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Best practice eCommerce design

February 13, 2006

It has been said many times that your eCommerce and Internet strategy can do a great deal for your brand and your corporate image.

This has been learned through various studies conducted at the U.S. Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service, whose adoption of eBusiness and eCommerce tools and strategies has revolutionized the way people interact with these various government bodies.

As many observers will tell you, what's true in government is also true in the private sector.

Take the example of La-Z-Boy. Like many consumers, my impression of this brand is limited to the reclining chair, a mainstay of dens across the land. When I visited the company's website, I didn't expect to find an online experience that ranks near the top of retail ranks.

For one thing, La-Z-Boy has expanded far beyond reclining chairs. The company now offers sofas, loveseats, tables, and many other accessories. But that's just the beginning. The most interesting part of La-Z-Boy's Internet-era reinvention of itself has to do with customization.

Customization is hot. You can get your iPod engraved, your Dell precisely configured, and your Nike shoes embossed with your own name and color scheme. But the idea hasn't come home to mainline retail yet.

Here's an example. Let's say you're trying to buy a sofa. When you think about it, a sofa (no less than a personal computer) is a customizable product.

There are thousands of possible combinations of color, fabric, and style. However, standard retail practice is to sell you a fixed sofa. If you go online and peruse, say, the websites of Sears, J.C. Penney, Montgomery Ward, and so forth, these are the kinds of sofas you see. Your control is limited to choosing between a few colors at best.

La-Z-Boy, meanwhile, offers a lot more control. When you buy a La-Z-Boy sofa, for example, you can choose between hundreds of colors for it. What's more, you can use the website to see just how colors look on the model you choose (Nike has long offered this feature for its Nike-ID series, but the idea is still fairly new to mainline retail).

The end result is that, thanks to the Internet, I now know that La-Z-Boy sells more than just recliners, and I associate it with easy customization and choice rather than fixed-style rigidity. My brand image has changed without watching a single commercial or indeed touching an actual La-Z-Boy product.

That said, the La-Z-Boy website does not offer a complete version of what I consider best practice e-tail. To begin with, there's no e-commerce; you can pick products and colors, and even use a nifty Flash tool to position them in a virtual room environment, but at the end of a day you have to interact with a dealer.

Plus, you have to accept a predefined La-Z-Boy style.

This is what really gets me thinking. Dell long ago shattered the idea that a computer has to be predefined, and today both consumers and computer companies are accustomed to putting together an individually specified machine.

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There is now a degree of personalized control over the computer that was unthinkable in the past (even cars like the Scion can be customized online). Why isn't this true in retail? Sure, there's room for predefined styles of furniture, but there should also be room for Dell-like customization in which a consumer chooses different elements (say, a base, arm and leg style, cushion thickness, &c.) and the retailer simply delivers the final product.

Some companies are trying this model - - Home Reserve and Bassett, for instance - - but the idea is still in its infancy.

Ultimately, as a retailer, you can't always win just on price (Wal-Mart will likely beat you) or on the strength of your proprietary designs. Why not compete like Dell does, with customization, efficiency, and speed?

It seems to me that the evolution of the computer market has implications for the rest of retail. Today people want control of their computer components and design; tomorrow it will be their furniture, appliances, and cars.

Instead of a world in which a handful of companies cram their designs down consumers' throats, there may be a world in which companies assemble what consumers specify, as Dell does today.

Source: Line 56

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