Ok. You’ve built your site. Found a good host. Promoted your URL and submitted to search engines. You constantly trawl resources like SitePoint for the latest ways to boost traffic, generate loyalty, and build a community.
But sales are still slow. Why? Your catalog could be letting you down.
Whether it displays only branded merchandise as a side-issue to the main purpose of your site, or it’s the core of your business as an online store, your electronic catalogue is critical to your sales.
It sounds obvious, but few people actually put any planning into their online catalog. Perhaps they’ve bought an off-the-shelf ecommerce solution, and think that all they need to do is simply follow the product instructions. Or maybe they’ve left the maintenance of their catalogue to their Webmaster. Either way, a half-hearted approach to your online catalog will result in sub-standard sales.
Analyze your Store
Take a look at your site stats and identify just how many shoppers you lose at the point of purchase. Users may click away from your online store for a number of reasons. For instance:
- They don’t think your product meets their needs
- They can’t find a product they want
- They lose interest and decide to look elsewhere
- They don’t like the look of what they see in your catalog
- They think they can get a better deal elsewhere
- They don’t trust the security of their personal details on your site
Each of these failures can be easily fixed if you simply take the time to identify where your site lets you down.
Consider your Medium and Usage Situation
Because the online store is a metaphor borrowed in totality from real life, we tend to think very literally about our electronic shopfronts and their associated collateral. However, shopping online is not just like shopping in a bricks-and-mortar store. Why not?
- Shoppers can’t experience your product as easily â€“ if you sell music or books, you’re lucky. If it’s clothes or bicycles or a giant inflatable Tyrannosaurus Rex, product experience will be a challenge for your customers.
- Shoppers make purchase decisions based on images in your catalog â€“ they’re not standing in a store surveying shelves of goods from which to choose. The online search process can take a long time, particularly when it comes to choosing between products on different sites.
- Shoppers don’t usually have access to instant, face-to-face assistance in an estore – sure, you might have to wait for help in the local shopping centre, but once you’ve got the sales assistant’s full attention, you’re unlikely to let them go until you’ve asked them all you need to know.
- While online shopping might be allotted more of the user’s time than are some other online tasks, speed is still of the essence – where a user might sit down with a cup of tea to look through your physical catalog, they face different pressures in the online environment.
So what do your shoppers want? Speed. Brevity. Information. Security. Ease.
Make Your Site Sell
Jay Levinson and Charles Rubin’s essential text, Guerilla Marketing Online Weapons, suggests a number of techniques to improve the sales success of your catalog:
A well-presented contents page that lists your categories in an easy-to-understand, navigable manner will give your users a good starting point. Consider http://www.sony.com/. Here, menu item rollovers provide a sub-menu for extra information, in case you’re not sure which top level menu item to select.
Use of Graphics
Use high-quality, fast-loading thumbnails which, when the user clicks on them, appear in a more detailed popup window. This puts control over the purchase experience back into the user’s hands: they’re not forced to wait for long downloads of pages heavy with graphics.
Also, try to include images alongside (not amongst) text. And remember that the inclusion of extra items to make your picture more attractive not only wastes precious download speed and page space on superfluous graphics, but also means that you run the risk of confusing users. Australia’s http://www.greengrocer.com.au exemplifies these guidelines to the letter.
Avoid forcing readers to scroll or click through extra pages in order to get essential product information. You want them to be able to understand all they need to know at a glance. http://www.petsmart.com is a great example. Not only are product descriptions punchy and written with personality, but they’re descriptive, and the user has the option to access more detailed information on each product type if they need it.
A decent search facility is essential to any online store. Allow your users to search by any parameter they could conceivably imagine â€“ and let them to click through easily from the results listing to view information on each product. There’s a good search facility at http://www.landsend.com. If your search returns a huge number of results, the search page will display only a couple from each category, offering users the option to click through in order to view all the results returned from a particular category.
Support your Catalog
There’s a literally unlimited range of other techniques that you can employ to complement your efforts in your online catalog:
1. Offer samples and guarantees
It’s old news, but surprisingly few sites do it. If you can’t offer a sample of the product (either online, as a download, or through the mail), make sure your guarantee is reasonable, and that you stand by it. Shoppers need reassurance that they’re not going to get something they don’t want.
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http://www.landsend.com allows users to view items of clothing assembled on a model â€“ handy if your shoppers are putting together outfits, or want to see what a new garment will look like with an item they already have.
2. Cater to different information needs
While shoppers may be united in certain aspects (e.g. they all want to be able to assess your offering quickly and easily) it’s true that you won’t know what particular aspect of a product or service they really care about.
For instance, if you sell whitegoods, one shopper might be most interested in a refrigerator’s size, temperature settings, and bonus features (like that handy automatic ice crusher!), while another might be more concerned with warranties, whether you carry out repairs and maintenance, and your delivery areas. The solution? If you can’t fit everything you need to one that first page of product content, provide more detailed information in an optional format, such as a printable fact sheet, popup or alternate page.
3. Facilitate return visits
Often, users buy on subsequent visits to your site, not on their first. So you need to make it easy for them to come back:
- allow users to bookmark individual product information pages
- allow visitors to email themselves (or friends) information on products, and print information directly from your site with ease
- provide them with the opportunity to store favourites etc. in your system for future access
4. Make it easy for shoppers to contact you
While we can’t all afford a full customer service staff to man phones and participate in online chat, the provision of a quick, easy channel for customers to communicate with your business can mean the difference between making a losing a customer.
5. Use appropriate language
That is, use language that suits your users, your brand personality, and the look and feel of your site. Avoid all those marketing clichÃ©s and terminology that will baffle, intimidate, or confuse.
And remember: your online catalog is the point at which all your targeting and promotional efforts will succeed or fail. It’s worth the effort to get it right!
Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and sitepoint.com cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.
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