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Ease of Use Spurs Remote Shopping

Whether it’s selling through a brick-and-mortar store, a print catalog or a Web site, a good retailer strives to create an environment that makes it as easy as possible for the consumer to buy.

Mail-order catalogers have had more than 100 years to perfect the remote buying experience from ink on paper. While this experience allows room for catalogers to differentiate themselves with products, graphics and text, it also adheres to simple standards of presentation and organization that make print catalog shopping easy and convenient for the consumer and, consequently, has created a $100 billion-a-year industry.

Consider the importance of the following standards:

• Most successful print catalogers use enticing four-color images to grab the consumer and pull him into the book.

• Catalogs are similarly sized, making them handy for the mailbox, coffee table and on the go.

• The order form is found in the middle of the book and is printed on a different stock of paper, making it easy to locate.

• The mailing label and source code on the back of the book identify recipient and catalog quickly.

• A toll-free number at the bottom of every page lets consumers tear out pages for future ordering.

• Products are presented as a photo accompanied by a product name, copy block, SKU number and price. SKU number and price are in bold to ease the ordering process.

Though e-commerce has existed for only a fraction of the time of the mail-order catalog’s existence, in some respects e-tailers are already showing signs of a move toward standardization.

Some of the leading e-commerce sites share many similarities, including:

• The logo is positioned in the upper-left corner of every page and acts as a link to the site’s home page.

• Top-level tab navigation between major areas of the site is available.

• Subtabs for feature selection within each area are available.

• Account, shopping cart and help section links are in the upper-right corner.

• There is an accessible search box at the upper left.

• Single sign-in and single shopping cart options are provided.

• A left-hand column context bar for page categories is available.

• An interior right-hand pane for page contents is provided.

Some e-tailers may think that incorporating these characteristics into their Web site design is limiting and that they have more practical or ingenious formats for presenting themselves and their wares to consumers.

Others may yearn to differentiate themselves and may think that consumers will be more attracted to a flashier or more cutting-edge presentation.

Many early catalogers had similar feelings about the layout of their print catalogs. Where are they now?

Not long ago, fledgling Web sites such as Barnes & Noble, eToys.com and Amazon looked quite different from each other.

Amazon had the good fortune to be the first of these sites to sell online and it proved to be very adept at it. Consequently, many of the characteristics first associated with Amazon, such as the top navigation tabs, upper-left search box and shopping cart icon, have become synonymous with e-commerce to millions of consumers.

In an attempt to mirror the success of Amazon, Barnes & Noble, eToys and others quickly adopted Amazon’s popular traits. The result is that consumers now enjoy certain standards of online shopping that make it easier for them to shop from store to store, just as it’s a no-brainer for print catalog shoppers to order from most print catalogs.

If any business should understand the importance of designing around standards, shouldn’t it be catalogers that practice this art every time they lay out a print catalog?

Yet how many catalogers take this into consideration when designing their Web sites?

The sites for Eddie Bauer, Lands’ End, Delia’s and Harry and David are beginning to get it. All of these Web sites have their logos situated at or close to the upper-left corner of every page, their search is prominent – though not in all cases located at the upper left – and all have incorporated a tab-like navigation system at the top.

But for these companies and others that have followed suit, this is only a beginning. A much more thorough adoption of standards is needed for catalogers on the Web to appeal to consumers who shop online to find convenience and as a way to save time.

The Internet is not television. Though we may be tempted to view it as a powerful and more affordable medium for advertising, it is most efficient for e-tailers as a tool for direct selling. Using the Web to promote your brand is vital, but should it be at the expense of making it as easy as possible for consumers to buy your products?

Too many catalogers’ Web sites leave consumers with no immediate sense of what to do, forcing them into exploration mode rather than shopping mode. There is no easily identifiable access to account information, a shopping cart or help. Consumers are required to read much more than they should. Their experiences are bogged down by bad navigation.

Moving from one Web store to another leaves them frustrated with having to start over again.

E-commerce is a vast opportunity for catalogers, perhaps to the tune of an additional $100 billion a year.

We can help to make this a reality by designing our Web sites with ease of use in mind.

• Lee Lorenzen is president/CEO of Altura International and CatalogCity.com, Pacific Grove, CA.

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