December 29, 2008, 12:00 AM

Reshaping Web Site Design

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Key aspects of the recent redesign are better use of video and more customer reviews. Whereas the old site featured video viewers on product pages, the new site’s home page provides buttons in a prominent window that allow visitors to access a variety of videos, including what’s on the air at the moment, today’s specials and best sellers. The current video player is twice the size of the previous player and provides a crisper picture. Video also is available on more pages, such as the program guide.

Since launching a customer reviews program from Bazaarvoice, QVC has also posted about 700,000 reviews. “We’re generating about 1,200 reviews each day,” Myers says.

A more focused approach to web site design is helping QVC deal with a challenging retailing environment. In the third quarter ended Sept. 30, 2008, total sales for QVC had decreased by 2.4% to $1.64 billion from $1.68 billion in the third quarter of 2007. The company also began laying off 700 employees and closing down a major fulfillment and customer service center in West Chester, Pa.

But the new community and features and better use of video are helping to drive web sales higher. Also in the third quarter, U.S. web sales rose year-over-year by 4.5% to $257.5 million from $246.5 million in the prior year. Monthly sales attributed to the new video player also have risen by 56%. “We don’t think about trying to reinvent our site design every other year,” says Myers. “We are adding on the features and functions we think will help us to grow our e-commerce business and develop a multi-channel brand that ties our TV and web channels even closer together.”

Moving ahead

Despite the recent economic downturn, retailers, especially smaller merchants with limited time and resources, as of now aren’t cutting back on their design plans. A recent Internet Retailer survey of about 100 merchants finds that 49.9% of retailers have rolled out a new design in the past year, including 26.6% in the last six months and 13.3% within 90 days.

But to save money and expedite the process, some retailers are creating simple designs that effectively take advantage of their existing infrastructure. When Fat Brain Toys, a small family-owned niche retailer of learning toys and related merchandise, redesigned its web site in May, the entire process took six weeks to complete and cost less than $25,000.

And the changes were more than just cosmetic touchups for the home and product pages. Fat Brain, which carries an online inventory of 5,000 SKUs, made significant upgrades to its site search, added more categories and dramatically improved navigation. Visitors wanted better ways to search for learning toys by age and sex, so Fat Brain added a new section on the home page that breaks down toys separately for boys and girls and by age. Fat Brain also added more guided navigation and developed a new site taxonomy and information database that reclassified all products into 30 categories such as active play and games. As a result of better site search, which is a combination of Fat Brain’s updated internal products database and search technology from Google Inc., the time it takes shoppers to start and complete a query has improved by 50%.

Making do

Fat Brain’s retooled web site design now features live chat and customer reviews. The home page has been updated with clearer images, a top-of-the-page navigation bar that lets visitors shop by age, what’s new and other categories, and a gifts wizard that asks visitors five questions to help them locate the right item for an upcoming birthday, holiday or special event.

Fat Brain didn’t redesign its web site unilaterally. Instead, the retailer relied extensively on customer feedback to bring about the new look and treatments. “Some web sites get caught up in building a Mercedes when a Kia will do just fine,” says Fat Brain co-founder and CEO Mark Carson. “We did the work in-house and made do with the resources we had on hand.”

Fat Brain didn’t conduct extensive A/B or multivariate testing to achieve the final design. But almost a decade of monitoring calls and e-mails to its in-house customer service center gave Carson plenty of user feedback to draw on. “We were hands-on with the design and putting in place only the most important elements our customers wanted,” says Carson. “We don’t operate in a black box. If users didn’t like the new site search or home page, they would quickly let us know.”

By using only its in-house staff of three developers and programmers to redesign the site, Fat Brain saved money on the cost of the project. Customers also are responding to the new look. The redesigned site has helped Fat Brain increase its sales conversion rate from 2.1% to 2.5%. Fat Brain expects web sales to reach $13 million in 2008, up by almost 40% from e-commerce sales of $9.3 million in 2007. “We didn’t take forever and a day to complete this redesign,” says Carson. “We got to the heart of what our customers wanted and we completed the project within our available budget and resources.”

Getting projects done efficiently and in ways that drive more business is now the new operating standard for retail web site design, says Betsy Emery, CEO of retail web site design firm Tellus. “All of the retailers we are working with these days are doing their redesign with a keen eye toward how this new look will improve the bottom line,” says Emery. “Even if it’s just remaking the home page or building in new functionality, they want that design to generate more business. Retailers are looking at design in a whole new light and that new attitude is going to stick.”

At VistaPrint, which grew its web sales by almost 60% in fiscal 2008 to $400.7 million, the updated design gallery is only one example of the business-like approach the company takes to redesigning its web site. VistaPrint is keeping its full-time staff of 16 designers, usability analysts and software engineers busy with a full slate of designing and launching more self-service features, including templates and services that customers and small businesses can use to create their own web sites. “We get constant feedback from more than 15 million customers who’ve already used,” says Prus. “They tell us what they want and then we design, build and test it. A good design that works well and delivers results is a big part of how we do business.”

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