March 3, 2014, 11:31 AM

Redefining e-retail

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"Device fragmentation is not getting better, there are going to be more devices connected to the Internet," he said. "Today's problem is a four-inch screen, but tomorrow our web site may have to display beautifully on a 70-inch monitor in the living room. Having a single code base that anticipates screen size and orientation felt like an investment in the future for us."

Responsive design elicited much comment, positive and negative. Among the proponents was Michael Layne, director of Internet marketing at Fathead LLC, a web-only retailer of decorative wall graphics. Fathead designed its site with five breaks: a one-column layout for a smartphone, two columns for a small tablet, all the way to a five-column design for a large desktop monitor. A shopper sees the version that best fits her device.

The responsive site produced combined phone and tablet revenue in 2013 800% greater than in 2011, before the redesign, with 600% more traffic and a 70% increase in conversion rate on smartphones.

His co-presenter, Erick Barney, director of marketing at Motorcycle Superstore, said responsive design techniques cut costs because a retailer doesn't have to maintain separate sites for desktops, tablets and smartphones. That was a big problem, he said when the retailer operated one site for mobile phones and another for PCs: "Every promotion had to be done twice."

The retailer did not have a tablet-optimized site, and the responsive site filled that gap by providing an appealing tablet presentation, Barney said. Not that responsive design is easy. Barney said his team spent six months studying responsive design techniques, six months designing and six weeks implementing.

It's more complex to design a responsive site, Barney said, as the retailer must envision how a page will look on many devices, "but there's a lot less complexity than having to manage three different platforms."

Among the arguments against responsive design is the cost— especially for a retailer that's already invested heavily in its principal e-commerce site, as that site may also have to be significantly revamped to create a layout that also renders well on tablets and smartphones. That's why coupon site has not gone the responsive route, said Christopher Krohn, president and chief marketing officer, who spoke at a full-day, pre-conference workshop on mobile commerce.

"If I had a huge budget and a large mobile audience and was starting from scratch, I would probably go with responsive design," he said. He may yet adopt that approach, but not in the next six months. "And past that," Krohn added, "you can't predict because mobile moves too fast."

The need to respond immediately to consumers' shifting mobile behaviors is what's keeping Staples Inc. from employing responsive design now, although the office supplies retailer plans to start redesigning its sites using responsive techniques by the end of the year, said Faisal Masud, vice president of global e-commerce, in a keynote address to at the mobile commerce conference.

"As much as we want to go to responsive, there's not time right now," Masud said. Instead, Staples is redesigning its smartphone and desktop sites, updating its smartphone apps and planning to roll out an iPad app this spring.

Another problem posed by responsive design is what to do with graphical elements. While responsive sites often downsize graphics to fit smaller screens, that approach can lead to unpleasant surprises. For example, a banner that was meant to point to a new feature wound up pointing to the wrong button after the banner was resized, explained Braden Hoeppner, vice president of web sales at Coastal Contacts Inc., a web-only eyeglasses and contact lenses retailer. Speaking at a pre-conference mobile commerce workshop, Hoeppner and Ben Terrill, vice president of customer success at mobile technology provider Mobify, explained why they instead chose to redesign with a variant of responsive techniques called adaptive design.

Using this approach, the retailer's server recognizes the device the shopper is using and only sends to the user's browser the elements the layout requires. That's faster, Terrill said, and does not necessarily require a redesign of the retailer's desktop site, which is often part of a responsive project.

Mobile devices and social media are increasingly linked, several speakers pointed out—in fact, 73% of Facebook's daily users in the fourth quarter of 2013 were on mobile devices, the company reports. As they've redesigned with mobile in mind, a number of retailer speakers at the IRCE Focus events explained how they're also placing greater emphasis on encouraging consumers to engage with their web sites.

For example, cosmetics brand H2O Plus invites consumers to leave reviews at every opportunity, said Ryan Gripp, manager of e-commerce and digital marketing. "If you're not asking at every customer touch point, you'll never get it," he said.

Pages with customer reviews produce twice the revenue of those without it, he said, and customers who post reviews buy three times as much. Why? "Because they feel they're part of the brand," he said.

Junior and plus-size women's fashion retailer Deb Shops put a big focus on encouraging shoppers to interact in the new version of launched last month. The bottom of the new home page features images of girls wearing Deb Shops apparel—all they have to do is post the photo on social media with the hashtag "#debshop." Other consumers can buy the items by clicking on the photos, Jennifer Fitzpatrick, social media and brand manager, explained in a session at the web design conference.

New product pages also feature photos of customers wearing the retailer's clothes. Deb Shops e-mails each customer after she buys, encouraging her to take a picture of herself wearing the item. That's particularly important because Deb Shops sells a wide variety of sizes, and the photos show young women of varying body types wearing its products, Fitzpatrick said.

At the same time, she said, those photos are designed to create a bond with customers. "The girls feel like celebrities because they get to be featured on our web site," Fitzpatrick said. "That's great for teenage girls, and gives us great user-generated content."

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