July 31, 2011, 12:00 PM

A Fruitful Dialogue

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His merchandising team also analyzes the results from the most frequent queries to ensure the products displayed offer consumers what they're looking for. "I don't know if the technology exists that would really allow us to take our eyes off it," he says. That's why every day his team looks at metrics such as the site's most frequent queries to ensure quality search results.

Refining results

John Bissman, e-commerce manager at boat parts and accessories retailer Wholesale Marine, also relies on manpower to dig into data from his site search technology provided by Endeca Technologies Inc. Just about every other week during boating season, and every third or fourth week during the off-season, he analyzes that data to unearth the top 100 search terms on the site. He then does a search for each of those terms. "I ask myself, 'Do I have the results that I need?' he says. "If I were the person searching for those results would I be happy with those results?"

By investigating those common search results Bissman has uncovered problems such as inconsistencies in how boat carpets appeared in search results. "I found that sometimes we would put a color chart up on the results page and sometimes we wouldn't," he says. "People buy carpet based on the plushness of the carpet, but we weren't showing them that." After making its search results presentations consistent by noting the carpet's weight per square yard, as well as the available colors, the term's conversion rate increased from 0.5% to 3.8%.

In his survey of search results Bissman occasionally finds the best products for the search buried in the results page. For instance, when he recently searched for "seats," a three-seat, inflatable, towable tube was a top result, rather than a replacement boat seat or deck chair. Those types of scenarios require his team to manually adjust the order that certain products appear based on what the shopper seems to be looking for. Meanwhile the team manually removes other products that aren't applicable to the search.

Examining the search results also helped Bissman realize that the site was not doing enough to help consumers find the boat parts they need. Search results often don't cut it for replacement boat parts because a single manufacturer may use different parts suppliers within the same calendar year, says Bissman. "There is really no way to select the right part you need for many of these things without being a mechanic," he says. "It's very difficult."

To guide consumers to the right product, the retailer created the Boat Engine Part Search. The banner, which appears above the search results for certain terms that require guidance, leads shoppers to enter pertinent details, such as a boat engine's year, model and manufacturer, in order to help a shopper find the right part, such as a fuel filter or snapper hose clamp.

Merchandising clues

Bissman also finds that there are some terms that consumers regularly search on, such as "windshield replacement," for which Wholesale Marine doesn't sell products. That requires his team to manually place related items, such as windshield wipers, in the results.

For Hat World Inc., operator of Lids.com and other e-retail sites, searches for products that the retailer doesn't carry can help the multichannel sporting goods retailer uncover potential trends. For instance, a few years ago it noticed a number of shoppers using the retailer's site search tool, from SLI, to look for "Tokidoki." At the time, Steve Wentzell, the retailer's director of e-commerce, had no idea that Tokidoki is a Japanese-inspired line of apparel and accessories that feature iconic characters. "We had to figure what that was and why people were searching for it," he says.

When Tokidoki became one of the retailer's top search terms, Hat World's merchandising director contacted the company's buyers to track down products. The retailer now has nine hats featuring Tokidoki characters. Hat World can usually get within about three months a product that it is looking to carry. That enables the retailer to quickly adapt to trends like Tokidoki, says Wentzell.

The retailer's site search data also helps the retailer to determine which products to promote. Lids.com and the retailer's other e-commerce sites refresh their home pages nearly once a week, and products consumers are searching for are made more prominent on the sites. "That data helps us uncover new trends, as well as reinforce what we think people want," he says.

Consumers are on a mission to find something specific when they use site search, says Motorcycle Superstore's Miller. That's why the data is so valuable. When it comes to knowing his own mind, the customer is always right.


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