My Favorite Sites of the Year

It’s the end of the year and the end of an amazing decade for e-commerce. So, in keeping with the time-honored tradition of awarding “bests” at the end of the year, I’m listing some of my favorites sites and site features of the year. I always enjoy discovering new sites and techniques when I read other people’s lists like this, so I hope you’ll find something interesting in my web award show.

The overall best e-commerce site award goes to:

Moosejaw.com

Moosejaw has it all. They’ve done an excellent job creating a very intuitive site that provides lots of options to narrow your selection; you can easily sort by price, color, size and brand. They have lots of what they call “custy reviews” available for their products, and you can even choose a “custy reviews” search/browse results page that highlights recent reviews in the product listing. Moosejaw has a great checkout process that does a good job of guiding the customer through the process, and their error messaging is clear and easy to understand. And no commentary on Moosejaw would be complete without mention of their Madness section, which is full of wacky content that keeps you coming back for more. In a final stroke of branding brilliance, Moosejaw provides free Moosejaw flags to anyone who requests them, and encourages people to take photos of themselves with Moosejaw flags at the height of their adventures, literally, like at the top of a mountain. What a brilliant way to make your customers your greatest marketers. As a final point of support for this award, when I asked people around the office for their favorites sites, Moosejaw was by far the most common choice.

Runner-up

Net-a-Porter

Net-a-Porter shows they understand how their customers shop, and they understand that the self-service experience of the web requires extra attention. They have a prominent “What’s New” section, and their landing pages get right to the products (without lots of “window” signs screaming about promotions). Each item in the listing has an alternate view when hovering over it, which is becoming fairly common, but Net-a-Porter uses and alternate view that features the item being worn rather than just showing it from the back. When you click through to the product pages, there are many more product views and some items have an excellent video of a model walking in the clothes so customers can see how the clothing looks in action. Finally, there are details about how items fit and an invitation to contact a “Fashion Advisor” for more help if you need it.

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Best use of video:

K-Swiss

I’ve always wondered why more sites don’t do what K-Swiss is doing with their product videos. Namely, use them as the primary image for the product when they’re available.

When you arrive at a product page that features a video (which, unfortunately, isn’t all of them) the video launches immediately and shows a model walking in the item. You can easily switch the view to see her walking from the front, from either side and from the back.  And best of all, there’s not sound that could get a workplace shopper in trouble. 🙂 K-Swiss also features multiple static images of product to ensure customers are getting as much information as possible.

Runner-up

Ice.com

Ice.com is also making excellent use of video and using it as their primary image when a video is available. And they’re getting great results. Ice’s Pinny Gniwisch reports conversion rates jumping a whopping 400% after customers view a video, and return rates drop 25% for products with videos. Video really helps give customers a much better understanding of what they’re buying, which helps to remove one more barrier to purchasing products online. I’m really impressed with the quality of the short videos they’re producing, as well. The folks at Ice.com clearly understand the value of video, and they’re making the right investment to improve their business.

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Most interesting merchandising tool:

Polyvore

Polyvore is not a retailer, but that doesn’t mean there’s not something to learn from or leverage what they’re doing. They call themselves “a fashion community site that lets you mix and match products from any online store to create outfits or any kind of collage. It is also a vibrant community of creative and stylish people.” They have a really cool drag and drop capability that let’s visitors “create looks” from product feeds from many different retailers. Essentially, the visitors become merchandisers, and they’re looks are posted to be voted on and commented on by the community. The best looks rise to the top. There are some really amazing collections, and of course each product has a buy button. Polyvore is now making their technology available to retailers, as can be seen in Charlotte Russe “Design Your Outfit” section.

Runner up:

Hunch

Hunch is also not a retailer, but as with Polyvore, there’s lots to learn and leverage. Hunch describes themselves as “a decision-making tool that gets smarter the more you use it. After asking you 10 questions or less, Hunch will provide a concrete result for decisions of every kind.” Basically, they ask you a series of questions and then provide product recommendations that match. The general concept is not new, but Hunch’s implementation is the best I’ve seen and it gets better the more it’s used. They’re using the community to build and refine the question sets, and they’re covering a massive range of topics. The whole experience is really addictive.

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Most proactive:

Restaurant.com

Poorly written error messages are the bane of the web and a shameful way to lose sales, as I’ve previously discussed. But even well written error messages can be annoying because they come after the fact. Restaurant.com has taken a proactive approach in their account creation process. As a visitor enters a form field, a small box appears to the right giving the user detailed descriptions about what’s expected to be entered and, when appropriate, giving the reason why it’s important. Try it out to see how helpful it is.

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I could go on and on about lots of great features on a lot of different sites, but the seven above really stood out for me as great examples worth checking out.

But there are tons of great sites I haven’t even seen.

What sites stand out for you? I would be grateful if you’d use the comments section to share your favorites with the rest of us.

“Obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings”

We’ve all heard the cliché “hindsight is 20/20” a thousand times. And it’s pretty much true. It’s a lot easier to figure out the path to a particular event when you know the final outcome. But if “what happened” is something bad, determining the reason after the fact doesn’t change the negative event.

How can we do a better job finding those problems in advance of our next new strategy implementation, site redesign, store remodel or other big effort?

It’s worth digging a little deeper to better understand why our hindsight is so perceptive. One of the most famous cases of 20/20 hindsight comes from the investigation into the attacks on Pearl Harbor (although, we could also argue the investigation into 9/11 and the more recent Fort Hood shootings have many similarities). In her book Pearl Harbor: Warning and Decision, noted military intelligence historian Roberta Wohlstetter wrote “it is much easier after the event to sort the relevant from the irrelevant signals. After the event, of course, a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

Of course, Pearl Harbor was an unexpected disaster that seemingly came out of nowhere. While we have those occasionally in business, more often than not our “disasters” come from strategies, redesigns or promotions that did not perform as expected. And those expectations can also lead to our blindness.

Whenever we’re implementing some new and exciting strategy, we tend to be very optimistic about the results. We’re convinced these new strategies are going to provide positive returns or we wouldn’t be implementing them. That optimism can lead to the same sort of crystal clear signal Wohlstetter referenced, but in the opposite direction; i.e. we tend to only see how everything we’re doing will lead to greatness and can easily overlook variables that have potential to lead to negative outcomes.

So, what do we do about it?

It seems some of the most common solutions today involve pulling together a committee to review what went wrong and putting together processes to prevent those specific problems in the future. These new processes don’t prevent all potential problems in the future, but with any luck they’ll prevent us from repeating the same mistakes.

But all of that happens after the fact.

There’s got to be a better way. My problem with the “committee and new process” approach is there’s a tendency to introduce lots of new and –all too often — needless bureaucracy. Inefficiencies ensue without greatly decreasing the probability of problem-free future efforts.

A technique I’ve found effective invokes much of the clarity of hindsight by drawing on the power of imagination.

During the ROI process for the strategy or project, we’ve already imagined the positive outcome. So before we wrap up planning, let’s also imagine a couple horrific scenarios. For example, imagine that four or five months after a site redesign, sales are down 50% and customer satisfaction has tanked. What happened? Now let’s assemble the same type of committee we would in that scenario and pour over the plan to find the causes of our imagined disaster.

Some might say this technique is really just standard contingency planning, but I find some pretty big differences. Contingency planning tends to look at the current plan to identify execution risks. It doesn’t often uncover key strategic or design problems.

The Scenario Imagination technique provides us with a different sort of lens that taps into our hindsight abilities to separate the signal from the noise.

We certainly won’t find every potential problem, but every problem we mitigate increases our probability of success and reduces our risk. And if we can reduce a lot of risk without strangling ourselves in bureaucracy, we’ll likely lower costs, increase efficiencies, and increase profits. I like the sound of that.

What do you think? Have you run into these types of issues? Do you think this technique would work for you? Do you have any techniques you would like to share?

Photo credit: me’nthedogs

“If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looking hard enough”

The poor economy has done nothing to lower customer expectations of online retailers, and recent mixed results data from ComScore and ForeSee Results indicate that retailers who continue to improve their customer experiences are pulling away from their competitors in both sales and customer satisfaction.

ComScore reports online retail up 4% for the holiday season. While an increase is always nice, this is a much lower growth rate than online retail has seen in the past. And last year’s comparison base was far from stellar. ForeSee Results shows a significant drop in customer satisfaction year over year. Since satisfaction is predictive of future financial results, a drop is concerning.

But still, I wondered how sales could be up at all if satisfaction was so far down.

A deeper look at the ComScore data shows the Top 25 retailers growing 13% while “Small and Mid Tail” retailers are declining 10%. Satisfaction scores are also split, but the differences we’re seeing seem to be more based on those retailers who are continually improving their sites versus those whose cost containment measures have slowed or stopped improvements. It appears that the retailers who closely measure the effectiveness of their sites from their customers’ perspectives and continuously improve their customers’ experiences are the retailers with increasing customer satisfaction scores. Those retailers who didn’t improve customer experience this year are suffering declining satisfaction scores. Many of those in the Top 25 are the retailers who have continued to enhance their customer experiences. Those enhancements are not only helping them to increase their sales, but because of the high visibility and usage of those tops sites, they’re also raising consumer expectations of all sites.

Customer satisfaction can be best defined as the degree to which a customer’s actual experience meets his or her expectations. Therefore, rising expectations can depress satisfaction scores if customer experience improvements don’t keep pace.

In the rapidly changing world of online retail, stopping or delaying improvements is like treading water in a swimming race. While you may temporarily save some energy, you will fall hopelessly behind and your only hope of catching up is spending a lot more energy than you likely saved treading water

Growing online retail businesses realize and fully embrace the need for continuous improvements, and they also realize that online retail in general is far from producing the level of customer experience truly necessary to provide excellent self-service shopping experiences. I recently heard Robin Terrell, Managing Director of John Lewis Direct in the UK (and Amazon alum), say “If it ain’t broke, you ain’t looking hard enough” in a talk about the need to improve customer experience. It’s a brilliant statement, and I totally agree with what he was saying.

So, “improving customer experience” is a huge and vague statement. Where do we start?

  1. Recognize that it’s broke and you ain’t looking hard enough
    We’re still in our infancy in online retail, and we’ve got a long way to go. We too often try to increase our sales by generating more traffic and don’t spend enough time converting the traffic we’re already got. Often, the obstacles to conversion are not the big, shiny, whiz bang functionality; they’re lots of little things that add up to big problems. Those problems are hard to see without a concerted effort, as I discussed in more detail in my Tree Stump Theory post and other posts on conversion.
  2. Truly learn how effective your site is from your customers’ perspective
    We can all identify lots of improvements we’d like to see on our sites, but it’s the improvements our customers most need that will drive our best growth. So understanding where we are and aren’t effective from our customers’ perspectives is critically important, but difficult.Focus groups and usability labs can be very helpful, but they can’t be our first or only methodology because it’s not possible to project learnings from a small group of people onto our entire population of customers.

    First, we need to quantitatively understand our effectiveness in the eyes of our total population, and that requires a statistically solid customer polling and analysis capability. Blatant and shameless plug alert: I’ve had great success using ForeSee Results in the past for exactly this purpose. Once we understand problem areas at a macro level, we can add a lot of color by interacting directly with customers in focus groups and usability labs. More details on this process can be found in my post entitled “Is elitism the source of poor usability?”

  3. Consider getting some help from usability professionals
    Usability audits are different from usability labs. Usability auditors are professionally trained to understand how people interact with websites. Many of them have degrees in Human-Computer Interaction, a field that truly seeks to understand how people interact with software. These types of people can really help to identify problems with our user interfaces that untrained eyes have trouble seeing but which regularly obstruct customers from accomplishing their tasks.
  4. Put in place a process to continuously improve
    This is really about budgetary and project management mindset. We must just accept the fact that we can’t tread water in a never-ending swimming race, and our only chance of competing is to keep swimming. We have to build our staffs, our budgets and our processes with the recognition that competing in the marketplace means continuously improving our customer experiences. Which leads to …
  5. Wash, rinse, repeat
    Since the leaders in the marketplace are running this same cycle, we cannot rest. We must continue to recognize our sites are broken, continue to measure our effectiveness from our customers’ perspectives, find problems, fix them and begin again.

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We’ve got a lot of data that shows that retailers who best satisfy their customers generate the best financial results. I suppose that statement doesn’t sound like rocket science. But understanding that satisfaction has a direct relation to expectations and that our customers’ expectations can change independent of what we do on our own site is important. The leaders are continuously improving their sites, and they’re improvements are raising our customers’ expectations. We’ve all got to swim harder to keep pace.

What do you think? What’s your view on the marketplace? How have you see customer satisfaction affect your business?


The Hidden Cost of Change

Imagine a scenario where you and your business competitors all join in a pact to share your largest revenue sources, pool most of your marketing efforts and limit your respective payrolls to the exact same amount. You all sell the same product. Would you expect each of your companies to perform about equally well?

According to this article, the NFL expected such an arrangement to produce parity — but it doesn’t seem to be panning out. A few teams stand out as being consistently great over time and a few others (including my beloved Cleveland Browns) have been consistently terrible.

Are these success and failure stories the result of random luck, or are there some business lessons to be learned?

I’m not sure there’s enough data to completely rule out streaks of good and bad luck, but some of the analysts quoted in the article offered some reasoning that at least got me thinking about business lessons.

Former Colts coach Tony Dungy went to the playoffs in each of his seven seasons in Indianapolis and won the Super Bowl after the 2006 season. The key to winning, he says, is “having everyone on the same page and going in the same direction. The more stability you can get, that’s how you’re going to win.”

“I think one of the biggest reasons why teams aren’t getting better is instability,” says former Bills coach and general manager Marv Levy, who coached the team to four consecutive AFC titles from 1990 to 1993. “It’s always, ‘Let’s change, let’s change. This constant ‘We have to shake it up’ is causing some of this (disparity).”

Both quotes struck me as pretty meaningful in the business world. In my experience, big changes are disruptive and expensive — both in real terms and in opportunity costs.

For the record, I am definitely not anti-change. In fact, I love change and the eternal optimist in me is prone to almost always seeing the greener grass on the other side. But it’s helpful for me to remember that change does have its hidden costs to be considered.

Real costs
Large scale changes, be they new strategic plans, remodels, site redesigns or something similar, have real costs in their preparation and capital expenses. Since those are more obvious, I’ll move on to…

Opportunity costs
Implementing new change is hard work that takes a lot of time and effort. Diverting attention from current efforts creates opportunity costs and can cause a business to fall behind and lose market share during the buildup. Also, in my experience, big changes like store remodels and site redesigns tend to cause temporary step-backs in business and customer satisfaction (which can have longer term effects) due to the “where’s my stuff” syndrome.

Talent costs
Big changes like strategic shifts due to leadership changes tend to have human costs. For example, I’ve found over the years that any “A” player can become a “C” player if put into the wrong situation. Replacing team members is expensive and can lead to some of the opportunity costs listed above.

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Again, I’m an certainly not arguing against change. But in my experience too frequent wholesale changes can generate costs that outweigh the benefits, which is what the NFL coaches quoted above seem to be saying.

At a recent speaking engagement, someone asked me if it’s better to implement occasional site redesigns or take a more continuous improvement approach. I’ve found the continuous improvement approach to be more effective because it’s less disruptive to employees and customers alike. But that doesn’t mean revolutionary change isn’t necessary at times. After all, defending the status quo kills companies. We just have to be careful how often we revolt and make sure revolution is truly the smartest long term move.

But, hey, I’m still thinking through this issue. I would certainly benefit from your thoughts and perspectives. What do you think?



Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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