Hertz Shifts Gears With Responsive Web Design

For auto enthusiasts, speed is just as important as luxury. The same can be said with the Hertz Corporation, which last summer relaunched its Hertz Rent-A-Car and Hertz On Demand websites using responsive web design in order to improve the online experience and boost time-to-market of new products and services. Responsive design automatically optimizes a website’s design—changing the layout of text or determining which images load first for instance—based on the device on which the user is browsing.

With an estimated 2,700 U.S. locations and projected $4.7 billion in 2012 revenue, according to estimates from Auto Rental News, Hertz is the second-largest car rental company in the U.S., trailing only Enterprise Holdings. In short, it has a lot of visitors, and many of them are mobile users with different habits and devices. For instance, reservations tend to occur on tablets, whereas smartphone users visit the website to find information or to interact post-reservation. And because Hertz deals with both leisure and business rentals, the company had noted—at least until recently—that business users were more biased toward Blackberry devices.

“We’ve had tremendous growth over the past 18 months in the utilization of mobile devices—tablets, phones, what have you,” says Joseph Eckroth, CIO and SVP at Hertz. The surge began as triple-digit growth, he says, but has since tapered off to large double digits, representing a “significant piece” of Hertz’s overall reservation percentage. “The guy on the go doesn’t carry a laptop anymore and [Hertz wants to be the company they] prefer to use because we put the effort into making it much easier.”

But besides improving the mobile customer experience, responsive design also allows Hertz to roll out new products and services quickly, without having to recode or reorganize material for an array of devices.

“[Responsive design] allows us to move faster and do more,” explains Luv Tulsidas, Hertz’s director of web development. Before the web design technology matured, web developers had to rebuild the same site for different devices, draining time and resources. Now, a single mobile site can be built once and deployed everywhere, with a few customized tweaks along the way. “We can move a lot faster and put up a lot of resources focused on innovation and customer resources,” Tulsidas says.

Although Hertz wanted to be aggressive in adopting responsive design principles, it also wanted to be intelligent in its strategy. “We wanted to be aggressive without being stupid,” Eckroth says. “We looked at the risk-reward and that dictates when we’re ready to go.”

Tulsidas knew that responsive design technologies and the languages that supported it—like CSS3 and HTML5—had been around for a few years and were in a state of constant evolution. But he also felt there was now enough support in the developer community and available tools to justify the relaunch of Hertz’s websites.

For Tulsidas’s team, the first challenge was the initial learning curve. Many developers’ aspirations are constrained due to factors beyond their control—in the case of responsive design, this includes different mobile browsers that support different features and functions, or that might interpret code differently and not behave in the way Hertz’s team expects. To accommodate the limitations of certain browsers, Hertz’s developer team had to find polyfills—downloadable code that allows those browsers to support features that they ordinarily would not be able to support.

Speech recognition, for example, is a feature supported by Google’s Chrome browser, but not Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox, or Microsoft’s IE, says Tulsidas. “There are some capabilities like that, more on the cutting edge side, that some devices and browsers support that others don’t,” he explains.

But Tulsidas made sure his team got past that hurdle early in the process—even before they started working on the redesign project. “We have innovation labs and are always doing R&D,” he says. “We went in well-prepared, as we’d built demo apps and internal websites using [responsive design] technology.”

Ultimately, responsive design saves time and resources by allowing Hertz’s developer team to reuse assets it had already developed. For instance, Hertz is working on an app for Windows 8—but instead of building the app from the ground up, it’s reusing 70% of the source code from iterations of the app designed for other operating systems. “That’s 70% of our time that we save not having to rebuild everything from scratch,” Tulsidas says.

Both Tulsidas and Eckroth say it’s too early in the relaunch to quantify the benefits Hertz has seen, many of which will come as the company rolls out more applications and customers begin to benefit.

Hertz intends to measure consumer utilization and conversions to determine the success of its relaunched sites. “Did we see a spike or some higher usage of mobile than what we’ve [traditionally] seen?” Eckroth says. “The other will be conversion rates of reservations and rentals, and whether there’s an uptick of certain promotions for different devices. And what is it that customers are actually using? Are they using [the mobile sites] to modify or perform the reservation?”

Like responsive design technology, Hertz’s new sites are constantly evolving, as well. As Hertz builds up a history of customer interactions on its revamped sites, the car rental company will be better able to determine what customers like across its web properties and what they don’t like—and this information will inform the company’s online marketing as it adapts its targets and strategies to its best customers.

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