The key to recent redesigns lies in uniting bricks and clicks.
Posted Dec 3, 2004
The distance between clicks and bricks has grown considerably smaller in recent months in the world of e-commerce. When Kmart unveiled a new version of its consumer Web site in the days before Thanksgiving, the company joined a long list of major retailers that have redesigned their sites in 2004: Circuit City, Best Buy, and Wal-Mart's apparel division, to name just a few.
Many of the emerging sites, including kmart.com, are being seen as extensions of the corporate brand, and have been integrated into their parent companies' overall marketing plans, incorporating the color schemes and nuances of offline campaigns into the online environment.
The new Web sites are changing in ways beyond the mere cosmetic: They're providing significant process advantages, both to the retailers and to their customers. In addition to improved navigation and better search capabilities, which nearly every retailer trumpets when relaunching an e-commerce site, several companies explicitly are trying create a common experience for (and gather the transactional data generated by) the multichannel consumer.
Kmart, for one, had a Web site that didn't reflect the same inventory customers could view in its stores--the platform simply couldn't contain the full range of codes for individual products, known as SKUs. "The biggest change had to do with the products," says David Fry, president and CEO of Fry Inc., which designed the new kmart.com site. "Visually, kmart.com reflects the television campaign and the brands, [but] it's really about the new Kmart and emphasizing the product selection they have." The old site, held back by outmoded technology, offered only "rudimentary" categories, he says, while the new site provides not only an increase in the number of products, but enhanced opportunities for Kmart to merchandise those products to shoppers.
Getting those products into the hands of consumers lies at the core of any retailer's agenda, online or off. By viewing the consumer experience holistically, retailers are beginning to see that combined efforts can often yield improved results. "The goal of all e-commerce--not just Kmart's--is that all these things will have a much tighter connection," Fry says. "A synchronized experience between the Web site and the store--that's the Holy Grail of the industry."
Circuit City was another retailer that emphasized its upgraded search and navigation capabilities when it relaunched circuitcity.com in September, but the company also more than tripled the number of products available on its site and took pains to underscore its customer service performance and ties to in-store activities like product pickup. "You have to look at what the purpose of the online experience is," says Chris Colborn, vice president of interaction design at R/GA, an interactive advertising agency that was part of the circuitcity.com redesign. "It's more than just saying 'We have a presence on the Web.' You have to make a level of commitment to the Web experience."
Colborn says consumers come to a product-oriented retail site looking to fulfill two goals: to directly purchase products they're interested in, or to research product decisions they plan to make in the store. Retailers ought to provide the capabilities for both. In redesigning circuitcity.com, he says, a key focus was on determining "how people shopped, [and] how they treat the offline versus the online shopping experience." His team discovered that consumers view "the online experience as an extension of the offline experience," and that there was room for each to improve the effectiveness and the efficiency of the other. "Having that direct integration between the Web experience and the store is a significant aspect," he says. "The right technology on the back end enables this."
Fry cites enhanced product exploration and dynamic visualization tools as major advances in retail Web sites. Both, he says, feed into the consumers' primary objective. "Customers are ravenous for information," Fry says. The key for online outlets, he says, is to remove the "friction" from the experience. "By minimizing the friction [retailers can] make it compelling to complete the purchase."
Colborn suggests that the industry might just be seeing the light. "There's a realization retailers are starting to come to that changes the mindset about how you approach the Web experience," he says. "It's an insight as a retailer of the power of the offline and online to help each other's business."
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