Friday, November 21, 2008

More on "Free Shipping"

In the previous post we talked about how "Free Shipping" is increasingly becoming a 'must have', especially around the Holiday Season.

Here are some recent articles that provide additional, interesting information on this topic.

  • More top 100 online retailers offer free shipping (Internet Retailer)
    Almost 70% of the top 100 online retailers in the US offer free shipping (and others offer "almost free" shipping, such as $1 shipments). The number is growing and offers become more aggressive and more broadly applied to the product catalog. Remember that consumers have one wallet: you are competing for the same "holiday budget" that the "big guys" of e-commerce are after. So what they do is indeed relevant.
  • Free Shipping Motivates Holiday Shoppers (Internet Retailer comments on Forrester Research study)
    More evidence that free shipping is a determining factor is deciding where to shop online.
  • Pinching Pennies Online for the Holidays (eMarketer)
    A look at how shrinking budgets are affecting gift buying behaviors for the 2008 Holiday Season.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Holiday Season To Do: free shipping

Try doing your best to offer free or discounted shipping. This is always important for the reasons mentioned below, but it will be particularly important this Holiday season. Consider the following:

  • Expensive Gas = More E-commerce.
    Research has been done showing that people do tend to shop more online when they feel like getting in the car is costing them more money. For example, see Gas Prices Boost E-Commerce.
  • Shipping Costs = #1 Drop-Off Reason.
    There is a lot of evidence indicating that the number one reason for a serious prospect (customer that added products to the shopping cart and began the checkout process) to abandon the order is high shipping charges. For example, see Shopping Cart Abandonment Rises.

So - in practical terms - what can you do?

  • Consider keeping prices a bit higher, but offer free shipping (e.g. ground shipping). Customers often make a final purchasing decision on the total cost of the purchase, not on the initial product price (which is why the drop-off is so high during checkout, when the total cost becomes clear).
  • Let them know! Strongly advertise on your store that you offer free shipping (e.g. with a very visible graphic that becomes part of your store interface)
  • Use free shipping to promote repeat purchases. For instance, consider sending a coupon to those who buy inviting them to purchase again and obtain free, faster shipping (e.g. an electronic coupon that makes "Second Day Air" free). Remember that your margin on a repeat purchase is by definition higher as there are no marketing costs associated with acquiring that customer, since this is an existing customer.
  • Last minute gifts. Consider offering free, fast shipping right before Thanksgiving and Christmas (last minute gifts).

Monday, October 27, 2008

Holiday Season To Do: Clearance and Gift Items

Two quick tips that are easy to implement and can certainly help you make your Web store visitors feel at home during the holiday season: place visible links to clearance and gift items on your store interface, then help them visualize how your products could make some great gifts

Gift Items

It goes without saying that during the holiday season people are looking for gift ideas. We all are, we're short on time, and we need some help. Make it easy for them. Show them that you have plenty of gift items, and tell them why they'll make perfect presents. How? Here are some tips that are really easy to implement, regardless of the e-commerce system that you are using:

  • Add new categories to your category tree. For example: create a new top level category "Gift Ideas", with sub-categories "For him", "For her", "For the kids", etc. then link to them from your category navigation and from graphics positioned in different areas of your store design (e.g. see the example below).
  • Assign products. Take products from your existing catalog and assign them to these additional categories. You don't need to move them there. Just add these categories to the existing category assignments.
  • Make your pitch. Create some "content pages" (from within your e-commerce system or using your favorite HTML editor) that tell people more about the product(s) and how/why they will make a great gift, then link to these pages from the product description (similar products will all link to the same "content pages"). Many times people need some help envision how a specific product can turn into a gift item (especially the less creative of us). Show them how.
    • Do you have a online hardware store? Show customers how stuffing a toolbox with chocolates and colorful gift paper can make a fun gift idea for dad.
    • Do you sell books? Show customers how adding a couple of hand-written recipes to a cookbook can make for a personalized, thoughtful gift for mom

Clearance Items

There's little doubt that this year people will have less money to spend on their Christmas shopping. Show them that they came to the right place: your store has plenty of inexpensive products that they can buy! You offer free shipping? Make it very visible! Special discounts if they order more than $100? Tell them with a graphic they can't miss.

One quick way to convey the idea that you have lots of affordable stuff is to create a "clearance" section where you sell your most discounted products.

  • Make it visible. Use a nice graphic to draw your customers' attention to this area of your store. Remember, the most important aspect of this is that you are conveying the idea that you indeed have plenty of inexpensive products. That they landed on the right store.
  • Cross sell higher margin products. Do your best at cross-selling higher margin products on clearance item pages. A list of cross selling products (e.g. bottom of the page) is definitely NOT the most effective way to do this. The right way to do this is what in fancy terms is often called "contextual merchandising": talk about and link to other products while you are telling a story. That is: build links to other products right into the clearance item description. For example, highlight complementary items. Let's go back to the example above: the "toolbox" in your hardware store is a clearance item: list a few "perfect" additions to the toolbox (e.g. "add a multi-purpose screw driver to this toolbox for just $14.95). The more visual your cross selling is, the better (people tend not to read much).

All is all, anticipating your customer needs ("show me some gift ideas... affordable too!") will take some extra work, but will definitely pay off.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Holiday Season To Do: Optimize Landing Pages

This is the fist of a series of articles that I plan to write over the next month or so on things you might want to look at in order to get your Web store in great shape for the holiday season (or for a big campaign, a new product launch, ... you name it).

So let's get started with the first recommendation: Optimize Your Top Landing Pages

To make things easy, I'm assuming you use Google Analytics for your Web site statistics. If you don't, I'm sure you can find similar reports in your Web analytics program.

In your Google Analytics account select "Content > Top Landing Pages". Print out the report. On the page, GA shows you the following information:

  • URL: the location of the landing page
  • Entrances: how many visitors entered the Web site using that page (these are the total number of visits through that page, not "unique" visits)
  • Bounces: how many of those visits stopped there (the visitor did not visit any other page)
  • Bounce Rate: percentage of bounces on the total number of entrances. That is: the percentage of visits for which that URL was the entry point into your Web site, but which did not lead to any other page view.

Understanding the Bounce Rate

First, spend a few minutes to become a "Bounce Rate" expert! This little piece of information should really become one of your most closely watched statistics as it can make a huge difference on the success of your Web store.

No point in reinventing the wheel: there are lots of great articles out there on the "bounce rate". For instance, here are two by Anil Batra, an expert in Web analysis:

Top Landing Pages and Bounce Rate

Now, let's go back to the report you printed out. How's your bounce rate looking? Do you have any of your Top 10 pages that are showing a bounce rate higher than - say - 60%? Are there any pages that have a particularly low bounce rate (e.g. lower than 30%)? Comparing better performing pages to less performing ones can already give you some insight into what you could try to change to improve the bounce rate on poorly performing pages.

Lowering the bounce rate, even by a little bit, can help you tremendously. For example, imagine you have 1,000 entrances on a certain page and your bounce rate is 50%. 500 of those users never see another page. There are exceptions to the rule, but in most cases those are "lost" visitors. They came and went. Just like that. Let's call them "inactive" visitors.

If you lowered your bounce rate on that same page to 40%, you would turn 100 of those visitors into "active" users of your Web site. Do the math based on your average Cost Per Click, and this could mean hundreds of dollars (how much would it cost you to acquire 100 "active" visitors through a different marketing campaign?).

Lowering your Bounce Rate through Better Navigation

There are many articles out there about optimizing your landing pages (run a search on this): page optimization can certainly help you lower your bounce rate, and you should definitely spend time optimizing your top landing pages.

Here, however, I'd like to focus on something that can affect a higher number of pages and that is particularly important for an online store: the Web store's navigation.

Improving your navigation does not take that much time to accomplish (compared to individually optimizing graphics and written copy on potentially dozens of landing pages), and can affect a high number of your pages at once, assuming your store uses a template that is dynamically "pulled-in" by most pages (which is typically the case).

Therefore, it is crucial that your store contains good, appealing navigation so that a visitor that lands on the "wrong" page is invited to check out other content available on the Web store.

The following are some suggestions on what to do to improve your store navigation.

  • Multiple navigation tools: one way to immediately improve your navigation is to offer visitors multiple ways to navigate your store. For example: graphically well designed images in top area of your layout could contain a "call to action" to check out store specials, Holiday promotions, etc. Text links in your left and/or right side columns can prompt the customer to navigate by price, gift ideas (who's not looking for a gift idea around the Holidays?), new arrivals, best sellers, best reviewed products, ... you name it.
  • Advanced Users: Section Specific Navigation. Check with your e-commerce vendor on whether you can place code in your store's graphical interface that would allow you to show different information (e.g. different links, different graphics, different "call to actions") based on the area of the store in which that the page being loaded is located. For example, if the landing page is a digital camera, a graphical or text link "Gift Ideas: great accessories for your digital camera" could be displayed: a "Check me out" element (see below) that could successfully call users to action. Ask your e-commerce vendor (or you Web site consultant) for more information on how to accomplish this.
  • "Check me out" Interface Elements: these are cool little banners (e.g. 150 by 100 pixels) that you could have in your left and/or right side column and that invite visitors to click and learn more. For example: a nice graphic that promotes 'clearance' items or free 'next day air' shipping on some items. You could even employ some simple JavaScript to make them rotate
  • Search: there are people that like to browse and people that like to search. Make sure that you have a "search box" immediately visible in your Web store interface (e.g. top center: see Optimizing your search box).
  • Overall Site Appeal: is the "bounce rate" pretty high (e.g. over 60%) on all of your top landing pages? Let's assume your products or services are not the issue. People want them. Why are they leaving so soon, then? Try to find out. To start, ask your friends to give you an honest opinion on your Web store: could it use a redesign? The graphical interface might need to be updated. Sometimes it does not take much. Maybe a redesign of the top portion of your Web store interface is all you need (rather than a full Web site redesign).

Let's recap

Look at your top landing pages and use the "bounce rate" as a guide to determine what's inviting visitors to stick around and what isn't. There are certainly many ways to optimize pages and reduce the "bounce rate". Updating and improving your Web store navigation can be a good place to start as it affects virtually every page in your Web store.

Monday, September 22, 2008

What is my Web store really going to cost?

How much will it really cost you to run an e-commerce store or switch to a new e-commerce system? Of course, there are several variables to keep into account (jump to the calculator):

  1. The cost of the e-commerce system itself (licensed or hosted)
  2. The cost of hosting your Web store (often included if you subscribe to a hosted system)
  3. The cost of securing the store (SSL certificate, McAfee Secure, etc.)
  4. The cost of processing transactions online (merchant account, transaction fees, etc.)
  5. The cost of moving data to the new e-commerce system, if you are upgrading or need to transfer information like products or customers from your accounting or ERP system.
  6. The cost of having somebody help you on a consistent basis tweak and/or update your e-commerce system (if needed). I'm not talking about adding products or managing orders, but rather install new versions or modify existing features.
  7. ...

The biggest decision of all is definitely whether to use a licensed or a hosted e-commerce solution. It remains a tough call and you should analyze benefits and limits of either approach. There's no winner, but there are big differences between the two types of e-commerce solutions (read more).

Choosing a licensed versus a hosted system can have a big impact on the cost of the solution too, and it's sometimes hard to see it at first. You really need to keep a medium term view of the matter to get a good idea of the cost differential.

To help you in this process, if you are looking for start a Web store, upgrade an existing store, or switch to an entirely new e-commerce solution, we've recently updated our "Total E-Commerce Cost Calculator" on our Early Impact Web site. Check it out, see if it can help you, and post back your comments or suggestions to improve it.

Calculate the cost of choosing different e-commerce solutions >>

Friday, September 12, 2008

Comparing credit card processing fees

I recently ran across a service that could be useful to e-commerce businesses. TranFS claims to be "an online comparison shopping business for small business financial services. Think of us as an Priceline or Travelocity [...]: we help small businesses compare and purchase financial services (such as payroll processing, credit card processing and business loans)." Sounds interesting.

I tried out their "Credit Card Processing" calculator.

It's not clear to me if they put everything into the calculation or not. With "everything" I mean: merchant account monthly fee, payment gateway account monthly fee, fixed and variable transaction fees. Assuming they do, according to the tool at Early Impact we are paying way too much. We'll have to look into it :-)

Similarly to services like, it appears that you can submit some information about you and what you need, and they get you a few quotes from competing service providers. The system is still in BETA and there is not much information about the company on their About Us page. There is a phone number you can call for more information.

It might be worth a look if you believe to be paying credit card processing fees that are too high.

BuyerZone and VendorSeek appear to be offering a similar services.

If you end up switching your Internet Merchant Account provider, make sure that they can work with a payment gateway that is supported "out of the box" by your shopping cart. Otherwise you could drive yourself into a messy situation.

If you try any of these services, please post back so others can learn from your experience.



Disclaimer: I have not spent time digging into the TranFS service to see how accurate or dependable it is. I have also not submitted our company information to receive bids from matching service providers (too busy: we're in the middle of a software release). I have not tried the BuyerZone and VendorSeek services either.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Tips & Tricks: Home page design workshop with Borders

I love huge redesign projects (as long as it's not our Web site getting redesigned). There's often a lot to learn from good companies releasing a new version of a Web site or a Web store. Both good ideas to keep in mind and mistakes to avoid.

A couple of months back we focused on how apparel giant Eddie Bauer had updated their Web store. Now, let's look at what books & music powerhouse Borders has come up with.

Why? Because a $3.8 billion dollar company like Borders has a lot more money and human resources than you and I to spend on figuring out the best way to redesign their store. They spent a year on the project, and recently re-launched their storefront. When that kind of thing happens, I'm listening.

Let's see what they've done and whether there is something we can learn from their experience, and maybe apply it to our own e-commerce Web sites.

Specifically, we're going to focus on their new home page. There are 5 things that I want to point out about their new home page design.

(1) Search

As mentioned here, many leading e-commerce stores are now placing the "small search box" centrally, in one of the most important, most visible areas of the store design. That's simply because search is absolutely key, as many studies have shown. If I were you, I'd do the same.

Interesting how they put a category drop-down next to the keywords input field. That's a good idea too, in my view, and easy to implement on your Web store as well. Specifically, if you have a bit of experience with HTML, you should be able to rather easily change the HTML form that makes up the search box to include a category drop-down. In a nutshell:
  • Visit the advanced search page on your store (most e-commerce systems have one)
  • Save the page with your browser
  • Open it in an HTML editor
  • Look at the code used for the category drop-down (assuming there is one)
  • Copy and paste it in your small search box, then style it to make sure it looks OK.
  • That will do the trick in most cases. If not, ask your Web designer to help you.
(2) Tell them what's new!

If you've got new and existing stuff happening on your Web store, tell your customers! Don't expect that they'll find out. It's not a bad idea to place a visible interface element right at the top of the Web store design, just like Borders did, and then link to a page that talks about what's new. For example, this page could talk about...
  • New products or categories of products
  • New promotions
  • New reviews that have been written about your products or services
  • Changes you've made to your Web site (e.g. how to use a new feature), etc.
  • ...
Be proactive about informing your customers about what's happening on your Web site, or within your company. This is not only important as you're providing useful information, but also relevant marketing-wise, since it delivers the idea that yours is a dynamic business that you keep investing on!

(3) Main category navigation

In most cases, it doesn't make sense to have a huge category tree available on your home page (even if it's a fly-out menu). Instead, only present the main categories. Don't overwhelm the customer, but rather invite them to simply click for more information.

On the landing page you can certainly help them locate the exact place they want to go to with a list of subcategories and other ways to browse (e.g. browse by price, browse by brand, etc.) or search within the selected category.

This brings about an important topic: should navigation be different on your home page? Yes. It should. Pay attention when you visit most of today's leading e-commerce stores, and you will see this pattern repeated over and over. The home page is typically a very different page from the rest of the store, in terms of how navigation is presented.

And this prompts the next question: should the home page be a page you control completely? Should it not be controlled by whatever template system controls the rest of your Web store? Yes, in my view, it should. Your home page is crucial. It should be a page that you:
  • manage yourself (e.g. using an HTML editor)
  • update regularly (e.g. weekly)
  • does not use the same navigation menu as sub-pages
  • presents information in a graphically engaging way that invites the visitor to "come in"
Of course, it needs to be graphically consistent with the rest of the Web store, but it does not need to be managed through your e-commerce system. Will this create more work for you? Yes, but it's worth the investment. Your home page is too important.

(4) Magic Shelf

The main area of the Border's new home page is what they call the "Magic Shelf". Designed in Abobe® Flash®, it allows the visitors to browse featured products in a few different categories without even leaving the home page.

The idea is to replicate the experience you have when you walk into a Borders store and spend a few minutes looking at the main displays where they're presenting new products or pushing hot selling items.

This is certainly not a "must have" on a Web store. Having a few featured products and categories on your home page will work just fine. As long as your graphics are nice and your marketing pitch is compelling, your home page will successfully invite a lot of visitors to learn more.

That said, the "Magic Shelf" is a pretty cool idea. I like it. In my view, it successfully helps replicate the "let's see what's new and what's selling" experience that many of us have when they walk into a bookstore.

Can you do it on your store?
Does it have to be done in Flash?

  • Yes, you can do it too!
  • It's not easy to do. You're going to need an expert hand to help you.
  • It does not have to be done in Flash. Flash is one option, but not the only one.
  • In fact, I would rather use JavaScript and CSS to accomplish a similar effect, and in a more search engine friendly manner too! Technical users: check out the Tabbed Panels Widget in the Spry framework (look at the vertical tabs example).
(5) The rest of the page...

Nothing compelling in the lower part of the page. I doubt a lot of people even look at it. The top is where most clicks will happen. However, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that you should not have a "bottom" area on your home page.

In fact, the "bottom" area of your home page is very important. That's where you need to place well-written, well-organized textual content that will serve two purposes:
  1. Tell visitors there's "a lot more" to view, read and buy on your Web store.
  2. Tell search engines what you store is about.
Number 2 is key. Lots of graphics at the top of your home page are fine and make a lot of sense as a strong "welcome" to your store visitors. But it's important to accompany them with well-written textual content in the lower part of the home page.

Imagine that you're serving the page to two completely different visitors: potential buyers will like the top (graphics, Flash animations, you name it!); search engines will mostly ignore it and focus on the bottom (text).

Happy home page redesign!

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Tips & Tricks: Leveraging Gift Certificates

Automatic new customers
Electronic Gift Certificates (paper ones too, for that matter) can be a great way to acquire new customers.

When an existing customer buys one for a friend, the friend is an automatic (and FREE) customer acquisition (unless they were already shopping with you).

When a new customer buys a gift certificate for a friend, you acquire two customers in one shot.

Motivate them to buy Gift Certificates!
Given that the customer acquisition cost is ZERO for the new customer and that there is normally a real cost associated with acquiring a new customer for your business (very roughly: total monthly marketing expenses / total new customers per month), you can afford to build incentives into your offering.

For example, you could launch this promotion:

- If you buy a Gift Certificate
- ... and it is redeemed by a new customer
- ... we will give you another Gift Certificate for FREE

... where the redemption value for the second Gift Certificate should be lower than your average customer acquisition cost. E.g. they buy a $50 Gift Certificate, the person redeeming the Gift Certificate is a new customer -> you give the first customer a $10 Gift Certificate free of charge.

If you think about it, it's not unlike giving an affiliate a bounty for referring a new customer. The "affiliate" here is the existing customer that buys a Gift Certificate for a friend. The "bounty" is the free Gift Certificate that you give him once you have ensured that the referred friend was indeed a new customer.

Try it and see how it goes!

Why Not?
Even if Gift Certificates are not common in your industry, offering them is a typical "why not" paradigm: they don't hurt anyone, why not making them available? What do you have to lose? Nothing, other than taking a few minutes to set them up and make them visible in your store navigation.

If the name "Gift Certificate" sounds funny in your industry, just call them "My Store Dollars" or whatever you want :-)

Comparing shopping carts: this is one to look at
So if you are looking for a new shopping cart system or considering upgrading your existing e-commerce Web site, this is definitely a feature to keep in mind.

Not all e-commerce software out there includes the right kind of support for Gift Certificates. In fact, most e-commerce solutions don't.

Here are some of the features to look for:

- ability to easily add/edit Gift Certificate products
- ability to specific electronic vs. paper Gift Certificates (the latter require shipping)
- ability to specify whether the purchased Gift Certificate expires or not, and when
- automatic generation of a unique Gift Certificate code upon purchase
- find/view/edit purchased Gift Certificates
- allow customers to notify the recipient during checkout, with a custom note
- allow the recipient to partially redeem a Gift Certificate

Advanced features that it might be nice to have:

- ability create the GC code through an external script
- ability to import existing Gift Certificates (redemption code and value)
- ability to instantly generate multiple Gift Certificates in your administration area
(so you can print the redemption codes on paper Gift Certificates if you want to)

Get ready now
Gift Certificates become key around the holiday season. Don't wait until the fall to get your store ready for them. Get ready now. Start learning how to best take advantage of the Gift Certificate features in your e-commerce system.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Your store on your blog

Look on the right side of this page. See the "E-commerce solutions" section with the ProductCart logos? It's here not to promote my company (I promise), but rather to show you a (cool) little tool that we recently developed at Early Impact.

It allows you to very easily and quickly take some products from your store catalog, and show them on your blog (or other Web pages not related to your store).
  • If you are a ProductCart user, learn more here about the E-Commerce Widget For Blogs
  • If you don't use ProductCart, ask your e-commerce provider if they have something similar or if they can create it in the near future. It's not that difficult to design and it can be quite helpful.

How it works
For the techies out there: we like Adobe's SPRY framework for AJAX quite a bit and our E-commerce Widget for Blogs was created leveraging SPRY. Among other things, the built-in pagination is really cool, in my view (the widget on this page has 2 pages, for example).

Blogging and e-commerce
If you have a Web store, and still don't have a blog, consider adding one. Blogging can help you grow sales in a variety of ways, from better organic search engine rankings (search engines typically love blogs since they're mostly text), to further establishing yourself as a go-to place in your industry, to creating a more personal relationship with your customers.

Tips & Tricks: E-mail to sale: can you track it?

When it comes to marketing your e-commerce store, there is little doubt that understanding where your sales come from is key. Key to investing your marketing dollars as effectively as you can. Key to understanding what works and what doesn't (e.g. web pages, e-mail messages, etc.).

Web to sale
Google Analytics, by allowing you to integrate the e-commerce portion of your Web site into your Web statistics, does a nice job in trying to associate Web sources and sales. That is: if your shopping cart can communicate to Google Analytics that a sale occurred, you can then see which keywords entered in a search engine, for instance, turned into orders on your storefront.

This is really important information. For instance, you can focus on optimizing the landing pages that those keywords lead to in an attempt to reduce the bounce rate and increase the sales that come from those visits.

E-mail to sale
What about the large amount of visitors to your store for whom a program like Google Analytics cannot detect where they are coming from? It's typically a lot of unique visitors. What can you do to try to understand how they ended up on your Web site? Was it just word of mouth or marketing dollars you spent, for example?

Take all the e-mail marketing you do. A monthly newsletter, for instance. Or a e-mail promotion run through a third party. Many times those links simply do not contain enough information for your Web statistics program to understand where the corresponding clicks came from.

Luckily, you can rather easily add more information to the links and track them much more effectively.

Meet the URL Builder
If you - like many - use Google Analytics, one thing that you might not have heard of is the URL Builder. It's a simple Web page that helps you add meaningful, trackable information to your links.

Detailed instructions on how to use the URL Builder are available at the bottom of the page.

A tool like this can be really helpful. It can tell Google Analytics that your "April 2008 e-mail newsletter" - for example - triggered a certain amount of visits to your store. Once the traffic source is known, it's then used for all sorts of other statistics. So if any of those visits turn into a sale, Google Analytics will show it to you in the e-commerce reports.

Spend a bit more time preparing your links with a tool like the Google Analytics URL Builder whenever you send an e-mail to existing or new customers. You'll be surprised of how much more information you'll be able to learn from the clicks that originate from the mailing.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Tips & Tricks: Store design workshop with Eddie Bauer

The design of your store is a crucial element of its success. It affects how people react when they first land on your store pages. It drives their clicks. It influences their confidence level. It ultimately, directly affects what they do, including whether they decide to buy or not.

We all agree? OK, let's talk about Eddie Bauer. Why? Because they've had some serious problems over the last few years (including a bankruptcy), and when you've got serious problems, you dig deep to find out why. Including finding out why people are not spending more time on your Web store, and redesigning it completely.

That's exactly what they did and that's why we are interested. They spent months looking into what cold be improved. Conducted tons of interviews. Spent time and money you and I don't have looking for great design ideas. Hey, there's definitely something to learn here! (There is a really interesting story about it on the Internet Retailer Web site, which you should read)

With annual, online sales of over 200 million a year according to Internet Retailer's Top 500 Guide, Eddie Bauer's Web store is certainly not the kind of Web operation that a small business would run. So why should we talk about it here? Because store design doesn't have anything to do with size. Even if your store does a few thousand dollars a month in sales, it should still look great. A great design will help it grow. A bad one will hamper its growth potential.

So, let's get started. What can we learn from Eddie Bauer's substantial redesign?

Minimalist Design
Eddie Bauer chose a very clean, almost minimalist design for the new store. The product and category graphics do the talking (see below). The navigation is extremely simple to start, then gets busier as you get deeper into the product catalog. But the idea is that you don't want to make the customer feel overwhelmed when they land on your home page: just a few design elements to grab the visitor's attention, plus simple navigation (just a few choices) and a search box. That's it.

Technical note: the beauty of a "minimalist" design, among other things, is that the underlying source code is typically quite simple as well. And that leads to faster page-loading time, fewer cross-browser rendering issues, and easier design maintenance. The simpler the design, the more likely you are to manage virtually everything in an external style sheet without going nuts!

To Do: is your store design too busy? Are you trying to fit too much stuff in the various areas of the design (e.g. top, left side, right side, etc.). Consider removing many of the elements that are not crucial. For example, move them to the footer (e.g. if someone wants to log in, they'll look around for the log-in box, it does not have to be that prominent).

Simple Navigation
Eddie Bauer has a huge catalog, yet they narrowed it down to 5 top-level categories. Click on "Men" and you get 20 sub-categories, which is a manageable number too, especially because they opted for a nice layout that combines a horizontal AND a vertical element to it. I like it. Not overwhelming, clean, and definitely search engine friendly.

To Do: consider reducing the number of top-level categories. Study your Web analytics reports to see which categories are the most visited, and build the navigation keeping that in mind too. Possibly hire a developer to help you build a dynamic navigation tree that expands/collapses automatically depending on which category is currently being displayed.

Prominent Search Box
Simple navigation must go with readily available search. As you can see, the two are right next to each other in the Eddie Bauer redesign: navigation on the left, search box on the right. See optimizing your search box for more thoughts on this.

To Do: make sure that your search box is very visible, and that your search feature works well. Look, if there is one good reason to look for better e-commerce software is that many small biz shopping carts contain terrible, lousy search features. Category AND product results should always be shown, along with a way to narrow the search.

Graphics Are Crucial
Graphics play a huge part in your store interface. Look at some of the masters in Internet marketing, and you'll find the same focus on big, awesome-looking graphics. Apple is the king in this area, Crate & Barrel does an awesome job too. Especially on the main landing pages, like your store home page and top-level category pages. Cool, sharp-looking graphics invite clicks, convey quality, and build positive expectations for what's next.

What about search engine optimization? Isn't text more important than graphics for SEO? Yes, it is. But a big graphic can have a really small footprint in your source code, as you probably know (it could be just 1 line, loading a JPG image). Text can follow. In the browser, the text could appear even below the browser fold line. To a search bot, it makes virtually no difference. To a visitor to your store, it could change the experience of landing on your home page completely. So, add a good ALT tag to the graphic, and don't worry about SEO.

What about page-loading time issues? Well, don't add crazy-big images, but with broadband becoming more and more mainstream, loading a 20K versus 80K JPG not longer makes the difference that it used to make.

To Do: consider adding large, beautiful graphics to your home page and top-level category pages.

Clean up, simplify, and add better, larger graphics.

Look around at many of the most successful e-commerce stores today and you'll see that this trend (clean, simple, graphical) is repeated all over the place. That's what triggers clicks. That's what makes store visitors stick around longer and come back more often. And that's something you can do today, independently of whatever e-commerce software you are using.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Yahoo! + Microsoft: what it could mean for small business e-commerce

What could the Microsoft + Yahoo! merger mean for small business e-commerce?

Let's take a look.

Microsoft's Office Live offerings include hosting and Web site building services for small businesses. Office Live (as of today) does not include any hosted e-commerce services.

In addition, Microsoft has never offered a licensed small business e-commerce system. In other words, Microsoft is not currently a player in the small business electronic commerce solutions market. Different story with Yahoo!

Yahoo! Stores has been around for years. It's definitely not the best small business e-commerce solution out there, but it's good enough for many, and thanks to its big brand has accumulated over 40,000 subscribers.

So, will Microsoft simply roll Yahoo! Stores into Office Live, assuming the merger goes through? It's not that simple.

Yahoo! Stores uses a difficult (according to many), proprietary programming language called RTML (Real Time Markup Language), which is unknown to most Web developers. That's because it was developed by the company that originally created what later became Yahoo! Stores. The company was Viaweb, bought by Yahoo! in 1998.

I doubt Microsoft will want to keep using RTML. It simply would not be consistent with the overall .NET strategy, which is an integral part of Microsoft's strategy for the Internet.

With tons of developers on hand, developing an equivalent to Yahoo! Stores in ASP.NET will not take years. In fact, given the somewhat limited feature set, it will probably take less than 6 months (I'm thinking of a team of 40-50 senior developers). Or they might decide to do it by acquisition, picking up some existing small business e-commerce software (*), and developing internal tools to migrate existing Yahoo! Stores account to the new platform.

So here is my small business e-commerce prediction out of the Yahoo! + Microsoft merger:

- Yahoo! Stores is rolled into Office Live
- RTML is gradually phased out
- Office Live Stores is rewritten in .NET

Now the big question: if the merger does not happen, am I supposed to delete this? Sorry, just kidding... the question is: will Microsoft want to become a player in this space? If the Yahoo! merger goes through, yes, I believe they will. And an aggressive one too.

(*) Hey, Microsoft, if you decide to buy some e-commerce software for this project, let's talk. ProductCart costs less than $31 a share, I promise. And we can yodel too!

A few weeks after I wronte this, Microsoft actually did release a hosted e-commerce service, called Store Manager. It's a pretty basic service (very small feature set), and follows a revenue model that's almost identical to Yahoo! Stores (monthly fee + 1% of sales). Yet another "me too" product by Microsoft, and a lost opportunity. One more service that competes directly with Yahoo! The two probably would end up getting merged into one small biz e-commerce offering did the companies decide to get married (no wedding date yet, as I write this).

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Targeted stores work

An article I recently read about NetShops caught my eye. In case you don't know them, NetShops is a company that runs over 200 very targeted Internet stores.

Each store is totally focused on a specific niche. Are you looking for a coffee table? There's a store just for that. Don't know where to put your bottles of wine? There's a store that is dedicated to wine racks. Tired and need a break? Head to the hammocks store.

Their strategy has proven very successful, and they keep adding new, niche-oriented stores to their portfolio.

When I first started blogging, the reason for it was mostly that I wanted to point out something that I see over and over on my job: Internet retailers that focus on a niche - if they know their stuff - will be successful. If they are not focused, or forget to stay on track, they have a much harder time.

There are many reasons why this is the case. If you have a few minutes, go back to The niche is the trick (first part) and The niche is the trick (second part) for more on the subject.

The story is not going to change in 2008. If anything, social networking (the idea of people coming together on the Net based on something they have in common) will make this even more true. Stay focused on what you know best. Become more and more the "go to" Web site in your niche (or at least one of them). It will pay off.

Some ideas:

- First and foremost: write good copy for your Web site, keep it current and make sure it is effectively indexed. Your home page should contain some of it, and change regularly to link to the new articles you have written. Those articles should link to products and categories in your store. Basic, extremely effective search engine optimization, without doing anything special.

- Create a community around your store by allowing visitors to write product reviews, post on a forum, and maybe even collaborate on a wiki. These are all things that have become quite easy and inexpensive to implement.

- If you haven't already done so, start a blog on the subject, then link to it from your main Web site.

- Consider attending industry trade-shows. Start small, see if the ROI is there. Given the cost of Internet marketing these days, spending a few thousand dollars on target offline marketing might turn out being money well spent.

And if your Web store ends up being one of the leaders in your niche, NetShops might even write you a check :-)