Engine Tuneup Hikes Conversion Rate

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Tower Records doubled its online customer purchases during the past eight months by tweaking its e-commerce search capabilities.

As of May, 1999, the site's customer conversion rates dwelled around 2 percent - a full percentage point below the online music and video average of 3 percent.

What the site discovered, especially in the classical music section, was that its product search engine functioned poorly.

"We started the site in 1996 using Informix, which is a wonderful database engine, but it's not designed to handle search results we wanted for our Web site. Consumers needed an exact match or they would get a 'Sorry, nothing to find here' message." That's not a good message to get," said Kurt Foy Booker, Webmaster at Tower Records, which is owned by MTS Inc., West Sacramento, CA.

The biggest concern was that not only was the site losing customers, it was losing long-term customers who were making purchases and forming relationships at other sites, according to Booker.

To better help consumers navigate its 600,000 products, TowerRecords.com added IntuiFind by Mercado Software Inc. The site's goal was to make it as easy to find products online as it is in the Tower Record sites.

"Before Mercado, they'd get the 'Nothing to find here' message. Now, if they don't get a title, other stuff will come up. It's a good upselling tool. They can find something similar or see another title they might not have known had existed."

This search and navigation tool also accounts for misspelled words, looks for phonetic similarities and gives consumers the option of describing a product. For example, if a user enters "road trip in a car with Hoffman," the movie "Rainman" comes up.

By tweaking the search process, the site's conversion rates shot up as high as 15 percent during Christmas and has since leveled out around 5 percent.

Tower Records early missteps are indicative of the experiences many e-commerce sites have had, according to said Alex Bergmann, engagement manager of Creative Good, New York, an e-commerce consulting and research firm.

"Many sites haven't focused on customer. They haven't built an experience that was right," he said.

Fifty-six percent of online shoppers surveyed by Creative Good experienced failure when they searched for an item. The reasons for the failed searches were: inexact queries, confusion over the interface and inaccurate results.

"If [consumers] don't find what they need, they're not going to stick around. There's much greater awareness of these issues, although it's clear the Net isn't that mature yet," said Bergmann.

Another new functionality added to Towerrecords.com allows consumers to use multiple tenders such the online currency Flooz, credit cards and Tower Records gift cards.

"You can mix and match. They just tell us which amount you want to use for each," said Booker. "It's a must for the gift card. If you have a balance left over, you can put it on credit card."

In the meantime, other changes are on the way, according to Booker, although he was not prepared to give details. "Right now, we're working a bit on enhancing functionality. There's always room for improvement," he said. "In the next three to four months there will be some big changes."

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