January 29, 2010, 12:00 AM

Role player

Category pages can be a merchandising tool or a navigation aid. Or maybe a bit of both.

Lead Photo

Halley Silver, Director of E-Commerce, King Arthur Flower

Imagine an online retailer, BestStuff.com, with a product catalog that includes a large assortment of one category of product: gizmos. BestStuff offers so many gizmos that even true fans would hard be put to wade through a category page that offers detail on every one single one. BestStuff wants to put forward the gizmos that it calculates will appeal most to customers, and especially those that afford it the best margins.

BestStuff is fictional, but it`s a very real challenge for online retailers to decide what to put on category pages, the order to present items in and what to leave out.

The basic question is this: Should the category page be primarily a merchandising tool that showcases the hottest products, or is its main role to be a navigation aid that helps the shopper get as quickly as possible to the product she seeks? Or perhaps it should do some of both.

E-retailers are adjusting where they fit on the merchandising vs. navigation spectrum based on experience. They`re making use of new technology to improve results, and often finding that what`s left off is as important as what`s included on a category page.

The next step
The category page is the overview page that displays after a shopper clicks on a broadly defined type of merchandise—"outerwear" or "digital cameras," for instance—that the merchant lists in its home page navigation bar. These pages represent an opportunity for the retailer to draw consumers more deeply into the site or to highlight products the retailer wants to feature because of internal business considerations, such as margin or inventory status.

For some e-retailers, the first step in making strategic use of category pages may just be to understand that they may well have at their fingertips the ability to arrange how products appear on category pages.

"Many retailers don`t necessarily realize that a lot of times you can go into your e-comemerce platform and merchandise category pages right there by changing the sort order," says Erin Richey, marketing consultant with web consultancy Flat Frog Design.

For example, an e-commerce platform may have a built-in default to display products in alphabetical order or in order of how recently the product was entered into the database. But to call out specific products within a category, many e-commerce platforms allow retailers to manually adjust the order of products according to their own rules.

Retailer King Arthur Flour has experimented with how to categorize products in a meaningful way, implementing two major category reorganizations since 2007. As part of the latest effort, which refocused categorization based on how shoppers think of products rather than the way a merchant does, King Arthur Flour kept the default alphabetical listing of products on its category pages but determined the alphabetized listing of products on the linked subcategory pages was of little use to consumers shopping the site. It switched to displaying products on those subcategory pages by popularity.

At the same time, King Arthur banished pagination. Rather than have multiple pages of products under the "bakeware" subcategory of "bread," for instance, all items are on one, longer page. "We`re showing all because we see that people go to a page and view all," says director of e-commerce Halley Silver. King Arthur doesn`t look to its category pages to do any of the heavy lifting on merchandising products—their role is simply to list products for customers using navigation to find them, she says.

Silver says people use search more than navigation to find products on the site, meaning that more visitors see search results pages rather than category pages. "We are trying to find more inspirational ways to get people to explore, not just seek and find, and category pages don`t inspire people to shop around. They`re just a list of products," she explains.

So rather than do any merchandising on traditional category pages that list products by type, King Arthur has started to organize products into what Silver calls galleries. The galleries combine products of different types that a particular consumer might need, such as a "Bake and Give" gallery offering pastry mixes and decorative containers for presenting the finished baked goods.

Those galleries become new—and King Arthur believes more relevant—mini-categories. While not providing specifics, Silver calls the galleries "high-converting" and says fewer shoppers now complain that they can`t find what they`re looking for on the site.

With about 1,400 products in its online catalog, King Arthur uses an automated function to list products on subcategory pages by sales rank, while merchants create galleries to support merchandising that might otherwise be done on a category page. But at TitleNine.com, with about 400 products online, no merchandising is automated. All category decisions and category merchandising are driven entirely by a merchandising team that also oversees the paper catalog of multichannel retailer Title Nine.

"Our category gateway is very much art versus science. Our biggest tool that we use is our intuition," says Will Kuehn, director of e-commerce. The merchandising team selects what to feature in its category gateway—typically, a large promotional shot with one or two smaller photos. The merchants select the items they think will resonate best with customers based on current trends and sales from earlier seasons, and look for product photos that effectively depict Title Nine`s active women`s lifestyle brand.

The merchandising team refreshes the creative on top-level category pages about every other week. They`re not much influenced by profit margin, but the merchants do factor in sales in deciding whether to feature a dress that`s a runaway hit in a hero shot, and avoid featuring products that are in short supply, Kuehn says.

The merchants also decide on the order in which products are presented on sub-category pages. "Our inventory team looks at the subcategory pages daily to make sure we aren`t leading with products that are going into a bad inventory position," Kuehn says. "We always lead with what we`re most excited about from a merchandising perspective. Even if something is on back order, that`s not such a hurdle to putting it up there. We just won`t put it on the first page."

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