How To Keep Your Website on the Cutting Edge

Published: October 03 2008

By Adam Michelson

The web is changing, and your ecommerce site needs to change with it. Here’s the low-risk way to implement innovative ideas that will drive increased ROI.

As many ecommerce sites celebrate their 10th birthdays, web stores are facing the reality that the internet is changing and current sites need to be refurbished. From left-hand navigation and search to product catalog and product detail, from the cart and checkout to the general design and format — most sites are in desperate need of a makeover. With changes in web innovation being accompanied by drastic changes in the economy, no major vertical has more to gain than ecommerce.Many new ideas are emerging all the time — including social shopping — that not only drive traffic, increase conversion and decrease abandonment, but also increase brand loyalty and provide customer feedback directly to merchants. Ecommerce is changing at a rapid pace. Projects are getting funding, action is taking hold, and innovation is being born.There is considerable pressure to innovate and grow. However, retailers are hesitant to prematurely invest in anything that may harm their current ecommerce sites, which is the basis of the business. The fact that new ecommerce ideas have not yet become part of standard commercial ecommerce software does not calm fears, but the rapid pace of ecommerce innovation makes retailers nervous to stand by and wait.

The testing grounds of microsites

  The hesitation to adopt new concepts fuels the relevance of the microsite. Microsites are testing grounds for new retail concepts, technologies and architectures with unique business models. These sites explore new ideas and brands within their own URL, often only loosely associated or not associated at all with the main ecommerce site.

One of the most important things new retail concept sites must prove is return on investment. In order for this to be successful, the investment and risk involved must be low to protect the main ecommerce site. If the risk and effort remain relatively low, a microsite is the perfect way to explore new retail concepts, brands and technologies.

Let’s take a look at some retail concepts that leverage this technique.

Using RIAs to drive conversion and brand loyalty

 Rich internet applications (RIAs) can be used to enhance customer experience and address the rapidly growing expectations of online shoppers. For example, many ecommerce sites now feature a left-to-right navigation in place of the traditional top-down navigation to reflect the changing shape — from taller to wider — of screens. Sites are also using drop-down carts that keep the shopping experience moving and help increase the average order size.

Another innovative technique — made possible through RIAs — that is being adopted by companies is a smooth outfit configuration tool that uses a dress form as a virtual subject. The feature gives potential consumers the ability to drag and drop various clothing to assemble outfits. Some sites even have features where interactive models spin and twirl as customers mouse over them to show off the looks. Not only are customers able to see what the clothes look like paired together, but many of these tools also allow customers to price the outfits and add them directly to their cart.

American Eagle Outfitter’s site Martin + Osa has these features and more — including models that prance in and out of the frame when a customer filters through collections. This clever, unique and fun feature gives customers a more complete feel for the outfits. Martin + Osa also features a highly effective zoom capability. When zoomed, a product takes up the entire product-detail page and the informational and transactional product detail is opaquely layered on top of the zoomed image.

While this is an interesting take on the zoom feature, it is also highly controversial. Nothing should distract or hinder the customer from purchasing from the product detail page. Interlacing the product zoom image behind product information and order-taking functionality is perfect to attempt first on a retail concept site, but would be considered blasphemy on a major ecommerce site.

Social shopping

  Social shopping is a major focus for retailers today. Most of the current social shopping ideas are derivations of allowing users to put links or very simple widgets on social sites, or they are copycat social networking sites with some basic ecommerce built in. However, the addition of merchant blogs drives search engine optimization and customer loyalty. Additionally, allowing customers to refer to retail products through sites like Facebook, Delicious and Digg has become popular. Despite how mainstream these concepts have become, retailers still struggle with measuring the ROI associated with the techniques.

Done right, social shopping has tremendous monetization. However, most ecommerce solutions do not take into account how customers make their ecommerce decisions. Typically, information architects have a keen understanding of the mindsets of users and can construct optimal user interfaces for them. They worry about how the program is used, how easily information is found and the feelings the program elicits. In order to optimize the social shopping experience, information architects need to begin thinking about this new social state of mind and gain a general understanding of the desired behavior of the group. Retailers have mastered understanding and guiding consumer behavior for in-store shopping; however, their online counterparts are not as in tune.

Some of the successful standard principles in social shopping seem to be that users want to be anonymous, but not alone, creating buzz, but not annoyance. Any feeling of belonging or exclusivity is a good thing. It is a generational phenomenon driven by a younger generation that craves having an online identity. Keeping these characteristics in mind, it is important that the social mindset is identified first and then the features and functionality are created to fit the desired experience.

An example of this is a concept called private event retailing (PER). The events are first-come, first-served, and run for a limited time with a limited inventory. Shoppers are given exclusive access to premium goods at private sale pricing. Being offered a special deal via a limited time event, like in PER, the experience becomes even more exciting because of the exclusivity, setting the stage for a frenzied shopping experience. Updating the site in real time, to show items as they are sold out, drives an emotional mindset for the group. It is a retail concept that spreads virally and effectively taps into crowds.

Retail Convergence, a company with a portfolio of ecommerce sites, wanted to create an invitation-only, event-based ecommerce site. was developed in response to this. The social shopping concepts integrated into the site are innovative and branded specifically to enhance the PER experience.

In addition to the standard ecommerce functions — product catalog, product detail, shopping cart and checkout — focuses on features like how the invitations are sent and how the events are created. Almost all of the effort involved in constructing was spent on the unique retail concept because the back-end ecommerce capabilities leverage services that already exist within Retail Convergence. Time was not wasted on building baseline ecommerce functionality.

Driving a unique brand

  A wide variety of sites are created to drive unique brands. The fundamental idea behind all of them is to push products over a variety of retail concept sites by leverage existing merchandising capabilities, with each one focusing on a different customer demographic. For example, Anthropologie’s site is targeted to a very different audience than its parent company, Urban Outfitters, and Arizona Jeans has a very distinct look and feel from its parent company, JCPenney.

Each site effectively targets different demographics. Both JCPenney and Urban Outfitters are selling their products in very different ways using these distinct digital properties. They are doing so through the use of their core abilities to merchandise products on their sites.

How to build microsites

  Now that we’ve discussed retail concepts, it is time to build the microsite. The effort’s primary focus should be the user interface, with only 20 percent of the effort being devoted to back-end functionality. Do not create a new back-end for your retail concept because it is too hard to maintain. If the previously existing main retail site has the basics — such as checkout, pricing and promotions engines, tax and shipping costs and order management — it should be used to build a new retail platform.

User interface engineers need an interface that can be altered and adapted quickly, with little to no architectural hindrances. If the existing retail platform cannot readily support the back-end ecommerce features, then a lightweight service-oriented architecture (SOA) can be put in place. The SOA can handle the translation of the new retail concept user interface to the back-end of your existing retail store. This should eliminate any difficulties presented by previous back-end features.

With this perspective, a retail concept site provides IT owners with a realistic path to evolve the existing application architecture to a far more agile one — while simultaneously allowing retailers to readily meet the innovation demands and achieve measurable ecommerce growth via retail concept sites.

Adam Michelson serves as the director of ecommerce at Optaros Inc.


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