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This chapter is from the book

A New Kind of "Shelf"

The online store is a hybrid with traditional influences. An online store is neither a typical catalog nor a retail store. It's a combination of both—plus added technology brings the capability to present products in brand new ways. The online store has evolved into its own organism and the following five factors are part of its inherent nature:

  • The online store is a software product.

  • The online store is a product catalog.

  • The online store is a retail shopping experience.

  • The online store is a communications vehicle.

  • The online store is virtual sales representative.

Some of these factors have influenced online shopping as e-merchants have tapped their value. The next few chapters explore these influences in depth so you can understand how to apply each to add value and determine what to leave behind.

The Online Store Is a Software Product

Many of the early online stores were designed by advertising agencies. In reality, the online store is a software product and requires the same rigor that is employed by software product development processes and methodologies. This is now being recognized as development is beginning to transfer to IT professionals who have the required skill set and now develop the infrastructure and make technology decisions. Many online stores have proprietary architectures because few off-the-shelf applications can handle the specific needs of the larger businesses and customer bases. At the core of software product development is the lifecycle that includes usability engineering throughout the process, as shown in Figure 1-1.

Figure 1-1Figure 1–1 The software development lifecycle.

Chart used with permission courtesy of Luminor

The typical software development cycle is a rigorous process that begins with investigation, moves through design and development, and continues into implementation. Three essential components of the online store are the database, the user interface, and the server architecture and machines on which the first two reside and run. The development team looks at the most efficient methods of managing these components. The product and content database is always in flux as new products are added, old ones are taken out, prices change, and promotions are added to stimulate sales.

Customer needs influence the operational elements of the user interface and determine the intuitiveness of the navigational models. It is critical to the usability of an online store for the designers and developers to know and understand customer needs, current behaviors, and how consumers shop the virtual "aisles." Chapter 2 discusses what you need to know about your customers, including behaviors and shopping preferences.

Managing the complexities of the database and the need to keep current with customer preferences in the user interface should result in continual pulsing of the website. Usability measurements that will help monitor the pulse are discussed in Chapter 6.

The Online Store Is a Product Catalog

E-commerce websites have deep roots in the direct marketing catalog business. Web store organization reflects the "table-of-contents" model from this industry, one that is based on product categories and sub-categories. Even though e-commerce is identified as a new channel, it's very similar to the older, traditional mail order and catalog channels. It borrows from these established industries while adding a brand new interface. While the "shelf" is different, the system that shoppers employ to select their products is very much the same. Unfortunately, many of the more attractive attributes of catalogs have not been incorporated into web shopping. Effective and leverageable principles and techniques from the direct marketing catalog business are provided in Chapter 4.

Many e-commerce sites today are an extension of company internal electronic product catalogs. These catalog databases are often transferred "as is" to a website without adjusting to the medium. Although this may be the most expedient way to get a list of products online, customer research indicates that online shoppers are confused by the catalog-type organization and frustrated with the shopping experience. These catalogs also often include internal industry jargon and internal product part numbers that are not recognizable by consumers.

The Online Store Is a Retail Shopping Experience

Customers are more familiar with a retail shopping experience than with a catalog or online purchase transaction. Because most websites are electronic versions of traditional printed product catalogs, it is necessary to apply the cataloger's best techniques. But it is just as important—and possibly even more important—to understand and apply retail shopping expertise because the customer is most familiar with shopping in traditional retail stores. The best practices in retail will be discussed in depth in Chapter 3.

Customers struggle with knowing which routes to take when they enter an online store. Retail shopping behaviors give clues to how customers shop for products, thus enabling a more intuitive store navigation model that easily guides them from the home page to their destination product detail page.

The Online Store Is a Communications Vehicle

The online store started out subsidizing its business through advertisements and eventually became an electronic billboard. In practicality, the ad space interferes with customers' shopping tasks. Customer research reveals that customers learn to ignore these ads and attempt to stay focused. Customers won't continue using a website if the ads become too prevalent and—to many customers—annoying.

Online stores have unique advantages over traditional retail and direct marketing channels for advertising a broad range of categories that reach more targeted customers inexpensively. Balancing ads with navigational elements that help customers complete tasks is a skill. New techniques and unique capabilities of the online store are discussed in Chapter 5. Overused ad and promotional boxes create obstacles for customers to overcome before completing the next step in their shopping process.

It's important to recognize that the main communications influence online is information. The web is used as a resource for virtually every subject. Manufacturers and e-merchants should provide customers with their brand promise and differentiate their products and services. Shoppers will make purchase decisions based on product attributes and services, but also on the strength of the brand.

The Online Store Is a Virtual Sales Representative

What if you could control everything that was said and presented by your sales staff? An online store makes this possible. It acts as a floor sales rep and as an inbound/outbound sales force. It has the ability to combine information and sales.

Around the world, the most influential retail in-store customer touch point is a retail sales associate's recommendations. Store sales personnel cannot reliably provide customers with all key product features and benefits due to a number of factors. Most are inexperienced and do not receive the appropriate training. These employees usually receive low salaries, and employee turnover rates are high.

Many sales reps must cover a broad range of categories and products, frequently with short lifecycles, and products are replaced consistently with new versions or new styles. Also, only brief encounters with customers are permitted because there are typically others waiting to ask questions.

The web store can also act as an inbound and outbound sales force. The web's ability to provide consistent and accurate information is a benefit over traditional retailing. Accurate content also shortens the purchase decision process by providing detailed information and recommendations. But how many stores provide recommended choices instead of simply listing everything they have for sale? This places the entire burden of choice on the customer. For some products, that is acceptable, but for more complicated technology products, customers rely on experts to make recommendations. A customer-focused viewpoint revolves around understanding products and services to help customers make decisions and provides them with sales assistance online through effective content. Chapter 5 discusses new techniques for facilitating sales.

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