Keys to the Evolution of E-Commerce Sites

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I logged on to my computer recently, and there was an e-mail from Jeff Bezos, founder/CEO of Amazon.com. Apparently, he was looking for my help.


Amazon had been testing new navigational systems for its Web site, "looking for a way to make it easier for [me] to get around [Amazon's] store," and wanted my input. I was honored that he asked for my opinion.


I am sure many readers received the same e-mail, though I was impressed with Amazon for involving individual customers in the development of its new navigation system.


Like many organizations, Amazon is taking advantage of the knowledge it has acquired from its customers, through both direct communication and site analysis, and evolving the site.


As other companies look to create their next-generation sites, they face many challenges unique to their industry or organization. However, consistent themes have emerged that fall into the following categories: merchandising; photography; layout and design; and navigation.


Merchandising: Many Internet retailers are new to selling merchandise directly to consumers and are learning that effective merchandising can lead to increases in sales and average orders.


E-commerce sites are filled with so-called soldier shots of products, or silhouetted product shots on seamless backgrounds, all lined up in a row with no real relationship to one another. This merchandise presentation misses the opportunity for interactivity, upsell and cross-sell.


Take apparel e-tailers, for example. Some of the better e-tailers are showing more ensemble shots, on- and off-figure, and are using emerging technologies such as My Virtual Model that help customers create and present complete outfits. Lands' End has incorporated My Virtual Model technology for its entire female apparel line and has seen significant improvement in results -- as well as added benefits such as reduced return rates.


Home furnishings e-tailers also need to be more creative when presenting their merchandise.


For example, using more room sets provides a sense of place and encourages multiple-item purchases. Spiegel.com has done an excellent job in the coordinated room section of its site. In the same shot Spiegel.com is selling a bed, the bedding, the window treatments and even the art on the walls.


Photography: Compelling photography has helped the catalog industry inspire people to purchase products for years. E-tailers are learning what catalogers have known for quite some time: Great photography sells more product.


Good photography immediately communicates the features/characteristics of the product. All of the details on a particular sweater, for instance, are visible. You are able to determine scale on a desk lamp. These things are important and contribute to a consumer's confidence at the crucial moment when she is deciding whether to purchase.


Pottery Barn's site has the same style of photography that inspires many of us to shop through its catalog or visit its stores. The products are clearly presented in wonderful environments and offer great home decorating ideas.


Three-D photographic technologies, like those offered by O2 Essential Marketing Technologies, are becoming more popular with e-tailers. They allow the consumer to view a product from all angles, thus eliminating any uncertainty he might have when viewing products shot with traditional photography. HertzFurniture.com uses this technology for all products on its site, and we will see more use of this technology in the future.


Layout and design. Effective page layout and design of a Web site will help make the difference between a pleasurable shopping experience and a frustrating one.


More and more sites are incorporating interesting technology to educate and entertain the consumer during the shopping experience. While this often provides added value, it should not create obstacles in the shopping process.


Wine.com has done a great job making the shopping experience interesting by including recipes, information on wineries and updates on its concert series. While offering a whole host of "edutainment" on the site, the shopping experience is clear and consumer-friendly.


Think of building these edutainment opportunities more like a rest stop than a tollbooth. The shopper should have easy access to them, but they should not be a barrier to reaching the destination: a purchase.


Navigation.:We have all heard that good navigation has to be intuitive. What does intuitive really mean, and how does it affect the way you design your site? Navigation on your site is one of its most important elements and helps define the shopping experience.


The Delias.com Web site is packed with information and product offerings, but it is well-organized and, therefore, easy to shop. The different sections of the site are clearly defined by interesting iconography and color palette. You can move easily from section to section, and wherever you are on the site, shopping is just one click away.


How can we continue to learn what is working and not working in the online environment? Like other forms of direct marketing, the best approach for all e-tailers is to test assumptions, then test again.


• Sal Ferraro is senior vice president of business development at AGA Creative, a catalog and Web design and marketing agency with offices in New York and London. His e-mail address is Sal_Ferraro@aganet.com.
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