providing retailers with access to the source code enables them to smooth integration problems themselves, if they want. WebLinc is one vendor that includes access to its source code out-of-the-box.

“By making the source code available, retailers are being given the keys to the system for integration of future applications and that makes it easier to refine the platform to meet their needs,” says WebLinc’s Hill. “It also makes integration more straightforward when clients switch from a homegrown platform to a third-party platform.”

Retailers also have more flexibility in preserving their platform if they choose to move its functionality in a direction opposite that of the vendor or the vendor goes out of business. “It’s like an insurance policy,” Hill says.

From functionality to design

Once retailers decide on the functionality they want in their platform, they can turn their attention to site design. Ajax (asynchronous JavaScript and XML) is fast becoming a standard feature of site design. The primary benefit of Ajax is that it allows shoppers to move between pages and windows without the entire page having to be reloaded each time. The payoff is an increase in the site’s interactivity, speed and functionality.

“When the process to move around the site is cumbersome, shoppers tend to jump off the site and take their business elsewhere,” says’s Svanascini. “Ajax has broken the barrier to creating more user-friendly interfaces, much the way TiVo did when it comes to recording a television show.”

A similar technology to Ajax is called Snap Shop, which Solid Cactus created using industry standard technologies such as Ajax, JavaScript and HTML. Snap Shop enables shoppers to mouse over a product image and open a window in the foreground that provides such details as price and product specifications. Shoppers can place items they are viewing right in their shopping cart without leaving the page. Shoppers that need more information about the item can navigate to the product page directly from the Snap Shop interface.

“Snap Shop is a design feature that streamlines the shopping process so the customer does not have to jump between product pages and the shopping cart,” Younger says. “It’s a feature we felt would play well with shoppers.”

Avoiding clutter is another critical element of site design. Populating pages with too much extraneous information, especially when it comes to cross-selling and upselling, can turn off customers. So too can failing to present this type of information in a consistent manner.

“If information is not relevant to the sales process, chances are it will be viewed as clutter,” says Svanascini. “The other rule of thumb is to keep a list of items frequently purchased as a cross-sell or upsell in the same place on the page. This ensures the shopper knows right where to find it when they want to access that information.”

Relevancy of data presentation also applies to site search. With search engines such as Google raising consumer expectations about the quality of search results, shoppers are less inclined to wade through site search if they must execute several queries to locate the product they want.

For example, if a shopper enters the term “red backpack” and the search engine returns all results related to the word “red” and “backpack,” it will include products that do not match the intent of the search string. Most shoppers are disinclined to sort through these type of results, especially if the results for red backpacks are scattered about.

Matching customers’ needs

“If a retailer is not going to show site search results relevant to the search term, then it is not worth offering site search because shoppers don’t have the patience to plow through bad results,” says Mercado’s Barshack. “Site search is about matching the product to the customer’s needs by creating a richer product discovery experience.”

Part of that richer experience is to present search results that offer consumers the best possible choices without overpowering their senses. This can be accomplished by providing refinement tools at the start of the search process that allow shoppers to select a category, such as women’s, and a generic product name or a brand, such as shoes or Prada.

“Shoppers need to have a way to prioritize their search so they can get the variety of results they want, but narrow down the number of results so they are relevant without being overwhelming,” says Barshack.

It is also important to customize site search to the type of customer. Many bath and kitchen retailers, for instance, service commercial clients in addition to homeowners. Each customer group searches for products using different criteria. “Commercial customers are more likely to get into specifications of the item while the homeowners will look for brands or use more generic terms,” says Svanascini. “Effective site search takes into consideration all the characteristics of the product to allow customers to search by their desired criteria. It comes back to the retailer knowing who their customer is and how they behave on their site.”

Retailers that build customer profiles can use that data to enhance their site search by attaching cookies to shoppers’ computers that identify those shoppers upon return visits. Once the shopper is identified, the retailer can apply information from the profile to order results based on past purchases. For example, some shoppers may be more inclined to view items from the lowest price to highest or they may prefer house brands over brand name items. Rules can be applied on an individual basis or by an automated system that groups shoppers by like characteristics.

Rules that appeal

“Rules are being applied at the category level to configure results in a way the shopper will find more appealing,” says ATG’s O’Neill. “Changes to the rules can even be made in real time to reflect current promotions or other marketing campaigns.”

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