March 31, 2011, 12:00 AM

Lessons learned

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"We want to deliver a rich experience, but we don't want to slow down our core customer experience," he said. "That's where the bulk of our business is, and that's what we care about most."

See through the eyes of consumers

The Sports Authority Inc. felt sure a 20% offer on the home page would boost conversion at the site of the sporting goods retailer. But the results did not live up to expectations, and the retailer eventually figured out it was because most consumers were coming to through search and other marketing channels, bypassing the home page and any promotions on it.

"80% of our visitors never saw it," Clay Cowan, vice president of e-commerce, said of the home page offer.

Sports Authority succeeded in boosting site conversion by making the site easier to use. That began with watching consumers interact with its e-commerce site in the usability lab of GSI Commerce Inc., which provides Sports Authority's e-commerce platform.

Cowan showed video of consumers being asked to name the number of products on a web page. Most gave the number of product photos on the page, failing to notice a text list of other products on the left side of the page, or that they could scroll horizontally to view additional products.

Showing senior managers videos like that, or in some cases bringing them to the GSI lab to watch consumers struggle with the web site, helped those executives better understand usability issues.

By making changes suggested by the usability tests, Cowan says boosted its conversion rate by 47% within six months. The experience also taught the retailer a lesson that it intends to apply to future web site redesigns. "We'll explore and test significant site changes with consumers, before we make them or invest in them," Cowan said.

Don't just talk, listen

Beau Ties Ltd. didn't see much of an impact from its first social media efforts begun in 2006, including a blog and YouTube videos designed to answer common questions, such as how to tie a bow tie. The problem was that the retailer was doing all the talking, and not using social media to interact with consumers, concluded Justin Perdue, web manager for the neckwear manufacturer and online retailer.

"You have to get people talking," Perdue said.

Beau Ties now emphasizes creating a dialogue on its Facebook page. For starters, it encourages consumers to Like that page by offering them a free shipping code if they do. Then it posts content designed to generate consumer comments, including notable quotes about ties and consumer reviews from

The company also uses Facebook to get feedback. For instance, Beau Ties' fabric buyer describes the prints the manufacturer is planning to roll out and invites comment. That feedback is important, said Perdue, because its ties require a six-month lead time and Facebook comments can offer valuable insights.

"We're literally working on Christmas in July, so getting comments ahead of time is invaluable," he said.

In fact, Perdue calls Facebook the company's best focus group. "You can spend countless time and money getting focus groups together," he said. "Or you can spend five minutes to get feedback from your Facebook fans who can provide an instant focus group."

Nor does Beau Ties ignore Twitter. It sorts through Twitter posts using social search tool to follow what is being said about its brand and about ties in general. For instance, when a consumer posted that he couldn't find a particular bow tie style at a rival retailer's store, Beau Ties responded that it carried the style.

"It can be analogous to walking into a competitor's store and luring a customer into your store," he said. "It allows you to maybe get another customer in five minutes of work."

In mobile, less is more

Music Factory Direct has made headway in mobile commerce, with 5% of its sales now coming through smartphones and other mobile devices. But its gains have not come without setbacks, explained Stephen Leitch, director of e-commerce at the online retailer of musical instruments.

For example, his company's large logo didn't fit on smaller mobile screens, so the retailer had to adjust it to render properly. The retailer also struggled to incorporate recommendations and cross-selling, which are important in this low-margin category. "Upsells are a very big issue with us," Leitch said. "Right now, the pictures for mobile recommendations are small and they are not that great, but we are working on it."

The e-retailer found it had to set priorities in order to make it easy for consumers to shop its site on a smartphone. It decided to include click to call, knowing that when its agents get to talk to customers they often close sales. And it decided wish lists and a reorder function were important.

But it left off the web site's rich artist pages and videos. "Don't try to do everything," Leitch advised attendees. "Ask yourself what's important for mobile."

And don't be afraid to fail. As many presentations at the Internet Retailer Web Design & Usability demonstrated, in a rapidly evolving business like e-commerce failure can be as instructive as success.

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