5th annual i.merchant awards

Aug 01, 2004 9:30 PM  By

As e-commerce becomes an increasingly sophisticated marketing channel, the standards for measuring what makes an exceptional Website have to be more stringent. ▪ In evaluating the I.Merchant Awards, our judging panel was challenged to critique all elements of the finalists’ sites, from design, copy, and merchandising to site functionality and service options. ▪ The judges selected 10 winners this year; to receive a Gold Award, an entry needed an average score of at least nine points on a scale of 1 to 10, while Silver Award winners boasted an average score of at least seven points. The Website of the Year honor — a tie this year between eBags and Orvis — went to the entries with the highest score overall. ▪ Now, without further delay, Catalog Age presents its Fifth Annual I.Merchant Awards winners…

THE JUDGES

LAUREN FREEDMAN

President
The E-tailing Group

ROBIN LEBO

President
Lebo Direct

JOHN MORLEY

Senior Internet marketer
1-800-Flowers/HearthSong

WILL SOUTH

Manager of catalog content
AutoZone

ROBERT STEVENS

President
Growth Insight

PHIL TERRY

CEO
Creative Good

I.MERCHANT OF THE YEAR

Also Gold Award Consumer Soft Goods

eBags

www.ebags.com
Marketing director: Peter Cobb
Webmaster/Website designer: Keith Bristol
Merchandiser: Jonathan Fox

The mission of eBags is “to be the world’s ultimate source for bags and accessories,” and the I.Merchant Awards judges agreed that the Greenwood Village, CO-based marketer meets its goal. From the extensive merchandise selection to the “well-documented pages of customer service options,” the panelists found it all but impossible to criticize the site.

Why it won I.Merchant of the Year: The word “robust” cropped up time and again during the discussion of the eBags site. The merchandise assortment, the amount of content on the product pages, and the customer service were all described at one time or another as “robust.”

Let’s start with the merchandising. EBags sells more than 10,000 types of handbags, suitcases, laptop cases, wallets, toiletry kits, backpacks, and other travel accessories from roughly 200 brands, with products for men, women, and children. To simplify hunting for product among so many choices, eBags offers myriad ways to search the inventory: by brand, by price, by style, by material. As one judge put it, the site has “high sortability and multiple ways of categorizing.”

Once you’ve narrowed down your selection, eBags provides numerous tools to help you make a final decision. There are the detailed product specs, of course, but also alternative product images, which can be enlarged with one click; consumer ratings and reviews; a link to similar products, so that you can compare and contrast features; and the ability to create your own comparison chart of products you’re considering.

As for customer service, the eBags home page promotes the free returns policy, a microsite for corporate and volume orders, and its “110% price guarantee” (if you find the same product available elsewhere for cheaper, eBags will refund you the difference plus 10%). And unlike many other companies that began as online-only marketers, eBags doesn’t hide its toll-free phone number. What’s more, the product pages provide an estimated arrival date, and they can also be easily e-mailed to a friend or colleague.

Ideal to steal: On the bottom of the home page, eBags has a ticker listing how many bags have been shipped since its launch in 1999 (more than 2.7 million as of early June). If you’re looking to instantly establish credibility, that sort of ticker can do the trick.

I.MERCHANT OF THE YEAR

Also Gold Award Consumer Soft Goods

Orvis

www.orvis.com
Creative/advertising director: Bill Eyre
Marketing director: John Rogers
Webmaster: Ed Ralbovoky
Website designers: Tracey St. John, Chris Woodard
Merchandiser: Ginny Newman
Copywriters: Tom Murray, Kimberly Bellamy
Consultant: Competitive Computing

Manchester, VT-based cataloger/retailer Orvis sells apparel, hunting and fishing gear, outdoor travel, home decor, and dog-related products — all with the theme of “distinctive country living.” While the Orvis concept might be difficult to describe in words, the Orvis Website communicates it almost instantly, through its product selection, graphics, and content. What’s more, it makes the concept appealing to visitors who may not have viewed themselves as likely prospects.

Why it won I.Merchant of the Year: You’d expect an established brand like Orvis to get the big things right — and it does. The navigation is clean, the graphics inviting, the copy engaging and precise. Product pages include alternative images and links to complementary items. The “100% satisfaction” guarantee appears under the logo on every page of the site, and not far below is a link to the Information & Services page, which provides details on everything from how to track order status to the company’s gun and fishing-rod repair services.

But what sets Orvis apart from most every other site is its attention to the smaller things. “Little details like the tape-measure icon to link to size charts shows that Orvis thinks everything through,” enthused a judge. Other details include links to the Orvis Fabric Stories page, where you can read about the history and unique features of a variety of fabrics and brands — and gain an appreciation of the high quality of Orvis’s products. The main page of the Fly Fishing section of the site includes a wealth of reference materieals, including a glossary, hatch charts, and stream reports, while the Hunting section features game recipes and links to dog breeding and training programs.

Above all, the Orvis Website “constantly reinforces the brand,” said a panelist. Scattered throughout the site are blurbs referring to Orvis history. On the landing page of the Orvis Custom Shotguns section, for instance, we read that “In 1990 Orvis announces a challenge grant to benefit U.S. wetlands by raising more than $200,000 in two years.” Atop an article in the Travel section about fishing in Patagonia we’re told “In 1966 America’s first fly fishing school opens at Orvis Manchester, Vermont.” Links to the Orvis Conservation Visa and Conservation Projects are also prominent throughout the site.

It’s no surprise that Orvis received top marks for its marketing concept. “The editorial and the product tie in well to the company’s overall mission,” summed up a judge. But it is impressive that a company founded in 1856 can so effectively use a medium that came to prominence only within the past decade.

Idea to steal: Within the Fly Fishing section of the site, visitors can see Flash demonstrations of how to tie knots. Because many users still don’t have high-speed Internet access, Orvis limits its use of the Flash technology to added-value features, rather than making it a requisite to viewing product.

Silver Award

Cooking.com

www.cooking.com
Website director: Larry Sales
Webmaster: Gerald Morgan
Website designers: Gaye Esguerra, Margaret Biffar, Wes Biffar
Merchandisers: Dawn Allen, Matt Bunn
Copywriter: Ken Brooks

What’s cooking at Cooking.com? Plenty, judging by its chock-a-block Website. In addition to selling just about every kitchen item imaginable, the Santa Monica, CA-based online-only marketer offers a gift registry, a corporate sales program, recipes, menus, and buying guides. You could say it all adds up to a recipe for online success.

Why it won a Silver Award: “This is a fun-to-shop site,” said one panelist, and the others agreed. The wealth of product, the “visually engaging” design, and the “very strong imagery” make shopping for even something as mundane as a can opener enjoyable. The lively, educated copy boosts the entertainment quotient and is sure to help shoppers get enthused about the products.

For example, a Chinese cleaver is described as “perhaps the ultimate Chinese blade, used like a chef’s knife as the all-around staple tool. The slightly curved blade side is long and sharp, the ideal cutlery piece for slicing through large vegetables such as eggplant, lettuce, cabbage and squash. Turned on its side, the wide blade can be used to tenderize meat or poultry or to smash cloves of garlic.” If that doesn’t psych you into preparing a stir-fry for dinner, nothing will.

Product pages include detailed item specs, links to related items, information about stock status, and in some instances links to “What Experts Consider,” part of the detailed buying guides. At least one panelist singled out these guides for special praise. Covering a range of cookware, cutlery, and small appliances, the guides include a short questionnaire to help you narrow down your choices, along with advice from the pros and Cooking.com’s suggested items.

To further enhance the shopping experience, Cooking.com allows you to shop by product category and by brand. A Gift Ideas tab features a dozen categories of its own, including Gifts for the Bartender and Gifts Under $25. The Special Values section lists rebates and bonuses from manufacturers, separate from the Clearance section.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: One judge felt that the search results were “organized seemingly by random.” Another judge felt that listing the subcategories on the right of each category page, rather than on the left as has become standard, was “nonintuitive.” And while the overall design was praised, a panelist said that the home page was “cluttered.”

Idea to steal: On the bottom of every product page of the Website is a box titled “Can we improve something on this page?” The online equivalent of a suggestion box, it provides space for visitors to type in and submit comments regarding the description and depiction of the product above. It’s a simple, inexpensive way for Cooking.com to continually hone its pages — and it also lets shoppers know that the company values their opinions.

Silver Award

Also Silver Award, Consumer High Tech; Silver Award, Consumer Soft Goods

Musician’s Friend

www.musiciansfriend.com
Internet director: Eric Meadows
Webmaster/e-commerce programming manager: Christopher James
Website designers: Justin Rubaloff, Jason Cave
Merchandisers: Al Dinardi, Chris Tso
Lead Internet copywriter: Mike Fitch
Business development manager: Shane Irons
Content coordinator: Lisa Freitas
Publishing technician: Josh Baxter
Multimedia production: Bill Newman

The Musician’s Friend Website took home the most I.Merchant Awards this year — three Silvers in all. And that’s appropriate when you consider that the site offers the most of so many things: musical instruments, of course, but also promotions, contests, and value-added editorial.

Why it won a Silver Award: As indicated by the site’s phenomenal sales performance, Musician’s Friend knows its audience of young, male, moderate-income musicians well. And apparently they like bargains, deals, and special promotions. “The home page is really in your face,” said a judge. “There are financing offers, the clearance center, lots of merchandising, lots of promotions, all very reflective of the audience.”

The copy is similarly well targeted. The Olympia OB3CE Bass Acoustic-Electric, for instance, has “eye-popping design with astounding volume and projection for a friendly price.” Product pages include detailed specs, stock status, customer product ratings, and lists of recommended accessories, which shoppers can add to their order with one click. “I like the product ratings and the succinctness of the descriptions at the top of each page,” said a judge. “The copy fits the audience perfectly,” noted another member of the judging panel.

Referring to the wealth of nonselling editorial, a panelist said, “The content is very well integrated with the product.” The FunZone offers free screensavers, wallpapers, e-cards, and games. Another section includes feature articles on professional musicians, sound techs, and producers, and instructional advice. And new content is added weekly — a great way to encourage shoppers to come back and see Musician’s Friend’s latest promotions.

Other features singled out for praise include the downloadable manuals available for many of the products, the drop-down navigation menus at the top of the pages that minimize page clicks, and the ability to see the estimated shipping cost as soon as you put an item into the shopping cart.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: An old MTV promotion declared that “too much is never enough,” but several I.Merchant judges disagreed. They felt that the Musician’s Friend site at times went “over the top” when it comes to promotions and designs. “There are so many fonts and colors and links that it’s distracting,” said one panelist. Similarly, a column of links to the clearance center, contests, and other promotions on the product pages could distract shoppers from completing their purchase. On the service side, one judge noted that numerous products were nonreturnable. “It’s a killer,” said the judge.

Idea to steal: “Bienvenidos” reads a link on the left-hand navigation bar. Clicking it takes you to a Spanish-language customer service page that includes a toll-free 24-hour line to Spanish-speaking service reps. “A nice touch,” said a judge. And given the increasing size of the Spanish-language market, a no-doubt profitable one.

Silver Award

Also Silver Award, Consumer Soft Goods

Sundance Catalog

www.sundancecatalog.com
Marketing director: David Brown
Webmaster: Brant Galloway
Website designer: Ronda Stevenson
Merchandiser/copywriter: Karen Larsen Brown
Production: Lon Galloway
Consultant: Multimedia Live

If the I.Merchant Awards were a beauty contest, the Salt Lake City, UT-based Sundance Catalog would undoubtedly been granted the tiara and scepter. “Some of the best photography I’ve seen on a site,” raved one panelist. “Beautiful!” enthused another. But with its “great tools” and “excellent” copy as well, Sundance proves to be more than just a pretty face.

Why it won a Silver Award: Not only did the panel agree that the site was lovely to look at, but they also felt that the creative “speaks to the brand,” to quote a judge. As befits a cataloger of southwestern-themed artisanal decor, apparel, and jewelry, the fonts, colors, and layouts suggest an easy, subtle luxury.

Ditto the copy. “Nothing’s ever replaced the old-fashioned porch swing for conversation and courtship on a summer afternoon or sultry evening,” begins the description of a swing. “Paisley-shaped drops handcrafted of matte sterling dangle trios of little baubles that jingle delicately to whisper the softest of silvery serenades,” reads copy for a pair of earrings. Besides the product descriptions, the site includes bios of dozens of the artisans behind the offerings, which underscore the uniqueness and value of the products.

Several tools complement the high-quality products. The judges particularly liked the Jewelry Finder, which lets you select the type of jewelry, the price range, and several other criteria before offering product suggestions. A similar gift selection engine helps you search by occasion, recipient, or price. And the search engine enables you to have the results sorted by price (high to low or low to high) or by newness.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: The judges felt that the navigation wasn’t as superlative as the creative and the merchandising. “Probably required more clicks than necessary,” said one panelist, who would have preferred to see drop-down menus for product subcategories rather than having to drill down. And one judge said that “ordering multiple items is a bit clumsy — you need to go back and forth somewhat.”

Idea to steal: The ability to sort search results by newness is sure to appeal to regular site visitors — and just might encourage them to return (and buy) more often.

Silver Award

Yankee Candle

www.yankeecandle.com
Marketing director: Darcy Lindamood
Webmaster: Mike Phillips
Website designer: Shiela Eskeirka
Associate Website designers: Jen Mason, Jull Cooney
Copywriter: Bruce Showalter

Yankee Candle’s product line — scented candles — would seem to be a tough sell online. But the Deerfield, MA-based retailer takes advantage of the Internet’s unique assets to compensate for its inability to transmit fragrance.

Why it won a Silver Award: Yankee Candle also sells home fragrances, bath and body products, and a smattering of home decor items. Visitors can shop by merchandise category, of course, but above the list of product categories on the home page is a pull-down menu that enables you to shop by fragrance in one of five ways (alphabetically, by color, and by seasonality among them). Select a fragrance, and you’re led to a page listing all items available in that scent.

The descriptions of the fragrances are brief but surprisingly evocative (Seaside Holiday: “Escape from the ordinary with the lush warm aroma of ocean air”; Sunflower Days: “The scent of happiness … a golden, country fresh bouquet of sun-rich summer blooms”). The copy also indicates how long each candle burns for — key information for this product type.

The judges were impressed with the Custom Candle option, which enables shoppers to personalize glass candle holders and votives with words or logos. Also winning plaudits: the Catalog Quick Shop function, the store locator (which lets you search by state or by zip code within a 20-mile or a 10-mile radius or for the five closest stores), and the unlimited return policy.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: While the judges loved the Custom Candle concept, one of them had a difficult time making it work. “It kept timing out while I was trying to choose,” said the judge. The feature also requires a user to have the Flash plug-in. And as much as the panel appreciated the liberal guarantee and return policy, they would have liked it to have been featured prominently, not buried within the customer service section.

Idea to steal: Adding a customization option is sure to set apart your company’s product line from the competition’s. It also encourages volume orders — Yankee Candle, for instance, markets its personalized candles for weddings and other special occasions as well as for corporate gifts.

CONSUMER HIGH-TECH

Silver Award

Crutchfield

www.crutchfield.com
Vice president, new media: Lawrence Becker
Vice president, info. technology: Dave Dierolf
Vice president, creative: John Grant
Executive vice president, merchandising: Rick Souder
Senior vice president, sales and support: Kurt Goodwin
Senior vice president, business development: Dan Hodgson

One of the judges captured the appeal of consumer electronics cataloger Crutchfield perfectly: “These guys are carving out a great niche: big-box retailer efficiency with a small-company feel.” Stellar service, an exhaustive product selection, and “an easy-to-navigate format” result in a high-tech site that’s far from impersonal.

Why it won a Silver Award: Charlottesville, VA-based Crutchfield’s print catalog is renowned for detailed editorial that walks even novices through the process of selecting and installing the right home or auto electronics gear. Online, Crutchfield provides even more information. The Crutchfield Advisor microsite offers downloadable installation videos and an extensive library of product reviews and tech articles. On the right-hand navigation column, below the listing of products by category, is a link to the Crutchfield Vehicle Selector — select your vehicle’s year and model, and you’ll learn exactly which products will fit it.

The breadth of product selection — more than 3,700 items ranging from high-definition TVs to CD cases — is rivaled only by the depth of product information. Each product page features more than a half-dozen tabs. In addition to Essential Info (which includes some pretty detailed product specs), you can choose from Detailed Info, More Photos, What’s Included, Recommended Accessories (a nice way to create add-on sales), and Learn About Category.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: The main complaint of the judges was, in the words of one panelist, “too many pages and too much clutter when drilling down the category/subcategory path.” And while one panelist priased the home page for “really resembling the print catalog,” another dismissed its “inefficient use of the center space.”

Idea to steal: In addition to an Outlet section, the Crutchfield site has a Scratch and Dent Store, “where skin-deep product bruises translate into serious customer savings.” This enables Crutchfield to unload cosmetically blemished goods without blemishing its reputation as a seller of top-quality product.

Silver Award

Magellan’s

www.magellans.com
Marketing director: Bob Manning
Webmaster: Michael Sadowski
Website designer: Pinar Kelleci
Merchandiser/copywriter: Terry Bascombe

Why did Magellan’s, a Santa Barbara, CA-based cataloger of travel products and apparel, enter the I.Merchant awards under the Consumer Information and Services category? Because the company’s Website offers such a wealth of travel details and advice, separating the information from the merchandise is almost impossible. As one judge said, “The articles are incorporated into the overall template.”

Why it won a Silver Award: To quote another judge, “Magellan’s does the basics, and does them well.” The Website’s home page is “sophisticated, clean, and concise,” with product categories on the left, service-related tabs on top, and a few prominent graphics and promotions in the center. The design throughout the site, in fact, is “clean and uncluttered,” said a panelist.

Magellan’s sells just about any product a traveler needs, and the site makes it easy to find whatever shoppers are looking for. The merchandising is “inclusive,” and the navigation intuitive. Each category page features a half-dozen or so subcategories, along with links to several featured items and a few pertinent articles. The Website’s Health & Hygiene page, for example, links to articles on insect protection, avoiding jet lag, sun safety, and the effects of travel on cardiovascular disease. What’s more, a “breadcrumb trail” atop each product page makes it easy to jump from one subcategory or category to another without having to drill up and down.

What really distinguishes Magellan’s from other marketers of luggage, travel appliances, and packable apparel is its Travel Advice section. A pull-down menu invites you to “shop by destination”; every country from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe is listed. Each country page includes links to Health Risks, Security Concerns, Weather Notes, Electrical Standards, and similar pages, as well as to pertinent products (maps, phone adapters, antibacterial wipes, currency converters). The section also includes articles on business travel, packing, security, and other topics of interest to travelers.

“One of our founding principles is to share the knowledge and experience we have with our traveling friends through such tips as the ones offered here,” reads the copy on the Travel Advice page. That’s in keeping with Magellan’s tagline, prominently displayed on the home page: “America’s Leading Source of Travel Supplies.” And as one judge said, “The tagline says it all.”

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: The Website’s product copy is certainly comprehensive, the judges agreed, but the text can be overly long at times. “It could benefit from bullet points,” said one panelist. Another added that Magellan’s copy “lacked pizzazz.” Also, the company could do more to highlight new and unique items. At least one judge would have liked to see new merchandise and exclusives promoted more prominently on the Website, perhaps on a dedicated page.

Idea to steal: Adding editorial can position your Website as an authority in its field. And if you can feature links to pertinent merchandise on the editorial pages, you should be able to drive sales as well.

Silver Award

Wilderness Travel

www.wildernesstravel.com
Marketing director: Barbara Banks
Webmaster/Website designer: Shannon Hastings
Copywriter: Pam Shandrick
Consultants: Liz Willner, Krystie Bonzelet, Vince Nibler, Dale Kiefling, Lee Pope

Regarding the evocative home page of Berkeley, CA-based Wilderness Travel, one panelist declared, “If the goal is to get you to look, it definitely works!” But the Website offers much more than stunning photography and a tantalizing selection of trips, such as the “complete and anticipatory” institutional copy and a “clean, well-organized design.”

Why it won a Silver Award: Wilderness Travel sets high expectations with its tagline: “Extraordinary cultural, wildlife, and hiking adventures since 1978.” But the panelists agreed that “extraordinary” does indeed describe the trips offered. Trip Finder tabs on the home page allow you to search by destination (including Antarctica and Galapagos), activity (such as archeology, sea kayaking, and walking), and date. A link on the left, Special Offers, features last-minute deals (a way for Wilderness Travel to fill up any empty spaces in upcoming trips) and information about new adventures, such as a journey next year to the Pitcairn Islands to experience a solar eclipse.

Each trip page features a lush description, highlights, and an itinerary, along with photos and links to additional information regarding costs, trip leaders, activity levels, and suggested reading. “Excellent and very detailed,” said a judge. “It practically takes you there.”

The About WT section garnered praise as well. Beginning with the “excellent” president’s letter, the section includes pages that highlight Wilderness Travel’s emphasis on what it describes as “hand-crafted and artfully designed itineraries” and amenities such as tents furnished with beds and linens and “sumptuous picnics.” Detailed biographies of every tour leader are provided, as are profiles of the nonprofit conservation and cultural organizations that Wilderness Travel supports.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: One judge felt that the site organization and navigation left room for improvement. For instance, links on the left and on the bottom of the home page titled Exploratories, Special Events, and Special Offers weren’t self-explanatory. A bigger beef among the panelists was the inability to book a trip online. Throughout the site Wilderness Travel encourages visitors to e-mail or call its reps, but the panelists felt that prospective buyers should nonetheless be given the option to order via the Web.

Idea to steal: The Guestbook, a section accessible from the Wilderness Travel home page where customer comments are displayed and solicited, puts all those wonderful testimonials in one highly visible location.

CONSUMER SOFT GOODS

Silver Award

Harry and David

www.harryanddavid.com
Marketing director: Anne Ashbey
Webmaster/merchandiser: Keziah Veres
Website designer: Ken Nash
Copywriters: Marcus Smith, Mary Pat Ronemus
Operations senior manager: Julie Derry

Harry and David’s print catalogs regularly garner raves for their stellar photography and evocative copy. It’s little surprise, then, that the Website of the Medford, OR-based food marketer won praise for its tasty imagery and “warm, friendly, romantic” copy. The panelists agreed: “The Website is totally representative of the brand.”

Why it won a Silver Award: Harry and David has long known that a picture of a dew-moistened pear or a basket brimming with lustrous apples and oranges is worth a thousand words. So it makes sure to display such photos prominently throughout the site, not just on the product pages. The home page, for instance, “shows lots of product up front to tempt you,” said a judge.

Which is not to say that the cataloger gives copy short shrift. “Gourmet pears and apples, sweet from harvest”; “lush juiciness, melting texture”; “hospitality defined” — the copywriters excel at romancing the merchandise, the panel agreed. The judges also appreciated the breadth of the product selection. Beyond the fresh produce for which Harry and David has long been known, the Website sells nuts, baked goods, chocolates, entrees and appetizers, floral gifts, and home accessories. A new category, Healthful Gifts, offers sugar-free and low-fat items, as well as products for special diets such as Atkins — confirmation that the company is staying on top of customers’ needs.

In addition to shopping by product category, visitors can shop by price, by holiday, and by occasion — options critical for a site that caters to gift givers. A Gift Finder tab on the top of the home page lets shoppers choose from similar criteria. The Gift Services tab next to it offers personalized greeting cards, e-mail announcements to let recipients know that a gift is on the way, and My Giftlist, which allows you to review past orders as well as to maintain a list of recipients’ names and addresses.

A link on the left of the home page takes you to the Business Gifts section of the site. In addition to an array of personalization options, Harry and David also offers to create a secure, personalized site for business customers. On the consumer side, the emphasis on service is evident on the customer service page, which includes shipping cut-off dates for upcoming holidays and the Harvest Report, which keeps shoppers up to date on any nature-related delays of produce.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: For the same reason that several other otherwise-stellar Websites didn’t — too much drilling down required to get to product pages. “They definitely could eliminate a level” in terms of navigation, said a judge. One panelist also felt that some pages were too verbose: “Too many words on the home page,” the judge grumbled.

Idea to steal: If you’re a consumer cataloger whose product line could lend itself to corporate gifts, consider creating a separate corporate section of your site, complete with distinct personalization and volume offers. This lets prospective business buyers know that you understand their specific service needs.

Silver Award

L.L. Bean

www.llbean.com
Director: Mary Lou Kelley
Webmaster: Brian Lemieux
Website designer: Sarah Holihan
Merchandisers: Bill Pond, Ann Stevens
Copywriter: Mark Ferguson
Consultant: IBM

Ask 10 average consumers to name a catalog company, and it’s a safe bet that at least half of them will mention L.L. Bean. With its highly successful Website, the Freeport, ME-based marketer of outdoor gear, apparel, and home goods is working at becoming a household name in e-commerce as well.

Why it won a Silver Award: L.L. Bean’s site does so many things right, the judges had a tough time singling out individual features for praise. The home page handles multiple tasks — sells product; offers links to merchandise categories; promotes stores, sales, free catalogs, corporate division, and customer service — yet it maintains a sunny, airy feel, thanks to the grid layout and generous white space.

Bean also makes a point of highlighting the aspects of its business that differentiate it from similar marketers. On the home page alone, it refers to its famed guarantee not once but three times. The Customer Service tab on the top navigation bar leads to a page of links with loads of information about returns, order tracking, international orders, and even the company’s “reduce, reuse, resole” repair and replacement service.

Another top-of-the-page tab, Explore the Outdoors, features links to outdoor sporting associations, conservation groups, and articles and videos about individual sports and the gear involved. “Lots of content, lots of guides,” enthused a judge, who noted that the wealth of editorial confirms the company’s credentials as a source of outdoor equipment.

For merchandising and copy, Bean earned top marks. Subcategories of the women’s apparel department page, for instance, include New for Women, Casual Clothing, Active Clothing, Footwear, Outerwear, and More Sizes (petite, plus, tall). Beneath each subcategory are up to 10 more subcategories. “Very well organized,” said a judge. The product pages are well organized also, with a brief, bullet-pointed description beside the product photo on top, then links to more details and sizing information. Again, the copy calls attention to the high level of quality that makes Bean Bean. “Our most popular polo has been proven to last through seasons of wear,” reads the description of a children’s shirt. “Made from premium, long-staple cotton that is stronger and softer than shorter-staple varieties you’ll find in other polos…”

All told, said a panelist, the L.L. Bean Website “does an excellent job of branding.” And given how strong the Bean brand is to begin with, that’s high praise indeed.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: At least one judge said that the site required too much drilling down to get to product pages. A panelist also suggested that the category and customer service pages could have used more graphics and less text. “I’d prefer to see more product photos earlier on in the process. And I’d move the cross-sell higher up on the product pages.”

Idea to steal: L.L. Bean incorporates the visual identity of its brand consistently throughout the site, with its choice of colors and fonts. Even its shopping bag icon incorporates the brand: Rather than a standard image of a shopping cart, Bean uses a picture of its signature handled canvas tote bag. Most marketers no doubt have similar overlooked areas where they can subtly reinforce their brand.

Silver Award

Patagonia

www.patagonia.com
Director of e-commerce: Craig Wilson
Website manager: J. Lee Rea
Website marketer: Chris Todd
Online merchant: Keven Churchill
Project manager: Lisa Hall
Art director: William Boland
Managing editor: Adam Chamberlain
Content manager: Alyssa Firmin
Production coordinator: Lisa Polley
Image asset coordinator: Steve Wages
Production artist: Luke McAuliffe

The audience for Patagonia’s rugged sportwear and outdoor gear would probably prefer to be on the slopes or hitting the surf than sitting in front of a computer. But by including gorgeous action photography and detailed editorial, the Ventura, CA-based manufacturer/marketer has created a site that will bring even diehard outdoors enthusiasts indoors.

Why it won a Silver Award: “Committed to the core” is Patagonia’s tagline, and the home page lives up to it. Visitors can head straight to online shopping, to customer service, or to a section that discusses the company’s extensive environmental initiatives. Even the environmental pages, though, include links back to the store section of the site. Clearly for Patagonia — and its customers — commerce and altruism go hand in hand. The company’s 1% for the Planet program (in which Patagonia donates 1% of sales to environmental groups) and use of organic cotton and PCR clothing (made of fabric from recycled plastic bottles) are two indications of this.

But good deeds alone won’t persuade consumers to buy a product. And when that product needs to protect an Alpine climber from hypothermia or a whitewater paddler from drowning, it had better be topnotch. With its detailed product specs, Patagonia explains just why its merchandise is up to the challenge. Product pages go so far as to indicate whether items are suitable for layering and to discuss the materials used. “You get a flavor of the product very clearly on the category level,” said a judge.

Visitors can shop not only by gender and product type but also by sport. “It’s obvious that they really thought about the customer when determining how to get people deeper into the site,” a panelist commented. Patagonia’s focus on the customer is also apparent from its self-described “ironclad guarantee,” the logo of which appears liberally throughout the site, and from the detailed copy devoted to discussing how to care for the merchandise.

Why it didn’t win a Gold Award: Can you say “too many drill-downs”? For certain, this is a common problem with many sites, but with Patagonia, “it takes a long time before you can actually buy something,” said a judge. “The site could use rollovers to improve navigation rather than multiple drill-downs.”

Idea to steal: Like a number of other cataloger/retailers, Patagonia sells gift cards. But unlike most others, Patagonia’s Website allows you to check the balance remaining on your cards.