Control Freaks

Jan 01, 2008 10:30 PM  By

A woman goes online in search of a new blouse. She’s not exactly sure of what she’s looking for, so she asks her sister to shop with her. Her sister thinks her style is similar to a friend’s, so the sister invites the friend to shop, as well.

Although the three are in different locations across the country, they’ll soon experience a shopping trip as if they had met in person and walked into the store together. The three visit the same Website and start chatting through the site about styles and colors.

The woman chooses a blouse and with a click of her mouse shows how to push up the sleeves to create a different look. Her sister clicks the blouse and changes the color, while her friend confirms the new color choice is the right move.

The shopper likes their choices and wants to find another blouse with the same style collar, so she uses her mouse to highlight the collar and conducts a visual search to find similar items. Once she selects her items, the others help her accessorize, dragging and dropping complementary items into a virtual dressing room for her to see.

After her purchase, the shopper rates the pairings, uploads a photo of herself wearing her purchased items, and adds notes about each item. She saves the new outfits on the site so she can refer to them the next time she shops.

Simply put, the next generation online storefront puts the customer in control.

SALES, SHOPPERS START TO SHRINK

E-commerce is undergoing a fundamental transition. Retailers once relied on building a straightforward Website with links and images, and then customers arrived to shop.

For several years, millions of people new to e-commerce began shopping on the Web each year and merchants gained sales from the new channel by virtue of being online.

The combination of e-commerce sites that differ from earlier incarnations, coupled with a declining stream of new online shoppers, is a clear signal: Retailers are facing a world in which they will have to work harder than ever to keep their Websites relevant, effective, and easy to use just to gain new customers, keep existing buyers, and increase conversion.

According to Jupiter Research, the growth of online retailing is decreasing and will reach a plateau in the next several years. Forrester Research says online sales will continue to constitute only 9% of all retail sales despite an expected online sales increase from $132 billion in 2006 to $271 billion in 2011.

At the same time, an Internet explosion of user-driven Websites such as Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook are all changing the expectations of consumers on the Internet. When today’s customers shop online, they seek experiences that reflect the interactivity and immediate responsiveness of various social networking sites they use daily.

They want to know what others think of a particular product and what they can pair it with; they also want the ability to add their own comments or feedback from others.

This shift in consumer behavior affects how retailers need to plan and design Websites. Every e-commerce site does not need to include every new or emerging technology.

But merchants do need to employ some of these new technologies and techniques to retain current customers and draw interest from new ones. Online shoppers will increasingly expect faster, more effective browsing and the ability to quickly interact with the Website and one another.

In other words, shopping online will more closely resemble an in-store experience. Technology and design changes create an atmosphere that better reflects a retail setting where like items are merchandised together and customers view products on their own terms.

Single-screen browsing mimics the ease of real-world shopping; a customer gathers items and adds them to the cart without leaving the page. A single-screen checkout allows the customer to purchase without clicking through multiple pages to complete the process.

When designing your site, keep this in mind: The more a retail site mirrors a real-world shopping experience, the more familiar and comfortable customers will be with online shopping.

TECHNOLOGIES CHANGE SHOPPING, MEASUREMENT

An increasing number of retail sites are exploring uses of AJAX, Flash, and other technologies to make the shopping process easier and more intuitive for customers.

AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) takes the click-and-wait out of user actions, such as drilling down in a menu or clicking through the checkout process.

Instead, shoppers stay on the same page while items and shopping cart contents update almost instantly without reloading the page. AJAX allows selected parts of the screen to update, improving the customer’s product discovery process.

The shift away from click-and-wait browsing is being recognized across the industry as no temporary trend. Measurement services now take into account time spent on a Website rather than just the traditional count of page views.

Recently, Nielsen/NetRatings added both “total minutes” and “total sessions” metrics to its service. The reason? Because Web pages that use AJAX technology and streaming media can serve new content without reloading individual pages.

This fundamental shift in the way we measure Websites is an indicator that new Internet technologies are not just experiments. Rather, they are behind a lasting evolution that is altering the way people use Websites.

SHOPPING BECOMES INTUITIVE WITH NEW TECHNOLOGY


Beyond changing how Website views are measured, AJAX is affecting the way consumers interact on a site, allowing for a more seamless transaction process. Techniques such as single-screen browsing and checkout, custom product configurators, and the ability to dynamically sort merchandise make the shopping process more efficient and reflective of an in-store experience.

While visually appealing, these techniques also serve a critical merchandising role in that they expose customers to more products. When Amazon.com created an AJAX version of its diamond ring configurator, sales jumped markedly when compared with the HTML version because the ease-of-use with AJAX increased customer conversions.

Using visual search, Like.com helps shoppers find similar items based on selected attributes or preferences. Shoppers can search by color, style, and pattern, in addition to traditional searches such as price and size, to find items they like. Then they can use the cursor to draw a box around a particular category to find similar items that have the same color, pattern, or both.

The use of AJAX, Flash, and visual search in Web design is changing the way consumers use sites and flow through the online shopping process.

CAN YOU HOLD THESE?


An important aspect of helping consumers move seamlessly through the online shopping process is providing ways to let them easily compare and save items they are interested in while shopping online.

Shopping carts are often used to store items for later consideration. But it is not always possible to retrieve the contents of a shopping cart on a follow up shopping “trip” or visit.

It can also be difficult to compare items being considered in a single trip or visit. With an online “thinking about” function, shoppers drag items into an area on the page that displays them all, giving shoppers the ability to gather merchandise the way they do in-store. With all chosen products in plain view, shoppers can decide which items they’d like to purchase.

In addition, shoppers don’t leave the page, and the items they’re thinking about stay in clear view and top of mind. If the shopper leaves the site and returns at another time, the items in the “thinking about” section will be there on the next visit.

Similarly, an “add to bag” functionality can be made available so that when shoppers are ready to purchase, they go to the shopping cart (or bag) and drag items into it from “thinking about.” The shopping cart can then show more detailed images of products and give the ability to edit those products without leaving the page.

GIVE AND TAKE CONTROL


Merchants are beginning to accept that they are no longer in complete control of their online stores. While the retailer maintains control of the design and functionality, the content on the site can be influenced — even changed — by customers.

By providing shoppers with the ability to have an impact on site content through reviews and instant feedback, retailers create a more meaningful and enjoyable experience. Anything a merchant might conceivably lose in perceived brand control is gained through increased customer confidence and loyalty and brand credibility.

Retailers become concerned if their reviews section isn’t immediately filled up with comments from shoppers. While the reality is that most visitors to a Website don’t add product reviews or additional information, the majority of visitors do read the reviews that are posted by the minority. More than 70% of online shoppers read product reviews from other customers, according to research from both Forrester and Jupiter.

GOING MOBILE


As retailers reach out to new customers in new audiences, they are creating additional sites as well. Because back-end applications have become easier to use and more adaptive, multiple versions of sites can be created to target different audiences.

For example, Facebook, Amazon, and eBay have designed alternative Websites specifically to accommodate iPhone users. These sites scale to fit the viewing area of the iPhone screen and replicate the look and feel of its interface, making the user experience easier than shopping the main site on the device.

It’s true that all mobile shoppers (i.e., those who don’t have iPhones) are not yet at the point where they can browse and purchase products entirely via a mobile phone. But some merchants are experimenting with hybrid models that use texting to alert a consumer of merchandise availability or when a product is ready for an in-store pickup.

Some advertisements are starting to include codes that shoppers can text to the retailer with the payment information to complete the transaction entirely on their phone. Retailers can count on sites in the future including some type of mobile integration if they are not already being used.

THE END GOAL: CUSTOMER SATISFACTION


Remember that not all Internet applications are appropriate for every merchant. Some retailers begin slowly by adding consumer reviews; others jump in and offer interactive videos and user-generated content.

In both cases, the key is to remember that online shoppers have little patience. While a site with every design bell and whistle may look good, ultimately, the ease of a transaction and how efficiently shoppers can accomplish what they’ve come to do will bring them back again and again.

Retailers will succeed by relying on their established brand strengths and product assortment, and by listening to what new and returning customers want.

Keep in mind that the users of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are the tech savvy shoppers of the future. Get ready to deliver the Website experience these future customers expect — even if they might be too young to be your customers today.

As more aspects of online shopping move into the hands of consumers, retailers will be rewarded with greater brand loyalty and increased sales.


David Fry is founder/president/CEO of Fry Inc., an e-business systems and services provider based in Ann Arbor, MI.