August 1, 2012, 12:00 AM

Digging for pay dirt

Searching for better ways to serve shoppers, merchants turn to site search.

Lead Photo

Back when print catalogs were king, The Betty Mills Co. mailed out many thousands to help its customers search among its thousands of products. Those catalogs were a key driver of the company's sales.

"When we dropped a catalog, the pickup in sales was tremendous," says CEO Victor Hanna.

But no more. Betty Mills has ceased its regular catalog mailings, relying instead on a beefed-up site search and navigation system for its e-commerce site. "Nothing is more important to us than site search, because we no longer ship catalogs," Hanna says.

As Betty Mills has expanded over the last several years from selling mostly janitorial supplies to offering some 130,000 items across a range of office, industrial and medical supplies, site search has become even more crucial. So it has taken steps in recent years to upgrade how visitors can find things on its e-commerce site. Those efforts have paid off: compared with shoppers on who don't use its site search feature, shoppers who do use it are 30% more likely to buy something and, on average, they spend 35% more per order.

When retailers like Betty Mills offer thousands of similar products, they have to make it easy for shoppers to quickly and easily find what they need, experts say. E-retailers are finding they can close sales more quickly by studying consumers' browsing and buying behaviors to deliver the products a visitor is most likely to want in site search results.

They're using a variety of tools to deliver these more relevant results. One example is collaborative filtering, which groups together search results based on products that previous site visitors have clicked on. More site search applications now use cookies to track a consumer's on-site behaviors so the retailer can personalize search results based on a shopper's past browsing patterns and purchases.

Another way to get visitors more quickly to the products they want is to add an auto-complete, or type-ahead, feature to the search box. As the consumer starts typing her search term a drop-down list appears of possible search terms—she can select the option that describes her quest, or keep typing. And to make it easier to decide on and then complete a purchase, more site search results are appearing with built-in "quick-view" features that pop up product detail windows without leaving the results page. For shoppers ready to buy, the results also often include a Click to Buy or Add to Cart button.

Finding fun

Among the retailers taking advantage of the new breed of site search and navigation technology is Its site search system is designed to learn what shoppers want among the site's items, which range from costumes to decorations to knick-knacks, says Ian MacDonald, the retailer's vice president of e-commerce and marketing.

Sales have been growing steadily since the party supplies site launched last fall. And MacDonald attributes part of that growth to the site search and navigation system the e-retailer added to the site a few months after launching on an e-commerce site platform from Yahoo Inc.'s Yahoo Merchant Solutions. Although the Yahoo e-commerce platform has provided a good base for, and for the four other e-commerce sites operated by its parent company, Mattress USA Inc., the retailer realized it needed more robust site search technology to better merchandise its products.

After a review of the technology market, it decided to go with site search and navigation vendor SLI Systems Inc., a company that MacDonald had worked with in prior jobs at other web retailers.

SLI Systems uses built-in "Learning Search" software to record how consumers search and shop on a retail site, then automatically serves up search and navigation results based on individual products' click-through rates. If many site visitors searching for cowboy costumes click search result listings for a particular cowboy costume style, for example, the system automatically starts to show that costume and related products high in search results.

Never stops learning

The party supplies retailer occasionally sets rules in the SLI system to make certain products—a newly released cowboy hat or full costume, for example—appear high in search results for "cowboy costume" to make shoppers aware of what's new. also integrates its site search with its order management system, which enables it to set rules that make the most popular products appear high in search rankings, and with its inventory management system, so that out-of-stock items don't appear in search results.

And as with a growing number of site search applications, the SLI system provides an auto-complete feature. As the shopper types in the first few letters of her query a drop-down menu of suggested topics and items appears; the list gets more targeted as she enters additional letters. A search for "pirate party," for example, shows a broad range of unrelated party supplies as soon as the shopper enters "p," a feature that helps shoppers find and consider other things they might not have thought of, MacDonald says. As soon as she enters "pi," the drop-down list shows mostly pirate supplies. Product listings in the auto-complete lists, like those in regular search results, can be decorated with images and ranked according to popularity.

One downside of the feature, MacDonald says, is that if a shopper doesn't find what she wants after clicking into an auto-complete listing, she must go back to an empty search window to start a new search. But with the overall savings in time and effort, he adds, auto-complete and the other search features appear to be paying off in higher conversions.

The results are in

In tests that compared shoppers who use the retailer's site search with those that didn't, discovered within the first month of deploying the new system that users converted at a rate 54% higher than non-users, MacDonald says. And because the SLI system continually gathers information about which search results consumers click on to further improve search results, the conversion rate among site search users more than tripled the rate of non-users within a few months of the system deployment, he adds.

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