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Best Practices Retail

Ten Best Practices of Online Retailing


February 25, 2002

By Philip Bannister

Philip BannisterAs online retailing has matured and customers have become comfortable with the online shopping experience, a series of best practices has begun to emerge. These practices will ensure that your site remains in the forefront of revenue generation while ensuring a positive client experience.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but after conducting hundreds of competitive Web site evaluations, we have noted that the following 10 practices (if implemented properly) have a meaningful impact on the bottom line and improve customer satisfaction and brand image.

Go to the Buyers - "Location, location, location" is the old adage, and it holds true for the Internet as well. Search engines and e-commerce brokers such as AOL, MSN and Yahoo! are the malls of the Internet. By forging partnerships with these portals, retailers can quickly and cost-effectively gain access to and capture qualified customers who actively seek your products.

In addition, most retailers receive good trademark affinity search results, but miss the boat when it comes to keyword buys. By purchasing the placement of targeted banner ads on a search engine results page, one has the ability to intercept buyers before they select a retailer. If a user searches for "gold plated baby rattles" and you sell them, your site should not only appear in the results page but a targeted banner ad will help reinforce your site as the best option and will speed customer access.

Optimize Home Page Design - Many retailers commit large amounts of precious "above the fold" home page real estate to branding and corporate messaging. Unless you are a new or niche retailer, this is unnecessary and limits your ability to immediately promote saleable products. Identify the products and categories that you want to sell and place them (or compelling links) on your home page to allow visitors quick access to purchase options. Bed, Bath & Beyond does an excellent job of balancing home page layout while including a friendly and useful DHTML product menu navigation system that helps orient visitors and increases the likelihood of quickly finding desired products.

Content Partnerships - Excellent and objective content, such as buying guides, are a simple, cost-effective way to gain user trust, build customer relationships, encourage repeat visits and increase revenue. The travel sites, Travelocity and Expedia, both do an excellent job of forming content partnerships with travel guides like Fodors and Out &About. Another example, if your site sells cooking supplies and there is a culinary school in your area, a simple content partnership can provide robustness to your site, build synergies between common clients and help increase your customer base.

Persistent Shopping Cart - Customers often shop casually, place items to their cart and return later to complete the sale. A lack of the capability to save this information for return visitors negatively impacts the user experience, limits their own ability to complete latent sales and loses critical customer tracking and behavioral data. In addition, returning visitors should receive clear indicators that you recognize them and know that they have items waiting in their shopping cart.

Strong Supporting Images and Content - It is surprising how many sites provide little explanatory documentation to support and close the sale. Since visitors can't closely inspect, touch and try the product online, retailers must close this gap with thoughtful product descriptions, imagery and sales information. It is not uncommon on retail sites to see color swatches without a name (is that green or teal?) or to view a product description that simply states, "boot cut blue jeans." Not only does this limit your ability to complete the sale and improve conversion rates; it creates a poor user experience and negatively impacts your company brand.

Promote Online and Offline Synergies - Circuit City and Target have successfully proven the value of tightly integrating "bricks and clicks" and providing seamless cross-channel customer experiences. Cross branding, inventory management and customer focused pick-up and return policies promote trust, purchasing comfort, good will and an excellent customer service experience. This is a situation where the whole is greater than its parts (sometimes, 2 + 2 does equal 5).

Excellent Store Locator - If you have an engaged and interested customer visiting your site with the sole purpose of locating one of your physical stores, the experience must be simple, quick and helpful. Too many retail sites provide unorganized and less than helpful lists of store locations. Sites like Mercedes Benz lead the pack in providing simple locator tools and excellent results pages that include contact information, maps, directions and local dealer links. If you don't make it easy for your customers to find you, your competition will.

Excellent Search Engine Capabilities - Poor search engine results limit sales and negatively impact the customer's experience. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, 70 percent of visitors use a Web site's search engine and 43 percent stated that it is the most important feature on a site. Many retail sites provide good product search engine capability but don't account for misspellings or functionality and service searches. Often, a user searching for "shipping and return" policies receive no results. It is also critical that search engines sort page results effectively and provide multiple search options such as related links and natural language queries. It's important to support the user in the manner they prefer to search for items.

Clear Customer Support Options - Every customer has a different preference for interacting with retailers. To ensure the completion of a sale and a continued relationship, it is important to provide customer support in the manner each customer desires (e.g. - FAQ's, email, phone, fax, real-time online support and offline store support). Most often, customers won't access these additional services and they add cost to your bottom line. However, these services will create user comfort with the site and reinforce the buying decision. Everything else being equal, if your competitor offers these services and you don't, this could be the deciding factor in retailer selection.

Strong and Relevant Cross Selling - This is a simple way to increase revenue and profit margins. Good retailers pool associated products and make cross sale suggestions to customers because it works. However, many retailers are often caught in the trap of recommending products that are irrelevant or out of stock. Solid product recommendation logic and tight inventory integration is critical or the cross sell will quickly become a lost opportunity, or even worse, a negative customer experience.

If your retail site supports these 10 best practices, you are positioned well against your competition, have a solid foundation and can now focus on site optimization. If not, it's a good time to get started.

Philip Bannister is Product Manager at Organic. Phil manages large program management engagements, establishes and implements project management best practices and methodology, and oversees project managers engaged in other client initiatives. While at Organic, Phil has been the engagement lead for Fannie Mae, JPMorgan Chase, Bloomingdale's, Credit Suisse First Boston and Datastream. Phil has a Bachelor of Mechanical Engineering from Villanova University and MBA coursework from Bentley College.

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