Staples focuses on usability with strong results

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CAMBRIDGE, MA - As part of Staples brand initiative focusing on the concept of its slogan "easy," the multichannel office supply merchant undertook its largest IT project ever in mid-2002 with the goal of improving its Web site's usability, Colin Hynes, director of usability at Staples Inc. told attendees at the New England Mail Order Association's spring conference last week.

The project included extensive field studies that had Mr. Hynes and his staff sitting with customers for hours as they executed orders, opened delivery boxes, emptied the boxes and made returns. They also spent time with drivers on their delivery routes and with the sales staff on sales calls.

"It's important to live through your customers' eyes" and not just speculate about how customers are reacting to the brand experience or rely on surveys, Mr. Hynes said. For example, he showed a video of one customer's experience placing an order with Staples. Though the customer rated the experience "OK," everyone in the audience agreed that it was not OK because, among other things, the call center agent had not been able to find the customer's account.

At the same time, Staples segmented its audience into seven personas based on a survey of 1,100 customers. By drilling through the sales data, it was able to determine that 2 of the personas account for 53 percent of the brand's sales and 58 percent of the margin. As a result, the decision was made to redesign the site with those personas in mind.

A few of the characteristics displayed by these top two personas include a penchant for making lists and the desire to get in and out of the site as quickly as possible. As a result, Staples decided to deemphasize specific products on its homepage by moving them below the fold, make search more visible, make reordering easier and to re-categorize its merchandise based on customer input.

Results from the new site, which was launched in 2005, include increased first click accuracy and a decrease in the average time it takes a customer to make a first choice. In addition, conversion rates increased 28 percent since the launch and traffic is up 17 percent. However, the average order size has decreased slightly, although this is covered by the increase in margin rate.

In 2005 and 2006, Staples was the second largest Web site after Amazon.com, with $3.8 billion in sales in 2005 and almost $5 billion last year.

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