The following is an excerpt from my 2001 book, Web Design that Works.
The launch of the Internet invoked an industry boom—pretty much anyone who considered himself an analyst was boldly predicting that the Web would squash brick-and-mortar retailers. If people didn’t have to leave home to do their shopping—if they were able to have absolutely anything they needed delivered to their home, how could traditional stores compete?
The dawn of the 21st century effectively dashed these predictions. Physical stores remained as strong as ever, while dot-com retailers folded one by one. While there was a lot of finger-pointing and blame passed around, the hard truth was that, in most cases, the Internet retailers weren’t yet ready or able to compete. Sites weren’t designed to be user-friendly, technology was shoddy, customer service was nil. and They learned the hard way that simply allowing people to shop online wasn’t enough—that in order to succeed, retailers would have to incorporate several of the elements of traditional, in-store shopping online to their sites.
There’s a lot to learn from the following sites, and most of these cues don’t have to do with technology or design, but rather taking a cue from traditional in-store shops. Consider Red Envelope ‘s copious customer service center. Shoppers here won’t feel like they’re floundering in cyberspace with three different ways to contact Red Envelope, including a one-on-one live online chat with a customer service representative.
Tiffany.com draws extensively from its successful parent store, luxury retailer Tiffany & Co. for a sophisticated, elegant approach to its site design. The site design is designed to approximate the in-store experience of shopping at Tiffany’s as much as possible, with high-resolution images representing the Tiffany products and detailed product information to supplement the advice of a sales associate.
Other sites seize the power of the Web to give themselves a competitive advantage over other sites. Technology brings a competitive advantage in terms of the customization ability it brings the user. Customatix.com allows customers to personally design athletic shoes to order on their site, personalizing every last detail. Try doing that in your local Athlete’s Foot store. As Customatix’s Mikal Peveto says, “Customization is soon to be the rule and not the exception to it—especially in the ecommerce side of the business world.”
The capacity to remember customer information and sort and organize products can make online stores a huge time-saver for repeat customers. Webvan.com accomplishes something you won’t be able to do in any other store you’ll find—immediately track down items in past orders, and put toothpaste right next to peanut butter in your personal market. Furthermore, Webvan’s powerful search technology allows visitors to quickly find items, and sort results.
And the Web can be used to convey an essential sense of style as well. Burton.com chose to create a an immersive, high-intensity site to appeal to the snowboarding audience.