E-Tailers Continuing to Retool Sites

LOS ANGELES — Despite the serious challenges at retail, many pure-play e-tailers are reworking their sites in a bid to attract more customers.

“We’re still in growth mode,” said Brian Kalma, director of user experience at Zappos.com. “We’re not impervious to what’s happening to everyone else in retail, [but] we’re doing well.”

Scott Savitz, CEO of Shoebuy.com, agreed that the gloom of the retail sector has yet to tarnish online sales. “We continue to have very good success,” he said. “Fortunately, for us, it’s still a very vibrant time.”

Still, that doesn’t mean online selling is getting any easier. In fact, as consumers become more Internet savvy, e-tailers are battling to stay ahead of consumer expectations of the online shopping experience. Gone are the days when customers simply went to a site and bought a product. Now, e-tailers say consumers are seeking more detailed information and product photos, and want ways to connect with other consumers.

Barbara Thornton, president of Designershoes.com, said that not too long ago, many consumers purposely avoided buying shoes online. “Now we have so many people who are very conversant [in technology], and they can say things like, ‘What do you mean you can’t make your shoe picture twirl?’” she said.

Kalma said the changes in consumer understanding of the Internet is staggering. “It’s a different world than it was 10 years ago, when we started,” he said. “Everyone’s knowledge and expertise on the Web has evolved. Expectations are changing. Sites now need to be fast, nice looking, feature-rich and stress-free.”

Kalma said the company would soon unveil several new features that will make the site easier to navigate and connect like-minded consumers. “We’re also going to allow for more user-generated content on our site, such as video testimonials and reviews, photos of consumers wearing our products, and ways of connecting consumers who bought the same product,” he said.

On a more technical front, Kalma said the company is quietly rebuilding the entire site architecture from the ground up via a beta site at Explore.zappos.com. The site serves as a testing ground for new ideas and innovations, and will allow the company to expand its video capabilities, as well as product descriptions and images. “We’re working on enhancements to our photography so you’ll be able to zoom in on many products to see the fine details,” he said, noting that the first version of the zoom function will debut on select products next month.

At Shoes.com, Brad Adams, SVP of direct to consumer, said that in the current economic environment, online sellers are being pushed to increase their perceived value. “The word ‘value’ has a new meaning that involves not only price but convenience,” he said.

Adams said in addition to improving search functions, the site will soon launch a new digital trend guide that informs consumers on the latest fashions. Also, enhanced video, product demos and site boutiques designed around niche product categories are in the works. “The driver behind each of these ideas is to create an even better experience for consumers,” he said.

Savitz said tracking data has revealed that Shoebuy’s 5.5 million visitors each month spend on average more than 15 minutes at a time browsing for products. His challenge is to offer them more to see and buy while they’re there. “We are in an environment where people are looking to make wise buying decisions, and we can make it very easy for them to do that,” he said.

One way is to continue to add additional brands to the site. In 2008, the site added 150 new labels, bringing the total to 800. In the coming year, the site will likely add another 100 brands. “We also will add lots of enhancements to the consumer experience and build the community with images, 360-degree videos and product reviews,” Savitz said. “We have thousands of reviews now. We’d like to have millions of product reviews in 2009, with added features such as wish lists and gift hints.”

Garnering more product reviews from consumers is also a priority at Shoesontheweb.com. President Richard Camitta said consumers are increasingly seeking out product reviews both before and after they make their purchases. “They want communication and they’re coming to us through various means,” he said.

Camitta added that customer communication — whether through e-mail, social networking sites, the company’s blog, or Twitter feed — helps make shoppers feel secure in their buying decisions. “We’re going to try to do things with social networking sites and try to connect more effectively with our customers and potential customers,” Camitta said. “If we’re part of the mix, they’ll feel more confident purchasing shoes from us.”

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