Redefining e-retail

Consumers' big shift to mobile devices is forcing retailers to rethink web design, reported retailers at last month's IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce event.

Don Davis

Two statistics sum up how online shoppers' behaviors have changed in the past three years:

These big shifts and the breathtaking pace of change are forcing merchants to quickly adapt, a theme speaker after speaker emphasized last month at the IRCE Focus: Web Design + Mobile Commerce conferences that took place side by side in Orlando, Fla.

As Todd Sprinkle, vice president of content and platform innovation for TV and web retailer QVC U.S., put it in a keynote address: "The power of technology and the explosive growth of mobile are redefining the world of retail."

But redefining it how? And what should retailers do about it? Make it easy for mobile consumers to shop? Certainly, speakers agreed. A question debated at both conferences was whether the best way to do that technically is via responsive design, which allows a single web site to adapt to the consumer's screen.

At the same time, retailers are reacting to other big changes in shopper behavior, speakers said, particularly given how much online chatter is becoming a normal part of the typical consumer's day. Redesigns are increasingly focused on putting the retailer into the middle of those conversations on social networks, speakers said.

Speed was also a common theme: Everything is changing fast, which means retailers must respond quickly. Many speakers explained how they have changed their approach to decision making: whether that's meeting daily, putting designers and developers in the same room, or even visiting a consumer electronics store every week to check out the new gadgets.

The takeaway: Past practice is ancient history, and retailers are shaping future best practices on the fly. The IRCE Focus events provided many examples of what that looks like today, and how it may evolve into tomorrow.

For example, when CafePress Inc. redesigned its e-commerce site last year the e-retailer assumed consumers were shopping differently online than they did a few years earlier, explained Sumant Sridharan, president of the web-only retailer of customized T-shirts, mugs, caps and other products. Instead of searching on Google or Bing, clicking to a retail site, browsing items and buying, the shopper today is more likely to expect retailers to know what she wants and inform her when it becomes available, he said in a featured address to the web design conference.

Aware of the simultaneous shift to smartphones and tablets, CafePress used responsive design techniques so that its site would be easy to shop on any device. "But that just gets you into the game," he said. "It's not the be-all and end-all."

Personalization is essential, he said. CafePress assigned four engineers last year to focus exclusively on tailoring the site to the individual visitor. To do that, the e-retailer collects data on what a consumer has viewed and bought, what consumers like her buy, where she's from, what she's searched for and what she's revealed about herself on Facebook and other social networks. "If today we have five variables, tomorrow we're likely to have 20," Sridharan said. "We're in the business of collecting data about our customers."

The redesigned site also makes it easier for artists to personalize the CafePress pages they use to sell the designs customers apply to their T-shirts and mugs. When a designer makes a sale, CafePress sends him a message so that he can thank the customer; the site also lets designers create widgets that enable them to easily display their work all over the web, on social networks, blogs and other sites.

That's all well and good for a T-shirt site, but is a site like QVC.com, which sells the items hosts promote on the QVC TV shopping channel, under similar pressure to adapt to new technology? Even with a core demographic of relatively affluent women ages 35 to 65, the answer is yes, Sprinkle said in his keynote address at the mobile commerce conference. "She's an early adopter of technology, as long as it enriches her life," he said.

That shows up in the financial results: in its last financial quarter 32% of QVC.com's sales were to consumers using mobile devices, Sprinkle said.

But most QVC customers use each of their mobile devices in a particular way, he added. A mom waiting to pick up her children at school may use her smartphone to quickly purchase an item she saw earlier on TV; she has to be able to buy easily. But when curled up in bed with her iPad, she may want to view a show she missed, and send comments to her favorite host, so QVC designs its iPad app with engagement in mind, Sprinkle said.

Recognizing that consumers use all kinds of devices to connect to the web, and that those devices come in an ever-increasing variety of shapes and sizes, QVC began redesigning its site last year using responsive design techniques. That means there is a single set of web site code, and instructions in the software adjust the display to the size of the screen the consumer is viewing.

QVC is the largest online retailer by web sales to go the responsive route, and Sprinkle described the decision as a reaction to the proliferation of consumer devices.

"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 Restaurant.com 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 Coastal.com 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 DebShops.com 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."

The rapid pace of change is also leading retailers to rethink the online design process, as several speakers described. Executives from various divisions at web-only retailer Newegg Inc., for instance, hold daily meetings to get reports on what customers are saying to customer service agents and on social networks; they then hammer out their daily priorities, said chief marketing officer Soren Mills. Flash-sale e-retailer Rue La La created a cross-company product council that meets twice monthly to set mobile priorities, reported chief technology officer Susan Standiford.

Staples has created two development labs devoted to digital initiatives, and hired hundreds of engineers—many from web-only retailers—to accelerate product development, Masud said. And for retailers wondering how to keep up with the latest mobile devices coming to market, Kenneth Weiss, director of digital marketing at multichannel personalized gifts retailer Things Remembered Inc., suggested dispatching employees to a Best Buy store every Friday afternoon to check out the latest gadgets.

The pace of change is so fast that it's often better to launch a new feature without taking the time to test it, and let consumers tell you what they think, said Annie Trombatore, director of product at Thrillist Media Group, whose holdings include Jackthreads, a web-only retailer of apparel for young men.

"Make a decision, even if you have no data," Trombatore told the web design conference. "The information you'll get from having a product in the wild will be so much more than you'll get from focus groups."

That may be a radical suggestion for e-retailers accustomed to relying on hard data to make decisions. But today, given the rapid-fire change described at the IRCE Focus events, e-retailers late to the party with new ideas may as well not bother to show up.




CafePress, Fathead, Gian Fulgoni, IRCE Focus, March 2014 magazine, Michael Layne, responsive design, Sumant Sridharan, Todd Sprinkle, Web Design + Mobile Commerce