Category: Competitive Analysis

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.Ā  And best of all, there’s not sound that could get a workplace shopper in trouble. šŸ™‚ 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.

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, theĀ 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?



Amazon is hunting for you this holiday season

The holidays are hunting season for Amazon, and they’ve got your business in their sights. Over the years, Amazon has consistently proven to be extremely adept at
maximizing their competitive advantages and creating innovations to
shore up their disadvantages. And the holiday season is the time they most leverage their advantages to grab more market share.

But here’s the thing: many of Amazon’s advantages are shared by e-commerce operations of all
types, but Amazon seems to be quicker to recognize and capitalize on
those advantages than everyone else.

This morning, I pulled up the Amazon home page and was greeted by yet
another letter from Jeff Bezos announcing Amazon’s latest brilliant
innovation. This time, it’s “Frustration Free Packaging” – just in time
for the holiday season when those of us who are parents still haven’t healed the scars from last year’s unbelievable frustration with trying to release our kids’ new toys from wicked constraints that would have defied Houdini (all while the kids are jumping up and down with excitement to play with the new toys).

The secure packaging we’ve been fighting with is designed for physical stores to allow for attractive displays while at the the same time preventing theft. You can see all gory details in this patent filing for toy packaging. But the need for that type of packing in an e-commerce warehouse is moot. So, why not push manufacturers for “e-commerce packaging” that is designed to protect items in shipping but allows for easy removal from the package? Amazon’s size probably gives them an advantage in pushing for this type of action from manufacturers, but many of today’s biggest multi-channel retailers certainly have massive pull with manufacturers and probably could have pulled this type of thing off either individually or collectively — had they thought of it.

And, of course, Amazon has been the trailblazer for many of today’s e-commerce innovations, including customer reviews, affiliate programs and recommendations. So, you might say, let them bear the costs of the innovations and we’ll just capitalize on them after Amazon has proven the way.

While that strategy may work sometimes, it’s fraught with risk because Amazon doesn’t often relinquish market share once they’ve gained it (particularly if they hook customers into Amazon Prime), and they tend to gain that market share during the holiday season. Check out their quarterly results in the “North American Media” category over the last 22 quarters in comparison to Barnes and Noble and Borders:

You can see it’s the fourth quarter where they gain market share. They don’t gain much in the other three quarters, but they certainly hold on to a lot of the share they gained the prior holiday season.

So, what can the rest of us do about it?

For starters, we might want to put innovation on the front burner. Yes, there are costs and risks associated with innovation. But the costs of doing nothing or simply following the crowd might be greater. And successful innovations don’t always have to be earth-shatteringly new, whiz bang technology. They simply need to solve problems better than current solutions.

I believe the most successful innovations have at least one of the following characteristics:

  1. They create convenience for consumers
    We love convenience, and we’ll sacrifice quality and spend more money to get it. I’ve talked about this previously in my post “Predicting the Future of Retail.”
  2. They create efficiencies for businesses
    Efficiencies allow us to make more money faster, and we love that. Given the unusual shapes some toy packaging can take, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Amazon’s Frustration Free Packaging is also alleviating frustrations in their warehouse and giving Amazon added efficiency in the supply chain.

It’s important to carefully examine our businesses to truly understand where we have advantages and disadvantages. As is the case with packaging, these advantages might not always be immediately obvious. We really need to dig deep to understand the problems our customers and businesses are facing and then carefully look for ways to solve those problems by leveraging our inherent strengths. In this process, we need to listen hard to our customers to understand their needs. Steve Jobs once famously said, “You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” He’s right. Customers often can’t give us the specific solution, but if we listen properly they can describe their problems well enough to give us the basis for developing effective solutions.

Innovation usually takes time and money. What can we do this holiday season?

There are lots of little things we can do to improve the experience for customers who come to our sites this holiday season.

  1. Truly look at our sites from our customers’ perspective.
    Go to Google and click on one of your search terms. Is the experience what a customer should expect? Try taking a different path on your site to a product than you normally do. How is the experience?
  2. Get more product front and center
    Physical stores pack the front of store and end caps with gift ideas. How well does your site parallel this sort of technique?
  3. Review your error messages
    A poorly written error message is a shameful way to lose a sale. Go through your site and intentionally generate errors. Put yourself in your customers’ seat. Are those error messages clear and easy-to-understand?

While it may be too late to implement huge changes for this holiday season, it’s certainly not too late to pay attention to customers’ needs and start thinking about what can be done for next holiday season. We can carefully consider our advantages and think about how we could better leverage them next year. And we can carefully consider our disadvantages and think about how we can better mitigate them next year. I’m confident Amazon’s already actively considering their next moves.

What do you think? What tips do you have for retailers for this holiday season? What types of innovations do you see coming?



Defending the status quo kills companies

“Defending the status quo is what kills companies.” That line comes from the excellent book More Than a Motorcycle: The Leadership Journey at Harley-Davidson written by former Harley CEOĀ  Rich Teerlink and his organizational consultant partner Lee Ozley. The book chronicles Teerlink’s and Ozley’s process to change the culture at Harley-Davidson to ensure the company was ready for the challenges to come. What I found most remarkable, though, was that they didn’t initiate this massive change when the company was troubled — they initiated massive change when the company had just completed a successful financial turnaround and the press was actively singing their praises.

They changed when conventional wisdom would have said to keep doing what they were doing.

Bankruptcy courts are littered with companies who kept doing what they were doing and failed to adapt to changing marketplaces and changing customer needs and expectations.

I spent 20 years in the music industry with Tower Records, so I’ve see one of the best examples in recent years of an entire industry that desperately clung to the past rather than embrace the future. The music industry didn’t suffer because of Napster and illegal downloads; it suffered because it turned its back on its customers in favor of short term profits.

The music industry failed to recognize the opportunity that came with the advent of the Internet and digital music formats. Rather than see their industry from their customers’ perspective, the industry fell pray to the elitism I’ve discussed previously. So a computer company took their business from them. Apple‘s iPod and iTunes took the music retailers’ business and substantially wrestled control away from the music labels.

The retailers could have created digital music stores if they weren’t so worried about protecting their current businesses. And there were other opportunities available. Seth Godin spoke to the industry last year and gave some excellent examples of opportunities to change the business model.

Now other traditional industries like newspapers, video stores and bookstores, among others, are also losing substantial market share to new, technology based upstarts. Others, like travel agencies, are mostly gone.

But some companies are embracing change even during the height of success.
A recent Forbes interview with Xerox’s retiring CEO Anne Mulcahy highlighted her strategy to focus Xerox on “paperless printing” even though the entire organization was basically built on paper-producing technology. Rather than focus on paper, Mulcahy instead said the company’s value was always about the creation, management and dispensing of information, “Democratization of information, however it happened.”


Threats to existing business models aren’t only coming in the form of digitization.
Look at the shoe business. In ten years, Zappos.com went from a germ of an idea to a $1 billion company. Their model? “In March of 2003, we made a decision to be about customer service,” say their CEO, Tony Hsieh, in a recent FastĀ  Company profile. “We view any expense that enhances the customer experience as a marketing cost because it generates more repeat customers through word of mouth.”

Customer experience as a marketing cost. It’s a whole new way of looking at the shoe business (or retail in general), and it’s a hit worth a cool billion in a short amount of time.

I can’t believe that billion dollars was incremental business to the overall market. That share came out of somebody’sĀ  hide. And that means an existing shoe business could have done it first if the thought process and the courage to actĀ  was there. If the Zappos model works, it can be applied to anything, and it appears that’s exactly what Zappos intendsĀ  to do.

And the radical ideas keep coming. Chris Anderson has a controversial new book, Free, that describes a future he believes will be centered largely around business models that give away 95% of their offerings and make money on the remaining 5%. Are Anderson’s ideas open for debate? Sure, but they and other seemingly nutty ideas should be regularly and honestlydiscussed. One of them may well be the next billion dollar idea.


It doesn’t take wholesale change in the marketplace to significantly disrupt a business model.

A drop in business of 10-15% can have massive impact, as many have clearly seen in the current economic downturn. But the economic downturn has not sunk all boats. Amazon.com reported a sales increase of 18% and a net income increase of 24% for their first quarter this year.

As e-commerce continues to be the growth vehicle in retail, and as Amazon continues to dominate e-commerce, I wonder how brick and mortar retail models will adapt. I believe there are many opportunities today to leverage both the growth and value of e-commerce and existing physical real estate.

Certainly, tying the web experience and the store experience together via cross-channel capabilities is a must. In the industry, we talk a lot today about capabilities like order online and pick up in store, and I think those are good.

But how can we take it further?
For example, I know from my experience with in-store kiosks at Borders that a lot more people than I expected still aren’t comfortable shopping online. They want someone to help them use the kiosks, and then they want to pay with cash at the register. Why not use our store POS systems to take cash payments for online orders? What if we took it a step further and took cash payments for other sites’ orders. What if the physical store essentially became an affiliate for a pure play e-commerce site and took the cash along with a commission? What type of opportunities might that open for both the pure play and the brick and mortar store? What other reasons should customers continue to shop physical stores well into the future as technology and delivery systems continue to improve?

What challenges does your business face in the coming years, or what businesses in general do you see most at risk? How could your business model change — maybe radically — to address those challenges? Or, do you think this is all hogwash? Let’s discuss.



Retail: Shaken Not Stirred by Kevin Ertell


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