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Getting Web-Wise

August 01, 2007

By: Nancy Klosek

It's a rare customer these days who doesn't walk into your store armed with a sheaf of Web printouts. Not a problem—unless the printouts are from a competitor's site, leaving you the thankless task of defending your prices and policies against this research.

All the more reason to try to increase the odds that the research came from your site, rather than somewhere else. A sloppy, illogical, sluggish Web presence with a lot of informational holes is just as bad as a retail store with neglected, dusty displays and disinterested sales associates. Both scenarios work against conversion—the common bottom-line in both brick-and-mortar and e-commerce setups. And the same goes for those Web surfers who may never even pass through your front door. How can you seduce them away from the practice of site-hopping, turning them into "stickers" and ultimately into buyers? Whether you show and sell, or just tell your story online, an optimized Web site is a mandatory business tool these days.

Mirroring the In-Store Experience
Abt Electronics, the single-location Chicagoland retailer that also boasts an enviable on-line presence, has managed to replicate its legendary in-store reputation for good will and customer care on its Web site. The company considers itself an Internet pioneer. "We've been in e-commerce since 1997, and started adding more and more to the site," said Jon Abt, vice president. "But over time, we realized that maybe it got to be too much,"

So this spring Abt initiated the most extensive overhaul in the site's nine-year history. "We went through a big cleansing process," Abt said. "We got away from clutter, upgraded our search functionality extensively, and added things like customer reviews, financing—and lots of little things like bigger pictures, more buying guides and revamped installation guides. We started a free tech-support service. We're trying to mirror our retail presence better."

So far, the site has worked to attract floor traffic to the retail store. About 60 percent of customers polled said they visited the Web site before visiting the store.

How to Enrich Product Information
"We've been in business 71 years, and we try to emulate what we do in the store on the Web—the same principles, philosophies and customer-centric focus," Abt said. "Although we're constantly updating the site, we don't want it to be too different. You want your customers to be comfortable with the setting they're in, and the same holds true with the Web."

To help enrich its Web presence without radically altering the design, Abt partnered with WebCollage, a company that contracts with manufacturers and ports product information content to retail-channel partners. "We go to the manufacturer site, extract content, host it on our servers and inject it into the retailer site," said Jed Alpert, the company's vice president of marketing. "We even help customize the content-access experience for the retailer's Web site look and feel."

The majority of consumers conduct their research on a retailer's Web site, as opposed to a manufacturer's site, and are more likely to purchase that product from the site or store, Alpert said. "The challenge for retailers is in supporting the thousands of products they show and sell online with depth of information," he said. "It is unsustainable for them to invest that amount of money to create detailed content on their own. There is a 'content gap' between manufacturer and retail sites, and what we do is bridge that gap."

The service, Alpert said, works especially well for "high-consideration," complicated or unfamiliar goods. With Abt's site, for example, a customer who is looking into a Sony Portable Reader System can drill down for details by clicking a button that says, "Learn More from Sony," which directs them to details without having to leave the retail page. The page that opens even carries Abt's store logo at the top, reinforcing the surfer's sense that he is still in the same place he started.

Through its research, WebCollage found that when customers have access to enhanced manufacturer content on retail Web pages, sales can increase from 6-to-20 percent. "There is a wealth of information out there, and we allow retailers to tap into and leverage it rather than having to re-create it," Alpert said. "This frees up their resources to focus on other parts of their Web site. And we don't focus on content creation; we focus on creating the infrastructure to allow retailers to leverage manufacturers' investment."

Jon Abt recommends that retailers considering a site overhaul. "Test with your own employees internally, then test with consumers, certainly A-B things where you serve up one thing to somebody and then serve up whatever you're testing to somebody else," he said. "With the Web, you can really track things. It's like following a customer around the store to see what they're looking at."

Focusing on the Parts to Improve the Whole
For Internet-only retailers whose entire business hinges on keeping their on-line presence fresh the imperatives aren't that much different from the online/brick-and-mortar hybrids. Solid Signal, a Web-only satellite and home entertainment product retailer that sells both to professional installers and consumers, has been in a constant "tweaking" mode since the business began in 2002, said Jerry Chapman, president.

"We don't revamp the entire site. We look at different elements: the cart, the information pages that talk about our company, product information, and search," he said. "Our greatest strength is in the ability to personalize our pages for the surfer." Solid Signal has a form on the site that recommends product to the customer. "It came about because customers weren't getting the personalized information they needed, so they were calling us," Chapman said. "And as we were growing so quickly, it was getting harder to staff for that, so we added the form."

Solid Signal's growth has also necessitated the outsourcing of some behind-the-scenes functions, such as tracking search data and, more recently, analytics data, the ability to analyze customer data. "Analytics helps us find out where people go when they leave the purchasing funnel," Chapman said, adding that the data reduces late-stage abandon rates by the customer.

"You can make lots of changes in your Web site, but if you don't know the benefits the changes make, whether they've had a positive or negative impact, you're wasting money, time and energy, and you're not being effective," he said. "You're messing around with something that may not be broken."

Chapman said dealers should consider third-party alliances, such as Google analytics, to help sort Web-generated data, become certified for security seals such as those offered by HackerSafe, BBBOnLine and the TRUSTe Privacy Seal Program. "They're good for gaining the confidence of the consumer and are also good for us," he said.

Finally, Chapman stresses that novices with limited financial resources focus their dollars on the search aspect of their sites. "Once people figure out how they can find something, then they can buy it," he said. "If they can't get to it, because they don't search like the person who developed the search, they can't buy it. If they do two clicks and can't find it, then they're outta there."

Dot-Com, Sony Style
Dealers with modest Web presences can always learn a thing or two from the majors., a site designed as a sales portal and an informational resource for consumers, just launched an improved e-commerce presence that was 18 months in the making.

"It's more than a commerce site; it is the online statement of Sony," said Brian Siegal, vice president. "Our consumers expect Sony to continue to raise the bar for product presentation and information, and access to purchasing Sony products through any channel they prefer."

Changes in its functionality were driven directly from customer input and included a wish-list feature, a simplified single-page checkout, larger product images, speedier page loads and a better navigational system. The site also optimizes access to both the Sony Style retail store and to Sony's authorized Internet retail partners.

What stimulated the upgrade in part was that "consumers sometimes take several days to weeks to make a final purchase decision," Siegal said. "SonyStyle is designed to provide consumers with all of the appropriate information to help them make a fast, and educated, Sony purchase decision through any channel of their choice—direct or through our retail partners." The site also offers things like contests and promotes product bundles tailored to certain consumer demographics, grouping VAIO notebooks with extended service plans, and more accessories. Siegel adds that will "continue to seek out opportunities to leverage the expectations of specific Sony target markets—students, women, families, as well as our traditional technology enthusiasts."

Siegel suggested that retailers strive to provide a consistent experience across all channels and offered this closing advice. "Three things: the consumer, the consumer, the consumer," he said. "A retailer's Web experience is not for the retailer. It is for their customers. Listen, and they will guide you to success."

© 2007 Dealerscope, North American Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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