To Love Them Is to Know Them

Many of the most-used features on’s Website weren’t the company’s idea. They were its customers’.

From a personalized favorites list to an automatic return function that makes returning unwanted items easier, the office supplies marketer is constantly tweaking its site based on information customers have provided in one form or another.

“Know thy customers, for they are not you,” says Sarah Alter, vice president at Lincolnshire, IL-based Quill, a division of superstore conglomerate Staples. “Companies trip up when they think they know the customer and they don’t.”

“Build it and they will come” may have been the mantra of the dot-com boom, but as the economic pendulum in this country has shifted, so too has the philosophy of many online marketers. “Listen and learn and they will come back” may be a better saying for today’s customer-centric companies.

In keeping with that philosophy, Redmond, WA-based Eddie Bauer has eliminated the sophisticated virtual model that it debuted with such fanfare several years ago. “It was interesting for the media and the industry, but the customer didn’t find it of value,” says Troy Brown, the apparel and home goods cataloger/retailer’s divisional vice president of e-commerce. While Eddie Bauer has used technological advances to speed up the site, Brown says the biggest change at its Website has been a new focus on the customer. “There’s been a complete mind shift to incorporate the customer into the development of the Website experience,” he says.

To ensure that she knows the best way to incorporate Quill’s customers into the site experience, Alter spends as much time as she can in’s usability lab, observing how shoppers use the company’s Website. Thanks to the lab, Quill learned that 80% of its online customers shop with the print catalog in front of them. Many of those shoppers, Alter says, would have appreciated a way to key in the product number directly from the catalog. Hence, when Quill revamped its site three years ago, it added a “catalog quick order” function that allows customers to type in item numbers from the print catalog, taking them directly to checkout.

Quill’s customers clearly like what they see online. The $1.0 billion cataloger rings up more than a third of its sales online. It garners a 9.3 rating out of a possible 10 from, among the highest in its category. And its visitor-to-buyer conversion rate — 30% — is among the highest in the industry.

Yet the company isn’t resting on its laurels. “Your job is never done. There’s constant improvement,” Alter says. Besides one-on-one usability tests, studies BizRate scores and comments and relies on day-to-day feedback from customer service reps who handle phone calls and e-mail exchanges. It also conducts focus groups to learn how it can better serve its customers.

“The companies I see most successful on the Web are the ones that work their Website daily, weekly, and monthly,” says Ken Burke, president/CEO of Multimedia Live, a Website design firm based in Petaluma, CA. “Very small changes to a Website can have a huge impact on sales.”

In fact, while Burke estimates the average drop-off, or site abandonment, rate among i.merchants to be 60%-70%, he says marketers have been able to bring that down to as low as 25% by speeding up the site with new technology, better organization, and a simplified checkout process.

Lab work

Like Quill, Eddie Bauer draws upon customer research from multiple sources. Before, the company’s e-commerce group included representatives from various areas of the company, from IT to merchandising. “But we were missing one element — the customer,” Brown says. Now the company scours its Website traffic data and listens to all customer comments with a new ear toward finding ways to improve the site. Once the company identifies an area that needs addressing, it brings customers into the usability lab in its corporate office.

The lab consists of PCs similar to what the customer might be using at home but with a video camera connected to a television in another room. The customer is asked to demonstrate how he shops the site and may be asked to try a new tool. By watching the customer’s every move, researchers can determine what works and what needs improvement.

One of the most significant changes has been a task-oriented home page, with more-focused links to paths and less creative content. “We’ve been able to reduce task time by 25%, which was a huge win for us,” Brown says. “As we brought customers into the lab, we were amazed at how difficult it was to complete what we thought were easy tasks. They would hover over a button they were supposed to click and not recognize that it was the correct button. Customers really needed very specific guidance.”

Usability studies also led Eddie Bauer to improve the speed of its site. “We reduced download time by nearly 50%,” Brown says, “and saw departure rates decrease significantly.”

Eddie Bauer has performed as many as 40 customer usability studies a week on customers and prospects, bringing in both savvy computer users and customers who generally shop by print catalog. Across the country in Framingham, MA, Staples has a similar lab set-up, where each month up to 80 customers and prospects participate in tests while researchers watch their moves on a big-screen TV in the next room.

The lab is ideal for homing in on a problem area, says Colin Hynes, Staples’ director of usability. For example, one of Staples’ traffic logs indicated that a significant portion of users were abandoning the site at the registration page, just prior to checkout. At the same time, customer service reps reported a number of calls and e-mails from customers who said they didn’t understand where to put their registration information.

Site abandonment is never desirable, but it’s particularly disappointing when it occurs during the registration process, after customers have made their product selections. “It’s that much more scary when folks say, ‘I’ve got what I want and I want to give you my money,’ and then they drop off,” says Hynes, who proceeded to conduct usability tests focusing on the registration area.

The tests showed that extraneous copy at the top of the registration page made the form appear longer — and more daunting — than it really was. In addition, a “Billing as Shipping” checkbox was difficult to see, leading to errors. And many users had trouble inputting a “user name”; has more than 1 million registered users, so finding a unique name was no small task.

Armed with knowledge of the problem areas, Staples redesigned the registration form, significantly trimming the extraneous introductory copy and tightening the spacing. It relocated the “Billing as Shipping” information, clearly marking all required fields. And it automatically input the user’s e-mail address as the user name, eliminating much frustration.

By helping users complete the registration process more quickly and with higher satisfaction, drop-off on the registration area decreased by 73%, Hynes says. That translates directly into higher sales and can be used to figure out the usability lab’s ROI, he adds.

Besides the on-site lab, Staples researchers visit customers in their workplaces and observe how they order from in their natural environment. The company also scours online traffic data and customer service reports to look for problem areas and improvement suggestions. “The customer is our codeveloper. That’s our saying,” Hynes says.

Survey says…

Because of the wide range of Internet users today, it’s important to also survey your customer base periodically to determine how computer savvy they are. Apparel, home goods, and gifts cataloger Norm Thompson, for instance, asks customers who have completed an online order to answer a few additional questions. Marketing executives at the company, whose customers tend to be over the age of 50, were surprised when such research showed that its customers were indeed proficient computer users, says vice president of marketing Steve Jones.

Other findings led the Portland, OR-based company to add a variety of features when it relaunched its site a year ago. The “product recovery” feature, for example, helps salvage a sale in the event that an item is out of stock. When a customer selects an unavailable product, the product recovery feature brings forward other items that fall into same usage category that may be of interest to the customer.

Because PC technology changes so rapidly, you’ll want to ask your customers on a regular basis how sophisticated their computers are. Dodgeville, WI-based Lands’ End conducts a comprehensive phone survey of customers each year. As a result, the apparel and home goods cataloger has learned that almost all of its customers have upgraded from 28K modems. That customers’ modem speeds are faster than they used to be “helps us determine how much information we can put up on our Website and gives us an idea how fast pages will be received,” says a spokesperson.

To encourage participation in surveys, many companies offer an incentive. High-tech gadgets cataloger/retailer Sharper Image, for example, gives gift certificates for $5-$10 to customers who complete a survey. has a base of 8,500 online customers who have opted in to be surveyed about their online shopping habits. The company e-mails these customers periodically to request their input, offering a certificate for $5 or $10 off their next order.

What do online shoppers want?

Whether through surveys, focus groups, usability tests, or traffic analysis, most catalogers have gleaned valuable marketing information from their customers about how to make the Web a better place to shop. While they have more work ahead in perfecting the medium, here are some of the lessons they’ve learned:

  • Speed counts

    Time-pressed customers like the convenience of online shopping, but they are an impatient bunch. Speed and ease-of-use are critical to the success of your site. Strive for pages that return in one or two seconds at broadband speed, suggests Multimedia Live’s Burke. If the user has to wait eight to 10 seconds for a page, you will see your drop-off rates rise, he predicts.

    But Hynes of cautions that there’s no magic number if your site is engaging and easy to use. “We look for a person’s perceived speed through the application. It’s not so much about the actual time or amount of clicks, but the perception of it. Time flies when you’re having fun,” he says. To ascertain users’ perceived speed, Staples surveys them immediately after they complete a task. For example, after checking out, a customer will be asked to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 “how did you find the speed of the process?”

    Even when pages are moving rapidly, some tasks may seem tedious to users. Catalog shoppers who bring their print books to the computer when they shop online often resent the time it takes to locate the product on the site and click it into the shopping cart before they can check out. Hence the development of “catalog quick shop” features like the one Quill introduced. Marketers as diverse as apparel and outdoor gear cataloger L.L. Bean and Sharper Image report strong favorable response to this addition.

    Of course, keying in the item number for commodities such as paper clips month after month can get old.’s favorites list, which allows customers to keep a history of items they use regularly, is a way around that problem. It grew out of such customer comments as “I’d like to have a shopping list that I can access on a regular basis,” Alter says. Now, when customers see an “add to cart” button, they also see an “add to favorites” button. And when they have completed an order, they’re asked, “Would you like to make this order a favorite?”

  • Keep it simple

    Another way to speed the shopping process and reduce frustration among customers is to improve navigation. Minimizing the number of clicks required to get to a designated product has been effective for Freeport, ME-based L.L. Bean, says Mary Lou Kelley, vice president of e-commerce.

    “We’re constantly asking, ‘What’s the easiest way for the customer to understand how to go into the men’s department for shirts?’” Kelley says. To this end, the company uses its home page to “feature what we know customers want to buy to make it easy for them to find what they’re looking for.” Coming into the holiday season, for example, the holiday gift guide is front and center, based on analysis of customer shopping patterns.

    Search functions remain critical to navigation. By observing the exact words customers type in, marketers can cut down on the number of attempts to locate a product. A company may have a category of “grilling accessories,” Burke says, but neglect to put the words “barbecue,” “barbeque,” and “Bar-B-Q” into its search engine. Customers searching under one or more of those terms might miss out on products of interest.

    To help catalog customers find what they’re looking for online, L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer offer a “shop by catalog” feature, putting exact versions of their print catalogs online. In a way, it’s a throwback to the early years of e-commerce, when online sites were little more than digitized versions of the company’s print editions. Catalogers and experts hasten to add, however, that the technique is far more effective as an add-on tool than as the core of a site.

    Recognizing that some customers don’t know what they’re looking for until they see it, San Francisco-based Sharper Image has implemented Dynamic Browsing, a proprietary navigational tool designed to appeal to customers who like shopping the company’s brick-and-mortar stores. Shoppers click on the option after they have selected a product. “It’s for customers who aren’t sure what they’re looking for. It lets you browse in a more real-life way,” explains company spokesperson Mollee Madrigal. It also provides Sharper Image with an effective cross-selling technique. Once the Dynamic Browsing button is selected, nine more products are presented. Three will be similar to the original selection, while the other six will be different but have weighted attributes that make them good candidates for the customer, Madrigal says. The tool has become more popular since the company moved its location on the product pages last year, after customers reported they had trouble finding it, she adds.

  • Information, please

    Customers want detailed product information so that they can make an informed decision. One advantage Websites have over print catalogs is the lack of space constraints, allowing for more product information. But the information needs to be well organized in tiered pages so that it doesn’t clutter up primary shopping areas.

    For example, Norm Thompson provides several tiers of information on its products, including fit and care instructions on a subpage. And L.L. Bean encourages customers to click for more information, then presents comparison charts of product attributes, such as material, insulation, lining, and water protection for parkas.

  • There’s no place like home

    Most prospects, Burke says, drop off after the home page. To buck this trend, he recommends revving the home page every two to three weeks with new images and kickers — promotional ads placed on the side of the page so that they blend in, rather than stand out like banner ads.

    Other key elements are lifestyle images that load quickly and simple categorization. The home page should show five to nine product categories on the left bar or the top bar, Burke says. When the users clicks on a category, the gateway, or subcategory, page should be treated like a home page, again with five to nine categories.

    And once again responding to users’ need for speed, many companies put their best-sellers or seasonal merchandise on the home page. Seattle-based online superstore goes so far as to personalize its home page by promoting products geared to individual customers based on their purchasing history.

    “We can tell from the way customers respond that they truly appreciate it,” says spokesperson Bill Curry, who regards the technique as a throwback to shopping at “the corner merchant who would know your taste preferences and sizes.” While that type of relationship has largely been lost in the retail environment, computer technology provides the opportunity for such personalization.

  • I’m late!

    The real-time nature of the Web makes it a magnet for procrastinators. As the medium has evolved, customers’ expectations have increased, with many looking for same-day or next-day delivery, even — or especially — during the holiday season. Some gifts merchants, such as and, are generally able to comply, offering same-day delivery on some items, and thereby raising the bar for other merchants.

But every company confronts out-of-stocks and other issues that prevent timely delivery of all products. To reduce customer frustration, Westbury, NY-based 1-800-Flowers has added a “delivery wizard” feature, which informs customers of delivery requirements as they select items. That way, if an item won’t make it to the recipient in time, the customer knows that up front and can make another selection.

In response to customers clamoring for last-minute purchases, Web merchants also have come up with a solution for the ultimate procrastinator: electronic gift certificates that are delivered instantly via e-mail to the gift recipient.

Many of the improvements spurred by customer feedback boil down to giving shoppers a feeling of control — regarding how much product information they see, how they locate items, how they shop in general.

Offering this sense of control can be as simple as encouraging them to provide you information. Take Lands’ End’s Custom, an online feature that promises chinos and jeans with a custom fit based on an algorithm that requires very little information from the customer. After more than a few female shoppers wanted to provide their inseam measurement, Lands’ End decided to ask for that information — even though it is unnecessary for the proper fit. Says a Lands’ End spoksperson, It’s all about empowering the customer.

After all, the Web may be changing the way customers shop, but it hasn’t changed the fact that the customer is always right.

Wilmette, IL-based Ann Meyer has written for the Chicago Tribune, among other publications.

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