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Is eCommerce due for a facelift?

May 5, 2008

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The rather furious pace of retail innovation makes some retailers nervous to stand by and wait. There is always some pressure to improve things and increase sales. However, retailers today don't want to invest in anything prematurely that could make them regret their decision down the road. This especially applies to their eCommerce websites that run a good part of their business.

Now some are saying that "micro websites" are now all the range in the 'new' Internet world. These smaller sites explore new ideas and brands within their own space, often only sparsely associated or not associated at all with an eTailer's main eCommerce site.

Now experts are saying that the new retail concepts behind these newer-looking sites must greatly improve ROI. In order to achieve this, the investment and risk must be small so that the main eCommerce site isn't disturbed in any way.

If risk and effort are relatively small, then those microsites are a good way to explore new retail concepts in the e-commerce segment.

Additionally, Microsites can be effective testing grounds for new retail concepts with unique business models, and can also serve as evaluation platforms in trying out new technologies and architectures in IT development.

Before we explore on how to build microsites, let's first take a look at some good retail concepts using such similar and newer techniques.

Rich Internet applications can be used to create an enhanced customer experience that addresses the rapidly growing expectations of online shoppers. For example, American Eagle Outfitters' main e-commerce site features a left-to-right navigation, which is becoming more popular than the traditional top-down navigation because screens are getting wider, not taller. What's more, American Eagle Outfitters uses a good drop-down cart that keeps the shopping experience moving and helps increase average order size.

But the company is getting more progressive with its Martin + Osa brand by using RIA techniques to display its wares. It has a smooth outfit configuration tool that uses a dress form as the virtual subject that tries on the apparel by simply dragging and dropping to assemble outfits. Equally important is how the layered items form an ensemble that the customer can easily price and add to their cart. RIA techniques are being used here, but they are subtle and don't get in the way.

Interlacing a product zoom image behind product information and order-taking functionality would be problematic on the major e-commerce site, so this new concept is perfect to attempt first on a retail microsite.

However, real social shopping starts at the very front end: the customer, and not with the technology itself. Historically, information architects have a keen understanding of the mindset of a user and can construct optimal user interfaces for them.

But what about the mindset of a whole community? How do people interact within an online group? The information architects have only just begun thinking about this new social state of mind and how to optimize the social shopping experience as a result.

For instance, let's look at the so-called "private-event" retail concept. The idea here is to understand how a community shops socially within the context of a private event. Customers like belonging to an exclusive group, and when offered a special deal via a limited-time event, the experience becomes even more exclusive and exciting.

The events only run for a limited time and each event has very limited inventory, so needless to say it operates on the first-come, first-serve basis.

Social shopping is a major focus for retailers today. Baseline social capabilities such as ratings and reviews are widely accepted and adopted. Adding merchant blogs to drive SEO (search engine optimization) and customer loyalty have become popular, as have allowing customers to create references to retail products from Facebook, and Digg.

Retail Convergence, a company with a portfolio of various eCommerce websites, had wanted an invitation-only, event-based e-commerce site, separate from its other stores. This eventually became Many of the social shopping concepts integrated into the site are best-of-breed and innovative with the e-commerce experience (product catalog, product detail, shopping cart and checkout) specifically branded for the private-event retailing experience.

There are several examples of sites that are created to drive unique brands. The fundamental idea is to leverage your existing merchandising capabilities and push your products over multiple retail concept sites, each tuned for a different customer demographic. For example, Arizona Jeans is a retail concept site distinct in look and feel from its parent company JCPenney. The two sites effectively target different demographics.

Similarly, Urban Outfitters' site is targeted to a very different demographic than its Anthropologie brand. Both JCPenney and Urban Outfitters are using their core abilities to merchandise products in their sites, but are selling their products in very different ways using these distinct digital properties.

Even though has its own unique presentation, the back-end e-commerce capabilities leverage core services that already exist within Retail Convergence. That way, almost all of the effort involved in was spent on the unique portions of the retail concept, such as how invitations are sent and events created, and not wasted on building baseline e-commerce functionality.

However, what you don't want to do is create a new retail back-end for your retail concept, as this is too hard to build, maintain and, most importantly, keep it secure at all times. Hiring an IT organization to support this new retail concept isn't feasible either.

If your existing retail platform cannot readily support the back-end e-commerce features because hooking into it is too difficult, then a lightweight service-oriented architecture can be put in place that handles the translation of the new retail concept UI to the back-end of your existing retail store.

Overall efforts in creating a new retail concept should be 80 percent user interface and 20 percent back-end functionality. Your user interface engineers need a standardized platform that can be altered quickly, without a lot of architectural hindrances.

If the existing main retail site has services such as checkout, pricing and promotions engine, tax and shipping costs, and order management, then this back-end functionality should be used to build the new retail platform.

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Source: Tech Blog.

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