Historically, not so much distinguished the online shopping experience of a Wal-Mart from a Nordstrom, although their physical retail experiences are light years apart, noted Doug Mack, founder and CEO of Scene 7, a Web development firm. When it comes to e-commerce, Amazon.com was the role model most retailers chose to emulate, and whether for technical or resource constraints, the end result was a lot of utilitarian shopping.
But "glimmers" of so-called eCommerce 3.0 innovation are emerging--incorporating a more branded look and feel and more liberal use of images, specific shopping applications, and customization, Mack said.
The changes also reflect the evolving sophistication of the online shopper, who is ready for a richer experience. In the mid-'90s people bought mostly books and CDs online, but apparel and furniture are now among the fastest-growing purchase categories.
Nike, Gucci and Gymboree were among the companies cited for bringing brand appeal to the shopping mix at a session at last week's Shop.org annual conference in New York.
Danielle Quatrochi, senior manager of e-commerce for Nike, led a top-to-bottom seven-month redesign of Nike.com this year, which involved creating a much more visually arresting site using Flash technology that had traditionally been avoided by marketers designing for the lowest common denominator. To make sure the site is still readable by search engines, a complete back-end skeleton site was created in HTML to feed the spiders and yield optimal organic search engine results.
The Nike Flash-based navigation is more intuitive, and allows the shopper to stay on the same "page" while easily honing in on products that can be drilled into by gender or by affinity. A "zoom" function allows the product to take over the entire shopping screen. The consumer controls how the site is shopped, and critical information such as product availability is signaled right away, not at the checkout point.
Nike's site is now outperforming its budget projections, but not before a three- to-four-week sales dip while shoppers got used to the new experience, Quatrochi said. The site offers a "Flash snipper" enabling shoppers to use the old product catalog--and about 8 percent are still doing so, she said.
One adage of online merchants had always been that the fewer clicks taken to get to the product, the better for everyone. But the new wave of sites demonstrates that as long as the path takes the shopper to their desired destination, more clicks is not a bad thing, noted Robert Myers, senior vice president of QVC.com--especially now that pages are not reloading at dial-up speed connections.
Gucci has turned its site into a representation of retail shelves lined with merchandise. Web navigation is only seen if the shopper asks for it.
Gymboree, meanwhile, allows shoppers to set up the merchandise criteria to define their own store--one that refreshes with each new visit based on what's new and what's in stock. Parents with more than one child can create a "My Gymboree" for each and save time shopping on future visits.
It's "an itty bitty glimmer of something phenomenal," Mack said of the Gymboree site. "Every time I come back, I get a new experience for my family."