Live from eTail 2006: Never Too Late to Innovate

Philadelphia—No matter how long you’ve been successful at something, it’s never too late to innovate. Case in point: Amazon.com’s Search Inside feature, which enables site visitors to search for specific words and phrases within the text of a book. Russ Grandinetti, vice president of softlines for the Seattle-based online superstore, described the function as “the most important feature for selling books, and we didn’t launch it till eight years after [Amazon.com] launched.”

Grandinetti spoke about this and other Amazon.com enhancements during his Tuesday morning session at eTail 2006, entitled “Growth, Innovation, and the Customer: Lessons Learned from Rapid Growth.” The reason Search Inside was so important, he added, is that it’s a service that brick-and-mortar competitors cannot match. In effect, it takes an advantage that stores offer—the ability to allow browsers to physically leaf through a book—and goes one better. “This is the kind of thing, I think, that keeps people coming back,” Grandinetti said.

Amazon is known for continually expanding its product line—founded as a bookseller, it later added DVDs and consumer electronics to its mix, eventually introducing softlines such as apparel, and just weeks ago it began selling groceries. But it is constantly evolving its services, functionality, and design as well, Grandinetti said.

Often, the expansion into a new product category prompted the evolution. When Amazon began selling jewelry online, for example, “we knew that if we wanted anyone to trust us for their engagement ring, if we just threw up pages in the same way we would for DVDs, it wouldn’t work.” And so there are larger images, all sorts of product guides, and even a “learning center” within the section devoted to engagement rings, as well as the ability to search diamonds by carat, cut, color, clarity, shape, and price. Similarly, apparel pages include the ability to mouse-over colors, zoom in on photos, and select alternative photo views.

Some of the innovations are mere tweaks—but effective tweaks nonetheless. Take the upsell/cross-sell header. On pages selling books and other media, it reads: “Customers who bought this item also bought…” But on pages selling consumer electronics, it reads: “What do consumers ultimately buy after viewing items like this?” The former heading didn’t work with electronics, Grandinetti said, because there wasn’t the same relevance among purchases as there is among media purchases.

On the women’s apparel pages, incidentally, the heading reads: “Customers who viewed this also viewed…” and the five related items are presented horizontally, rather than vertically as is the case in other product categories. Female apparel shoppers responded better to this sort of presentation, Grandinetti said—proving not only that there’s always time for innovation but also that there’s no element too small to test and tweak.

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