June 26, 2008, 12:00 AM

Web Site Design

Catering to the customer is the new mantra in web design

When it comes to web site design, many e-retailers today face a real conundrum. They have more technology than ever at their fingertips to create a site full of bells and whistles, but at the same time, they want to deliver a quick and seamless shopping experience so consumers can get in, get their product, and get out.

The smartest e-retailers, says Mike Svanascini, chief operating officer for web site design, development and hosting company AmericanEagle.com, leverage advancements in site design to make buying easier, not more complex. And, he says, it all starts at home.

“A clear and simple home page is the way to go,” Svanascini says. From there, he says retailers should place the most emphasis on helping consumers find products, even if they’re not exactly sure of what they want.

AmericanEagle.com, which has designed sites for more than 3,000 companies, including such e-retailers as Christian bookstore Mardel and Fannie May Candies, has learned over the years that search, for example, is about a lot more than serving up a laundry list of products. “The way search is working now is that it is more of a guide,” Svanascini says.

Less is more

Mardel.com’s music selection product finder, for instance, allows users to browse music by artist, record label, price range, topic and even best sellers in various categories and then whittle down results as they go.

Tom Cox, CEO of e-retail site Golfballs.com Inc., agrees that in the case of the home page, less is more. Retailers should create a simple path for customers to follow, use a clean design and make sure the important features that lead to sales are obvious, he says. “Buttons should look like buttons,” Cox says. “Put your logo on the top left, add top and left hand navigation, and a search bar either top left or center. Simple is effective, complicated web sites fail.”

Many retailers aren’t so focused on the end benefit to customers, says Paula Rosenblum, managing partner for research and advisory firm RSR Research. Too often merchants add features because they look cool, not because they will help the shopper, she says.

“Too much Flash tires people,” Rosenblum says. She adds that while 3D images can showcase product features, they can be obtrusive if overused, and she notes that pop-up ads also can be annoying.

Craig Smith, CEO of e-commerce consulting and services firm Trinity Insight LLC, agrees the wrong implementation of technology-no matter how sleek-can frustrate consumers. “I don’t like it when a brand thinks they’re so high-end, they want to give you a Flash presentation before they let you go to the store,” he says.

Video value

But Rosenblum adds videos that offer choice-that is, a user can choose when to watch and when to stop watching-can help boost brand awareness and loyalty. “Never undervalue the creation of your own video,” Rosenblum says. She points to outdoor adventure gear retailer The North Face as an example of a retailer that got video right.

The merchant incorporates videos both on its site and at its in-store kiosks. Clips showcase customers using North Face gear everywhere from the Gobi Desert to Rocky Mountain National Park. And consumers have the choice of when to load them and when to close them, she says.

While pioneering merchants stay abreast of the latest web technologies, incorporating sophisticated search and vibrant videos, Internet advancements also have raised the bar for all e-commerce sites. What was once a value-add is now expected, Cox says. “There are a lot of site features that simply aren’t optional anymore,” he says. “Live support, customer reviews, good, usable self help, and a My Account page are just a few.”

Rosenblum agrees. “Customer reviews are now something that you must do,” she says. “Three dimensional views are something that you must do.”

A web site concept that Rosenblum believes shows promise is The Wisdom of the Crowd, in which a retailer asks frequent customers to weigh in on potential items before they offer them. Customers can join a club or program and offer feedback in exchange for loyalty points or discounts. “Say you are a fan of clothing retailer Chico’s and Chico’s has three or four alternative designs they are considering, so they ask for your opinion,” Rosenblum says. This can give a retailer a good idea of what’s going to sell before adding an item and it brings customers closer to the brand, she says.

Figuring out which features will add value and which will simply add confusion isn’t an easy process, but help from an outside web design firm and lots of testing can help, vendors and consultants say.

Top to bottom

“Many retailers today need to get their site reviewed and think about redesign from top to bottom,” Svanascini says. Cox recommends smaller retailers that lack the resources to hire outside consultants and design firms keep a close eye on the big players.

“Just look at what the top Internet retailers do and follow their lead,” Cox says. “They spend a bundle studying conversion. It’s not brain surgery, and it’s fairly easy to follow.”

However, merchants should be careful to evaluate if other retailers’ strategies translate to their business. Sprint, for example, sets its phones next to a deck of cards as a point of size comparison for shoppers. If an e-retailer is selling a size-sensitive item or a new product that most consumers have not yet seen, they may want to try out that feature.

However, such an image would be of little value for a merchant that sells, say, snow shovels. Zoom may be great for a retailer marketing couches. It can allow shoppers to see the color and texture of different fabrics and offer significant value. But that feature will be of little importance to a mom shopping for a new oven.

“More is not necessarily better,” Cox says. “There is a balance between customer choices and overload.”

The key takeaway when it comes to site design, Rosenblum says, is to cater to the customer. “It’s not about how you want to sell to them,” she says. “It’s about how they want to interact with you.”

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