June 30, 2011, 12:00 AM

Web Site Design

The web device revolution spurs changes in e-retail site design.

Lead Photo

Retailers used to be able to assume consumers would be accessing their sites from a desktop computer with a monitor roughly 13 or 15 inches wide. Now a retailer has to ensure its site renders well on both a 4-inch smartphone screen and a 27-inch desktop monitor, as well as all the tablet, netbook, laptop and desktop screens in between.

Retailers' challenges are not going to get any easier. The number of U.S. consumers who own tablet computers, such as Apple Inc.'s iPad, is set to grow from 10.3 million last year to 82.1 million by 2015, according to Forrester Research Inc. Moreover, those tablets aren't replacing laptop or desktop computers. Only 13% of iPad buyers purchase the device in lieu of a computer, according to market research firm NPD Group. That means consumers will be visiting e-commerce sites from several types of devices.

Add in consumers' changing expectations. Consumers want a retailer's site to load quickly and correctly—regardless of the device they're using. They want the site to feature a slew of helpful content and they want assurance that they're getting a good deal. Retailers are recognizing these demands, which may explain why 62.1% of retailers in a recent Internet Retailer survey said they had redesigned their sites in the past year. To embark on those redesigns online merchants are working with design firms like Alexander Interactive and Americaneagle.com Inc., as well as vendors like WinBuyer to bolster those designs with the features shoppers crave.

Simple is better

Retailers can't afford to keep their designs static, particularly as consumers increasingly expect an e-commerce site to be simple and intuitive, says Brian Evans, MacNeil Automotive director of e-commerce and Internet marketing. With its 2007 redesign, the automotive accessories retailer WeatherTech.com, which is owned by MacNeil, added a "Start" button that prompted a shopper to enter his car's make, model and year so that the site can pull up products that work with that vehicle. The button sought to make it easier for shoppers to find the products that fit their needs.

When the retailer launched a redesigned site in April it pushed the idea of simplified shopping even further, says Evans. For instance, the retailer's design firm, Americaneagle.com, added cookies that store the vehicles that visitors search for most often so that when the shopper revisits the site he doesn't have to enter in his car's make and model.

It also added a page that allows shoppers to mouse over each section of a car to see how various products fit with that car, such as whether a cargo liner fits in the car's trunk. That feature helps shoppers better understand the retailer's unique products, says Evans. That's particularly important because WeatherTech's customer base has evolved from car aficionados to soccer moms and others interested in keeping mud, sand and snow from staining a car's interior.

And because WeatherTech's products are customized to fit specific makes and models of cars, the retailer also invested in a photo studio where it shoots high-resolution photos, displayed on its site, that show a product in a specific car. "It's not a cheap investment—in terms of time and money—and it's hard to measure the ROI on it, but we think shoppers want to see how the products fit in their particular car," he says.

Creating a site that is informative and user-friendly is also a goal for East Coast department store chain Lester's, which plans to launch its first commerce-enabled web site in August. Since the retailer began working with design firm Alexander Interactive it has focused on capturing the feel of its bricks-and-mortar stores.

That meant finding multiple ways to replicate the service store associates provide customers. For instance, the site will feature a video that demonstrates the proper way to measure a child's foot to reassure shoppers who might be hesitant to buy children's shoes online because they are unsure how to properly fit their child. The same page will also have a sizing guide that will give parents more confidence that the shoes they order will fit their child's foot, says Perry Schorr, president of the retailer.

Lester's is also focused on making sure that shoppers can view the site well regardless of the device they're using. For instance, the site will not use any Flash, the Adobe Inc. technology widely used on the web to display video and animation. Flash elements won't appear to consumers accessing a web site on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch because the Apple operating system software those devices use, iOS, doesn't support Flash. The retailer is also using CSS3, the latest version of a web design language called cascading style sheets, to tailor images and product information to the shopper's device and browser, says Schorr.

"To be successful and competitive you have to offer a user-friendly experience regardless of how shoppers browse your site," he says. "That's a challenge because the industry is changing daily. But you can't afford not to do it."

Comparison pricing

Design has to go hand in hand with content, says Brandon Proctor, Build.com's vice president of marketing. In terms of design, the home supplies e-retailer's product pages have long featured a slew of information, including product specifications, consumer reviews and a box that allows consumers to pose questions to other shoppers and Build.com representatives.

But while that information helped make the retailer informative, it often didn't translate into sales. The retailer found many shoppers used Build.com's resources to find and research products, then left the site to buy the product elsewhere.

That was costly because many of those departing shoppers arrived at the retailer's site via paid search ads, and Build.com was paying for each click on those ads, even if the shopper did not purchase. "We were paying for visitors and they found our sites useful," says Proctor. "Our challenge was to keep them on-site until they purchased."

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