Conversion tip: Don’t block the product with window signs

My friend Bryan Eisenberg is always telling retailers, “You don’t have traffic problems. You have conversion problems.” When 95+% of the people who come to a site don’t purchase, it’s a hard point to deny. Could giving customers quicker and better access to the product be one way to start to solve the conversion problem? My experience says Yes.

A quick story

Imagine walking into a store and smacking into a giant promotional banner that stretches from the ceiling to chest level. Below it and to its right hang a series of smaller promotional banners. A few feet behind the banners, you see a series of doors with signs above them that appear to represent different product categories. You push through the banners and open the door under the “Dresses” sign. There you step into a room where a flashy video projected on a large wall highlights stylish dresses and beautiful models and also runs copy about the same promotion you saw on the banner at the front of the store. The wall to the right features several smaller signs for various promotions. The wall to the left is littered with 20 or 30 doors, each with a sign above it for what appears to be a type of dress.

Nowhere in the room are there any dresses.

You pass through the door labeled “Casual dresses” and finally see actual merchandise.

Does that story seem ludicrous? Then why is that basically the experience on so many retail websites?

In brick and mortar retail, we use promotional signs in our windows to draw people into the store, where we expertly display lots and lots of product to customers the moment they walk in the door. We certainly reinforce our promotional messages with signage throughout the store, but we never block the product with the signs. On our sites, our promotions seem to be more important than our products. What message are we sending to our customers about the value of our products when promotions get more prominence than the merchandise?

When customers arrive at our home page, they’ve already effectively entered the store. So, why are our “window signs” blocking the product?

Apparel and department store sites seem to have almost uniformly adopted the experience described above, but most other retail sites that I’ve seen don’t stray too far from “the window sign” experience. Consumer electronics and computer sites often feature a few specific deals or featured products, but otherwise they generally follow a similar approach. In fact, about half of the Internet Retailer Top 25 sites on my recent viewing didn’t show any products on their home pages, and the remainder only displayed a very few select products.

Are we missing conversion opportunities by taking too many pages to get to the products?

Certain retail categories, like apparel, books, jewelry and flowers/gifts to name a few, seem to have large customer contingencies who are prone to browsing to see what’s new. Physical stores in those categories absolutely cater to the desire of customers to check out the latest stuff, but the web sites seem to assume customers are only interested in promotions. Or are the promotions simply the result of our own self-interest? What percentage of customers click on the promo spots versus hitting the search box or clicking into a department or sub-department? If it’s a fairly small percentage, perhaps a different approach might pay off.

A case study

When we launched the new last year, we knew that about half our customers came to the store looking for something new to read without a specific book in mind. As a result, we created the Magic Shelf, a virtual and interactive book shelf that housed up to 120 books in an easily browsed application.
And we placed the Magic Shelf in the most prominent position on our home page — front and center. The decision to offer such valuable real estate to this new feature was hardly unanimous, but those of us who supported it won at least enough support to give it a try.

The result? Not only did customers say they loved it, those who interacted with the Magic Shelf converted at a rate 62% higher than those who didn’t. As we dug deeper, we discovered that the reason they converted more was that they viewed about 41% more products than those who didn’t interact with the Magic Shelf. (If you’re interested in more detail, you can download the case study we did with Allurent, the vendor we used to develop the Magic Shelf).

How might the shopping experience change on an apparel site if there was prominently placed virtual rack of some sort that allowed customers to easily browse, on one page, a wide selection of the latest styles? How about virtual jewelry cases or flower bins?

Ann Taylor trendsetting

The new Ann Taylor site design has made some strong strides towards a nice product browsing experience. While they still seem to feature window signs on the home page, their landing pages provide a very nice browsing experience where customers can easily peruse lots of merchandise. The product images are very clean and easy to see, and the page layout lends itself to the ability to occasionally replace one of the product spots with a visible but unobtrusive promo spot. Bravo to Matthew Seigel and the team at!

I’m not sure it’s necessary to replicate a physical fixture to achieve the benefits of great product browsing. To me, the key is giving customers easy access to our merchandise and letting them very easily view lots of different items. That basic concept is something we discovered long ago in the physical retail world. How did we lose sight of it online?

What do you think? What is the thinking at your company? What sites have you seen that do a good job giving access to the product? Or, are the current methods working for you?


  • By Dan Piche, October 6, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    That’s a great post Kevin. Being in the business of bringing relevant messaging to online businesses, I too have often come across businesses that are too eager to offer promotional content and product discounts. In the end they cheapen the value of their offering, undervalue what they have while offering roadblocks between them and the products.
    The only thing that I may add though is to evaluate where the customer is in the purchasing cycle (their frame of mind). If they are eager in buying (entered via a product keyword, or from a specific product campaign), show them the product immediately with a call to action to enter the conversion path. However, for other types of goods that require research before making a purchase (i.e wedding rings) it’s important to have a balance between product offerings and content that makes them feel good about your brand, your company and your products. So make sure to offer them product reviews, newsletter signups, customer reviews and other soft conversions that make them feel comfortable in order to persuade them towards the ‘ready to purchase’ frame of mind.

  • By David Fishman, October 6, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    Could not agree more with you Kevin. Etailers should give consumers different ways to engage with products and supporting content.

  • By Jay Myers, October 6, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

    First off, thank you for your perspective on this subject. I share your point of view and find this article refreshing.
    From my experience, companies struggle with the right balance of product information and marketing. There seems to be at least 3 marketing people for every IA/dev/designer in most retail ecommerce organizations. Since the online space is so much more fluid and open than in-store signage or print, commerce sites can get pummeled by an overabundance of marketing messaging that can cloud product details to the point where a consumer get frustrated or confused and goes elsewhere. Additionally the temptation to make these messages “flash” or “pop” muddies the water even further.
    As a developer (and a consumer), my hope is that the emerging semantic web solves for some of these issues. Creating web pages with meaning should give consumers the tools to more directly navigate to product details they need to make a good purchasing decisions while avoiding unnecessary noise, also giving them the option to enjoy the “window sign” experience if desired.

  • By Christopher Meeks, October 6, 2009 @ 4:51 pm

    I think the comparison to a brick & mortar store is an interesting one.
    If banners and promotional signage draw someone into the store, are they not the same as the homepage? One could argue the signage is Google, but Google does nothing to set the brand presence in the aesthetic mind of the consumers.
    I certainly agree that there isn’t enough of a focus on the content (i.e. products) on e-commerce sites. The content should be the one thing that is immediately available and hopefully valuable.
    I think the strongest statement the Magic Bookcase made was that consumers feel comfortable when they have an online shopping experience that mimics the real world. In every situation, if you can mimic the brick & mortar store’s brand, feel, and customer service, you are headed in the right direction.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 7, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    Thanks for your comments, Dan. I think you make some excellent points about identifying where customers are in the purchase process and providing the appropriate experience for those customers.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 7, 2009 @ 8:50 am

    Thanks for your comment, David. We have so many great products to show to our customers, we definitely want to make sure people can interact with them.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 7, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    Thanks for your comments, Jay. I think you make an interesting point about the staffing balance of marketing folks to information architects and designers. I hadn’t thought of it that way, but that could absolutely be a driver in some of the decisions we make. I’ve also wondered in past posts if “Elitism is the source of poor usability” ( and posited a theory about “tree stumps” that cause us blind spots on our own sites (
    I think your reference to the semantic web is also very interesting. If that experience realizes its potential, I think you are absolutely right that it could be a game changer.
    Thanks again for some very interesting perspectives.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 7, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    Thanks for your comment, Christopher. I see your point about Google and agree. I don’t necessarily suggest a home page have zero promotional messaging, but there should be a balance between that messaging and the products.
    I think you make a great point about the Magic Shelf being immediately intuitive to people. I believe an important fact to remember about websites is that they are really software applications, in many ways like Word or Excel. Except they don’t come with training manuals or training programs, and people don’t generally use them day in and day out. In reality, they are self-serve and that means that have to be really, really intuitive. Of course, that’s easy to say and tough to do. So, any time we can find parallels to experiences already familiar to our customers, we are taking a step in the right direction.
    Thanks again for your comments.

  • By Stephen Cobb, October 7, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Thanks for an insightful post Kevin (and thanks to our mutual friend Bryan Eisenberg for highlighting it on Twitter).
    As Jay observed, it’s all about achieving the right balance. I’m pretty sure additional research would show that sites which are getting the signage/product mix right today are growing traffic and revenue faster than the Top 25 (just one example that comes to mind is ).
    Of course, research also shows that the “right” balance of products and offers varies from visitor to visitor, so customizing the content according to visitor characteristics is one way to make more effective use of precious web page real estate.
    If bricks-and-mortar stores could easily show a different mix of signage and product to different people in the aisles I bet they would. Fortunately, doing this online is entirely possible, from basic segmentation like new versus returning visitor, to brand preference, prior purchase patterns, geographic location, and so on.
    Here’s just one case study: show international visitors signage about the ease of shipping their purchase internationally but use that space for other messaging when the visitor is domestic. As you might expect, the resulting increase in conversion was triple digit (for details see ).
    Thanks again for shining a light on this aspect of online retailing.

  • By Kevin Ertell, October 8, 2009 @ 7:44 am

    Thanks for your comments, Stephen. I think you make a great point about the ability to customize the experience online. I love your example about international vs. domestic visitors. It makes a lot of sense. At Borders, we ended up making a similar adjustment for searchers vs. browsers. Browsers got pages that showed lots of cover views (sans text) of books in rows in a manner that simulated browsing book shelves (this is on landing pages outside of the Magic Shelf). Searchers, though, got more traditional columns views of products with more text to help searchers more quickly identify the items they were looking for.
    Thanks again for your perspective and examples.

  • By Shirley, November 16, 2009 @ 11:37 am

    Excellent description of the mostly painful web shopping experience, the first few paragraphs should be broadcast across the web to warn retailers and soothe shoppers. My pet peeve is the “featured” products that show up when you’ve chosen the retail category you want (eg. women’s shoes). Who cares what the retailer is “featuring”, I want to see the whole range. Staples is a bad one for this.
    These websites seem to think you have all day to browse their pages. The websites are also ugly as in cheap-looking and overly complicated.
    Again, kudos to you for a great satire of entering a retail website, comparing it to entering a store and the absurdities you mention are great.

  • By Kevin Ertell, December 1, 2009 @ 11:18 am

    Thanks for you comments, Shirley. I’m glad you enjoyed my satire. 🙂 I looks forward to seeing more sites improve their customer experience so the story above isn’t so reflective of reality.

  • By signs Virginia, January 21, 2011 @ 3:08 am

    Nice presentation. This is true. In advertising products, make sure that the signs will promote, not hide what you want to sell. Customers should be able to understand and immediately see what your business is all about.

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