QVC, the fifth largest merchant in web retailing, launches responsive design

That’s a big vote of confidence for a design technique only a couple years old in retail. QVC dropped its standalone m-commerce site for smartphones and is taking a step-by-step approach, starting with checkout, to transforming its existing desktop site into a single responsive site that renders content to fit the screens of desktops, tablets, smartphones and devices yet to come.

Bill Siwicki

When an e-retailing giant like QVC changes course and makes a bold move with an unproven technology, other retailers should take note. QVC, the largest part of Liberty Interactive Corp., No. 5 in the 2013 Internet Retailer Top 500 Guide, has opted to build a responsive web design site to serve the ever-increasing number of web shoppers accessing QVC.com on tablets, smartphones and other devices with screen sizes different from that of a standard desktop monitor or laptop computer.

E-commerce, m-commerce, mobile devices and other technologies are changing so rapidly that QVC is best served by a comprehensive solution that can be managed in-house, allowing QVC to make changes and implement new strategies quickly, says Todd Sprinkle, vice president of content and platform innovation, who oversees the platform components of the TV retailer’s mobile commerce efforts.

“We wanted to be in control of the customer experience, which meant in-house, and when we thought about mobile in that way, our options were separate code bases for different sites or build all the intelligence into our e-commerce site to handle responsive design,” Sprinkle says. “Responsive design is more efficient to manage, and solves the problem of rendering a site to fit differing mobile device screen sizes. And with more and more devices connected to the Internet, this is a problem that is not over. Maybe the next problem is a 64-inch monitor in your living room. For us, responsive design is a leap of faith so we do not have to manage multiple code bases and so we can be prepared for a future with more and different screen sizes.”

Responsive design is a technique that enables a retailer to use one code base and one set of web content to render a site that fits the size of any screen. 39 of the top 500 merchants in mobile commerce have responsive design sites, according to the 2014 Internet Retailer Mobile 500. That’s up from a handful the previous year. QVC is a mobile powerhouse, No. 3 in the Mobile 500, behind only Apple Inc. and Amzon.com Inc. In Q3 2013, 41% of QVC’s total company sales in the U.S. were e-commerce; 32% of U.S. e-commerce sales were conducted on a mobile device, the company reports. Worldwide in Q3 2013, 36% of total company sales were e-commerce and 33% of e-commerce sales were mobile.

While QVC, which uses IBM Corp.’s WebSphere e-commerce platform, has made the decision that its future is responsive, it’s taking an unusual approach to implementing responsive design. Most merchants with responsive sites designed and built the new sites and then flipped the switch, turning off the old desktop e-commerce site and sending all traffic to the responsive site. QVC, however, is taking a step-by-step approach, slowly transforming its e-commerce site, section by section, into a responsive site. QVC says that responsive design is a big change, and it will be better to slowly let customers get used to the new design style.

“Even though responsive design is a great change, it still is change, and the customer has to get used to change,” Sprinkle says. “We change a piece of the site, the customer uses it, and says, ‘I get this.’ Versus changing everything all at one time.”

QVC chose to work backward, starting its responsive transformation with checkout.

“If you were to start responsive at the front, and get someone interested, then they get to checkout and that is not responsive, you risk losing shoppers at that point,” Sprinkle says. “Starting at the end of the shopping process, we already have an engaged customer when they get to checkout, a customer who has highly considered a purchase. So we’re taking that highly motivated customer and easing her through the change to responsive design.”

QVC quietly rolled out its responsive checkout pages in November, and says it’s too soon to draw any hard conclusions on the switch.

“We will take some time to really analyze through the first part of this year before we make any sweeping conclusions on financial performance. We’re tempering our enthusiasm,” Sprinkle says. “But we’re moving forward with making the whole site responsive, which will happen before the 2014 holidays.”

Results from responsive pioneers in retail are starting to come in, though, and they’re looking good. Skinny Ties, for example, launched its responsive site in October 2012. As of November 2013, sales via tablets were up 190% and via smartphones up 231%, the niche e-retailer reports. And responsive didn’t just help with mobile devices: Sales via desktops and laptops were up 99%.

So does QVC believe that responsive design is the ultimate solution for mobile commerce and web retailing overall? Not quite.

“Responsive is an answer,” Sprinkle says, emphasizing “an.” “Really good mobile-first web design is the overarching answer. Some retailers have done beautiful jobs with mobile-specific sites. One way or another, if you really want to serve customers today, you have to build for the smaller screen first and then make adjustments for bigger and bigger screens. A shift is happening and retailers have no control over it. Consumers are moving to mobile, which is great for brands because it extends our reach to times and places where we couldn’t reach customers before.”


Liberty Interactive, m-commerce, Mobile 500, mobile commerce, mobile design, mobile sales, mobile statistics, QVC, responsive design, responsive web design, Todd Sprinkle