Retailers ease search, checkout procedures

A wine connoisseur has something specific in mind when searching for a "dead arm" vintage. But can a Web site's search engine understand the subtlety of that query?

Not all of them, says Francis Juliano, CIO at Wine.com. The San Francisco retailer tried a few search engines before it selected Endeca Technologies' InFront search, navigation and merchandising software.

"Dead arm" refers to a condition when one half of a T-shaped grape vine is lost to disease, and all of the nutrients destined for the lost arm are routed to the remaining healthy arm, resulting in a particularly rare and flavorful wine, Juliano explains.

"It's not hard to find what you're looking for if you want a '96 Dom Perignon, but if you're looking for a d'Arenberg Dead Arm Shiraz, that's a different story," Juliano says.

With the holiday shopping season in full swing, online retailers can't afford to turn away shoppers with poorly organized Web stores, weak search tools and other common Web site pitfalls. There's too much at stake: Industry watchers estimate online shopping tallies this year will exceed US$20 billion, up 20 percent over last year's holiday season.

To prepare for the onslaught, retailers have spent the last several months improving their sites. One area that's gotten a lot of attention is search.

"We do a dominant portion of our business in the fourth quarter. The last thing we want is for people to do a search on our site and leave because they can't find what they're looking for," Juliano says. It's even worse if Wine.com has the product a shopper wants but the search engine couldn't interpret the query, he says.

With its old search tools, Wine.com would have spent "several man weeks" programming the software to understand a query like "dead arm," Juliano says. With Endeca, it didn't have to do any custom coding for the software to process the query.

Analysts agree, strong search capabilities are key to a Web site's performance. More online buyers today rely on site searches than in the past. For example, 9.3 percent of all sales in the third quarter of this year came through the search function on shopping sites, compared with 6.6 percent a year earlier, DoubleClick reported in its most recent "E-Commerce Site Trend Report."

While it's not always easy to quantify the effects of a Web site enhancement, when Urban Outfitters overhauled its site search capabilities, the results were impossible to ignore. The average order value among people using its new search tools is up 13 percent, says David Hayne, development manager at Urban Outfitters in Philadelphia.

For its site search overhaul, Urban Outfitters chose a hosted offering from Atomz. Urban Outfitters doesn't have a large technical staff, so using an application service provider is a good fit, Hayne says.

The Atomz software lets site visitors search for an item such as shoes and then use subcategories -- such as size, color, price and brand -- to narrow the results.

Urban Outfitters deployed the Atomz-powered search tools in August and launched a redesigned version in November. In the first phase of the rollout, the site featured a lot of drop-down menus that hid selections from visitors. Then Atomz suggested displaying the lists of items in the drop-down menus rather than requiring users to click on the menus.

Now users are more likely to take advantage of the exposed links, Hayne says. "That's the world of the Web. Minor tweaks can make a world of difference," he says.

Fingerhut Direct Marketing Inc., too, noticed an immediate change when it tackled its site search problems -- problems the catalog and Web retailer didn't know existed until it deployed Web analytics software from Coremetrics.

The analytics software called attention to a huge number of Web searches that turned up zero results for customers, says Mike Sidders, director of e-commerce and new customer acquisition at Fingerhut in Minnetonka, Minn.

Sidders knew Fingerhut's search tools were rudimentary, but he had no idea how many customers were turned away by it. "Without that visibility, we never would have known how bad it was, and we wouldn't have taken the steps as aggressively as we did to salvage that portion of our business," he says.

By tackling the search gaps over the last several months, Fingerhut has increased conversion rates among shoppers who use the search tools by 25 percent, Sidders says.

Battling abandonment

Coremetrics' statistics also helped Fingerhut tackle another pesky Web shopping problem: abandoned shopping carts.

More than half (57 percent) of people who initially add something to their online shopping carts abandon those carts without making a purchase, according to DoubleClick. The firm says that for every dollar customers spend on e-commerce sites, $4.10 is left in abandoned shopping carts.

By streamlining its checkout processes, Fingerhut is seeing a reduction in its abandoned shopping cart rates, Sidders says.

Likewise, The TJX Companies is making a play this season to stop the cart-abandonment trend before it has a chance to take root on its new e-commerce sites.

TJX is parent to eight businesses - T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, HomeGoods, A.J. Wright and Bob's Stores in the U.S.; Winners and HomeSense in Canada; and T.K. Maxx in Europe. It's had marketing-focused Web sites for some of its brands in the past, but no e-commerce sites.

In September, TJX made its first foray into online sales, launching e-commerce sites for T.J. Maxx and HomeGoods. One technology TJX deployed is a single-screen checkout application from Molecular.

The intent is to avoid complicated and lengthy checkout processes that can turn off customers. In the retailer's physical stores, easy checkouts are imperative, says Sherry Lang, vice president of investor and public relations at TJX. "For us, using an easier, more efficient, more convenient checkout system out on the Web was a natural progression," she says.

Molecular's Single-Screen Checkout technology puts the entire checkout process -- from adding and adjusting items in the shopping cart to entering credit-card information -- on a single page. That page is displayed as a separate window that opens when an item is added to the cart, so users don't need to leave the Web page to which they navigated.

In addition, as items are added to or deleted from the cart, Molecular's software calculates tax and shipping costs. Unexpectedly high shipping costs -- which retailers often do not reveal until near the end of the checkout process -- is one reason for shopping cart abandonment, analysts say.

Marketing finesse

For The Musicland Group, its latest e-commerce challenge is effective marketing. This season, the Minneapolis retailer -- which sells music, movies and entertainment-related products through 900 retail stores and online, under the names Sam Goody, Suncoast and Media Play -- decided to try something different to attract the coveted teen demographic.

Since October, Musicland has been piloting a real-time alerting service from MessageCast. The service lets subscribers receive instant messages on their cell phones, PDAs and desktops, depending on their preferences.

MessageCast alerts combine product news, such as the availability of a new CD or DVD, with content such as the latest scoop on celebrities and entertainers, says Brian Miller, vice president of marketing at Musicland.

MessageCast broadcasts its LiveMessage alerts over Microsoft's MSN Alerts Network. Consumers are in control of how messages get delivered: Subscribers can opt to have alerts sent to their desktops if they're online or to an e-mail account or a mobile phone when they're offline.

Because the MessageCast service is built atop Microsoft's messaging infrastructure, Microsoft maintains control of each subscriber's personal information. As the broadcast engine, all MessageCast sees is encrypted subscriber codes, says Royal Farros, CEO of MessageCast. "Microsoft has the subscribers' information. Not us, and not even Musicland," Farros says.

That's something that appeals to privacy-cautious subscribers. "Consumers are getting more savvy about with whom and how they share their information," he says. "This is a way to reach some people who are skeptical about the whole thing."

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