A Tail of E-tail (1)

[November 13, 2009]

As guilty pleasures go, shopping may be among the most harmless, even if, like anything else, it has the potential to become addictive. In the U.S. at least, when all else fails, the temptation to go out and “get more stuff” is simply irresistible.

Enter e-merchandisers, ready to capitalize. By now, they’re everywhere in digital space—some out in the open, some lurking in the back pages of sites devoted to loftier things.

Like it or not, since they do make up such a large chunk of what we still quaintly call “the Web,” e-merchandisers exert considerable influence on users’ cumulative experience. Anyone arriving here from a typical e-merchandising site knows what I mean. Most likely, your head is still spinning from the garish imagery and whiz-bang promotional lingo. How do e-merchandisers work their dark magic? Let’s have a look, starting with a popular jewelry chain, Kay Jewelers.

Here is a classic case of design by accretion without regard to its global visual impact. The site is simply a series of buckets. All the same, Kay.com succeeds in a number of important ways—precisely because Kay has thought deeply about a jewelry buyer’s state of mind.

Combining traditional sales promotion with consumer education, Kay demonstrates its expertise at no cost, as a way to instill trust. For example, an easy-to-use 4Cs Diamond Guide demystifies the topic in no time. This goes a long way to reassuring customers pulled in several directions by the cost—in dollars and emotion—attached to any major jewelry purchase.

The site also features a large index of product shots, to be enlarged, zoomed and “rotated.” While there’s nothing new about that, Kay’s commitment to educating consumers adds up to a very effective messaging strategy. Without recourse to blinky banners or oily voiceovers, the site’s resources combine to convey a single message:

We empathize with your concerns and we’re here to help you make an informed decision.

Still, I can’t help wondering how much more effective this site could be with a less functional design and a more functional navigation. Yes, the sheer volume of merchandise does require maximizing display space. But the sameness of each page quickly dulls a visitor’s enthusiasm and is not mitigated by the use of cookie-cutter stock photography.

As a further drag on enthusiasm, the user path loses most of its momentum below the top-level navigation. Get a few layers deep in your search for the perfect diamond engagement ring and you’ll have a tough time finding “that other ring” you saw a few pages back. Also missing is the ability to make side-by-side comparisons of selected items. I

n my next post, I’ll look at a very different approach to the problem of displaying wares online, as taken by a well-known retailer with a distinctive sense of style.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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