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Snazz your Storefront to the World Wide Web

Vasu Ram is the CEO of SolveIT Inc., a Massachusetts-based premier IT-solutions provider and an associate member of Promotional Product Professionals of Canada (PPPC). To learn more, visit www.customviewonline.com, and to learn more about the company, visit www.solveitcorp.com.

Designing an online storefront is as important as having a physical store, but some miss the point and fail in due diligence before establishing one. If it takes a few months of meticulous planning and designing to create the perfect ambience for the store, would you be willing to forego the process?

As much as a physical store should reflect a brand image and improve customer retention, an online store is the gateway to brand identity and needs to carry the same messaging and mirror the attributes of its tangible counterpart.

Lessons from the Amazon

The concept of a perfectly-designed online store has only gained more credence as the economy has shrunk into a recession in the last year or so. As the economic climate wears down and forces some traditional business practices to change, Internet has grown stronger. Amidst all the gloom and doom out of Wall Street, if there was a beacon for progress, it was Amazon. Was it just because Amazon had a clear focus and an easy-to-use interface? There is absolutely no doubt about it! Companies like Amazon allocate a significant amount of budget to researching user-interface enhancement and usability testing, trying to recreate user behavior and simplify the checkout process.

It’s understandable that not every business starting out on the web can spend that much time and money on user friendliness. However, the plethora of information a company could have on the web and the ability for even a small business to reach out to a global audience has opened up plentiful opportunities. Now, we see more and more businesses large and small competing in a virtual marketplace trying to take a piece of the pie.

The new age of conducting business over the web has built giants like the aforementioned Amazon, along with Priceline and eBay. Part of the reason might be that these empires were built only on the web, where many others have a storefront counterpart.

Web design 101

One pitfall involves presenting an overly-complex shopping cart; the chances of gaining a sale over the Internet improve drastically with a simple checkout system. This was found to be especially true in a recent study on shopping trends in the recession by independent-research company Forrester Research, Inc. Even though the research included the entire retail sector, the startling fact was that almost 59 percent of online purchases are dumped at the checkout, which usually hovered between 47 and 53 percent in the last six years. Part of it has to do with the overall mood of the consumer, but companies shouldn’t continually blame the economy for missed opportunities when there are ways to streamline stores, both on and offline.

Although selling online has many upsides, it also poses a few challenges. One of the main issues when designing an online storefront is how to structure relevant information. Be cautious in your approach to present relevant information—avoid smothering customers with information overload. Unless there is a clear strategy to communicate the products available for sale, it is easy to get lost. The marketplace is huge and so is the competition—unless potential customers have a means to find it, a store is doomed to fail. Based on my experiences working with all sizes of companies, here are some tips for setting up and marketing a virtual storefront.

Messaging

On an Internet storefront, messaging needs to be clear. Unlike a physical store, there aren’t handlers taking care of customers and directing them to the appropriate section. The messaging needs to convey what customers should do. The marketplace is huge and unless the potential customer finds information quickly, they will be lost. Accordingly, it’s also important that messaging be packaged in such a way that customers don‚Äôt have to spend too much time waiting for it to appear. This is very critical for the small- and medium-sized businesses that think a flashy intro will elevate their status on par with the big players, while in reality, the target demographic might not have the right technology to access it, will get frustrated and quickly leave the store.

Design

Like setting up the ambiance of a physical storefront, design should be based on the products/services being offered. The potential customer needs to be comfortable that he found the right place. A lot of thought needs to be given to this aspect as it is critical in securing customer loyalty. The home/landing page is the most important piece of the puzzle. Spend sufficient time in designing the feel. A grid layout with different products arranged in a grid-like format, like Amazon, is one option or a featured product can take the center stage with other products around it.

I have seen some stores with a “buy” button for each product right on the home page. If your product doesn’t require much explanation or detail, I find this idea impressive. It takes customers right to the checkout process from the homepage. Individual pages can be designed based on product style and flow. If offerings are interlinked, it’s better to feature associated products in the product-description page. For referral-based businesses, a user-review section is helpful to attain a certain sense of validation by providing customers the option to review and rank products.

Ease of use

Akin to friendly customer-service personnel in a physical store, a search feature and FAQ section should be incorporated to enable customers to get to the product/information they need. Recently, live chat is increasingly being used, providing a means to quickly ask a question and clarify. In a Jupiter Research survey, ease of use was the number one influential factor for online shoppers to continue shopping. Simplified registration, login and My Accounts pages can help ensure a happy customer. I can’t stress enough the importance of a simplified checkout process and its impact on user experience. Also, make sure to provide sufficient links, both on the top and bottom of pages during the checkout process, enabling customers to go back and browse products.

Seamless ordering process

Similar to physical stores, the effectiveness of a business will be measured by faster service. Just like a long line in front of the cashier/customer service area in the store, there is a queuing process in web stores as well. The faster the ordering process, the greater the opportunity to close the sale. Utmost care needs to be taken to make sure that the web store response is fast. It’s always better to have a safe and simplified checkout process that especially ensures the page loads quickly once the customer submits payment info and confirms the purchase.

When a design is implemented, it is very important to consider the above criteria. First and foremost, be sure the customer is drawn to the site and once in, make the experience so easy that he stays long enough to order. Ensure that the product quality and tools required to review them are available and accessible to the potential customer.

One common temptation is to go for template-driven sites. But each business is unique, so how is it possible to template a business? Even if it costs a few extra bucks, the design of the website should be made to fit your specific business needs. Remember, the homepage is the first impression and it is important that it mirrors your vision and image. Finally, implement some sort of Search Engine Optimization/Search Engine Marketing so that the site is visible to potential customers.