February 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Overhaul Time

Mobile technology and smartphone owner expectations are evolving—design must keep up.

Lead Photo

Sometimes when you build it, they don't come.

That was the problem at The Sportsman's Guide, a brand of Redcats USA. It had launched a mobile commerce site in June 2010 that simply did not gain traction with shoppers. The site was first-generation mobile, and as time sped by and technology evolved, became clear to The Sportsman's Guide executives they could do much more with their m-commerce site.

So they hired a new mobile technology vendor, Netbiscuits, and got to work on a redesign. Through the vendor's use of the emerging programming language HTML5, the retailer added a rotating carousel of promotional images to the home page, the ability to swipe through pictures (a gesture that until recently could only be done through apps), and 800 product videos.

In addition, it integrated its two sister sites, BoatingSavings.com and WorkWearSavings.com, into SportsmansGuide.com so that customers could shop all three stores on their smartphones and check out with a single shopping cart. Further, the merchant hired vendor Contendo, part of Akamai Technologies Inc., to host site data on servers around the country to reduce the time it takes to load pages on a smartphone.

It took 90 days and less than $150,000 to create the new mobile commerce site, launched in June 2011. Tim Arland, senior vice president of e-commerce at The Sportsman's Guide, says he got his money's worth, and more.

"As soon as we got the new site live we very quickly saw sales increase seven times over what they were. And that has continued to grow at a rapid pace, up to 15 times year over year for the holiday season," Arland says. "Prior to going live with the new site we were running about 3% traffic from mobile devices—now it's close to 9%. And some page load times before were as high as 10 seconds; now we are in the four-second range."

Out with the old...

The retailer's experience is reflective of the state of mobile commerce. Mobile technology evolves quickly—and so do smartphone-toting consumers' expectations of mobile sites.

This is why some retailers on top of their game have invested in a redesign of their m-commerce sites. They're bringing more of the features and functions found on the desktop to the smartphone. They're making sites more interactive. And they're battling the whims of wireless connections with efforts to speed the performance of mobile sites. They see a mobile future and are making the investments and taking the organizational steps necessary to stay ahead of the pack.

Among them is Crutchfield Corp., a web and catalog retailer of automotive audio components and other electronic products. Crutchfield launched its m-commerce site in 2009 when virtually every retailer in mobile commerce was operating a first-generation site. A year and a half later, the merchant decided its mobile channel should perform better, and to make that happen a redesign was in order. It launched its new m-commerce site in August 2011, seeking to clean things up.

"The core design principle was 'Less is more,'" says Todd Cabell, senior manager of e-commerce. "Mobile really forces you to choose and prioritize your content and functionality."

Crutchfield added filtering to its mobile site. Now shoppers can select variables to whittle down search results to make it easier to find products. Biographies and photos of online sales advisors were removed to provide much-needed air on the home page. Product pages were greatly condensed (see images, page 16). Before the redesign, a customer scrolled seemingly endlessly, seeing every bit of content—and there's plenty—on a product. In the new design, touchable tabs direct customers to new pages with select content, thus cleaning up the initial product page.

"In 2010 it was quite apparent that mobile was a strategic growth channel for Crutchfield," Cabell says. "The redesign came about because we wanted to improve the user experience. We recognized there was a lot of opportunity to be more efficient in how we delivered the mobile experience internally and to the customer."

Behind the curtains

The internal, behind-the-scenes aspect of the redesign was important because Crutchfield decided it wanted far greater control over its m-commerce site. So it moved from a vendor to in-house. Previously, only the vendor could make the actual changes, and the overall design scheme had limitations, Cabell says.

"We wanted something more organic, crafted in such a way that we could centralize our business logic and processes and the core code base, and then on top of that craft presentation layers for customers viewing the mobile site," Cabell explains. "We saw that as an opportunity to bring it in-house and be more efficient and evolve our mobile web site in tandem with our desktop site. As well as strategically start planning for delivering an online experience in new devices in the future such as tablets and TVs."

Greater control was also a key for The Sportsman's Guide. The m-commerce technology vendor it had been using did not allow for much customization. So Arland and company did some research and found a vendor that did. The first vendor based m-commerce sites purely on product data feeds. The new vendor enables the retailer to design a site akin to the way merchants design desktop sites, with greater flexibility.

"On the first site everything was based on data feed updates; because of that we weren't able to do some of the real-time changes that were happening on our desktop site," Arland says, citing new promotions as an example. "Every time something changed on the desktop site you had to provide a feed update. When it came to changing the user experience on the mobile platform, we had to go through changes one by one with them that they then had to make."

After observing a below-par mobile site sales performance during the 2010 holiday season, The Sportsman's Guide decided it not only needed to redesign, it needed a new platform because it wanted to control all changes in-house so it could do what it wanted, when it wanted.

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