Does Your Retail Site Implement All 10 Best Practices?

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As online retailing has matured and customers have become comfortable with the online shopping experience, a series of best practices has begun to emerge. These practices will ensure that your site remains in the forefront of revenue generation while providing a positive client experience.


This list is by no means exhaustive, but after hundreds of competitive Web site evaluations, our firm found that the following 10 practices (if implemented properly) have a meaningful effect on the bottom line and improve customer satisfaction and brand image.


Go to the buyers. "Location, location, location" is the old adage, and it holds true for the Internet as well. Search engines and e-commerce brokers such as AOL, MSN and Yahoo are the malls of the Internet. By forging partnerships with these portals, retailers can quickly and cost-effectively gain access to and capture qualified customers who actively seek your products.


In addition, most retailers receive good trademark affinity search results but miss the boat when it comes to keyword buys. By purchasing the placement of targeted banner advertisements on a search engine results page, you have the ability to intercept buyers before they select a retailer.


If a user searches for "gold-plated baby rattles" and you sell them, your site should not only appear in the results page, but a targeted banner ad will help reinforce your site as the best option and will speed customer access.


Optimize home page design. Many retailers commit large amounts of precious "above the fold" home page real estate to branding and corporate messaging.


Unless you are a new or niche retailer, this is unnecessary and limits your ability to immediately promote salable products. Identify the products and categories that you want to sell and place them (or compelling links) on your home page to allow visitors quick access to purchase options.


Bed Bath & Beyond does an excellent job of balancing home page layout while including a friendly and useful DHTML product menu navigation system that helps orient visitors and increases the likelihood of quickly finding desired products.


Content partnerships. Excellent and objective content, such as buying guides, are a simple, cost-effective way to gain user trust, build customer relationships, encourage repeat visits and increase revenue.


The travel sites Travelocity and Expedia both do an excellent job of forming content partnerships with travel guides like Fodors and Out & About.


If your site sells cooking supplies and there is a culinary school in your area, a simple content partnership can provide robustness to your site, build synergies among common clients and help increase your customer base.


Persistent shopping cart. Customers often shop casually, place items into their cart and return later to complete the sale. Web sites that lack the capability to save this information for return visitors hurt the user experience, limit their own ability to complete latent sales and lose critical customer tracking and behavioral data.


In addition, returning visitors should receive clear indicators that you recognize them and know that they have items waiting in their shopping cart.


Strong supporting images and content. It is surprising how many sites provide little explanatory documentation to support and close the sale. Since visitors cannot closely inspect, touch and try the product online, retailers must close this gap with thoughtful product descriptions, imagery and sales information.


It is not uncommon on retail sites to see color swatches without a name (is that green or teal?) or to view a product description that simply states "boot cut blue jeans." Not only does this limit your ability to complete the sale and improve conversion rates, it creates a poor user experience and harms your company brand.


Promote online and offline synergies. Circuit City and Target have proved the value of tightly integrating "bricks-and-clicks" and providing seamless cross-channel customer experiences.


Cross-branding, inventory management and customer-focused pickup and return policies promote trust, purchasing comfort, good will and an excellent customer service experience. This is where the whole is greater than its parts.


Excellent store locator. If you have an engaged and interested customer visiting your site with the sole purpose of locating one of your physical stores, the experience must be simple, quick and helpful. Too many retail sites provide unorganized and less than helpful lists of store locations.


Sites like Mercedes-Benz's lead the pack in providing simple locator tools and excellent results pages that include contact information, maps, directions and local dealer links.


If you do not make it easy for your customers to find you, your competition will.


Excellent search engine capabilities. Poor search engine results limit sales and hurt the customers' experience. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, New York, 70 percent of visitors use a Web site's search engine and 43 percent stated that it is the most important feature on a site.


Many retail sites provide good product search engine capability but do not account for misspellings or functionality and service searches. Often, users searching for "shipping and return" policies receive no results. It is also critical that search engines sort page results effectively and provide multiple search options such as related links and natural language queries. It is important to support users in the manner they prefer to search for items.


Clear customer support options. Every customer has a different preference for interacting with retailers. To ensure the completion of a sale and a continued relationship, provide customer support in the manner each customer desires (e.g., frequently asked questions, e-mail, phone, fax, real-time online support and offline store support).


Most often, customers will not access these additional services, and they add cost to your bottom line. However, these services will create user comfort with the site and reinforce the buying decision. Everything else being equal, if your competitor offers these services and you do not, this could be the deciding factor in retailer selection.


Strong and relevant cross-selling. This is a simple way to increase revenue and profit margins. Good retailers pool associated products and make cross-sell suggestions to customers because it works.


However, many retailers are often caught in the trap of recommending products that are irrelevant or out of stock. Solid product recommendation logic and tight inventory integration is critical or the cross-sell will quickly become a lost opportunity or, even worse, a negative customer experience.


If your retail site supports these 10 best practices, you are positioned well against your competition, have a solid foundation and can focus on site optimization. If not, it is a good time to get started.


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