Shop talk

Steve Bowbrick discovers that what people really want from an Internet shopping site is a chat. Steve Bowbrick is chairman of Webmedia Group.

Retail design is a refined and civilised discipline. Pile ’em high and sell ’em cheap doesn’t work anymore. Even the out-of-town sheds are now retail experiences, working at many levels to satisfy deep needs, using colour, light, space and graphics to trigger unconscious feelings and associations – all feeding into increased sales and return visits. We are putty in the hands of these retail semioticians.

In the high street, the womb-like ambience of a Seattle Coffee Shop – soft-focus graphics, warm colours, scents and flavours all glued together by fanatically friendly service – make the assembly of your grande skinny vanilla latte with whip into a practically delirious experience. Down the road, punters travel miles for the carefully crafted blend of musty bin-ends, sawdust, chalky-fingered chumminess and apparent expertise they call Oddbins. I have no idea if they really are experts – I do know I’d rather buy a bottle of wine from the scruffy enthusiasts at Oddbins than the scrubbed know-nothings at their high street competitors. This has as much to do with the experience as it does with value-for-money or product quality.

Meanwhile, in the sterile aisles of the Internet shops we’re plunged into the cash-and-carry from the third circle of hell. These are not nice places. The average on-line store is grim – stuck firmly in a sort of digital parody of Seventies find-it-yourself service culture.

Even good on-line retail design has really only developed along one axis – the axis of service. At Amazon.com, the astoundingly successful US on-line bookshop, the organised information, simple ordering process and friendly tone make it a pleasure to shop, but Amazon cannot duplicate the other axis – that of experience. Will it ever be possible to reproduce the intense pleasure of entering a really good bookshop knowing you don’t have to be anywhere for a few hours? Not while the phone bill’s ticking, I suspect.

We know from the few good on-line retail efforts that customers at their computers are very good customers, spending more per visit than in real stores and less likely to be just looking. For these shoppers, the Web now constitutes a large part of the product selection process. By the time a customer reaches the product pages at your on-line store, they have probably already made up their minds, on the basis of better information than they’d have got in a store and in their own time.

Product comparison is so easy on the Web (no more schlepping up and down Oxford Street peering at identical TVs) that price differentials are very hard to sustain. In fact, economists speculate about the end of price as a differentiator in the connected age. They suppose that retailers may have to live on smaller and smaller margins – and even have a name for it – profitless prosperity. In this environment, retailers will have to try other differentiators – ease-of-use will be one of them but it won’t be the only one. Design, brand personality, mood and other such values will all work to differentiate websites, but many people think the killer differentiator will be that malleable term community.

Website owners have learnt that Internet users are sociable, confident and curious. They want to talk about their purchases to the retailer and to other shoppers, to compare notes and to whinge about bad experiences. They want a forum to do it in and retailers which provide them have experienced extraordinary growth in loyalty and average sale value. This is scary for retailers. Allowing customers to talk to each other – to compare deals and after-sale service, even to club together to get a better price – is anathema to many shop-owners. The retail business model is actually dependent on ignorance, or imperfect information as the economists call it. You only have to spend a few hours on-line, though, to realise that a community is not an optional feature. In the ultra-Darwinian ecology of on-line shopping, sites that don’t create and nurture communities will fail.

Retailers starting from scratch at least have the opportunity to chose a business with garrulous punters. Gardeners, for instance, are known chatterboxes and the isolated nature of the pursuit makes information sharing vital.

Garden Escape, an often-cited website selling garden supplies, has transformed itself from an on-line seed catalogue to a flourishing multi-million dollar business by adding discussion forums to its site. It turns out that gardeners really do want to talk about gardening – and they trust a retailer to provide the forum. They want to show off and to find out about those weird spots on their plum trees.

The Garden Escape homepage has something of the feel of a crowded, friendly garden centre – higgledy-piggledy design crowded with offers and features and inviting stuff. Behind all this, though, and underpinning it, is the site’s community, buzzing 24 hours a day with chatter about plants and gardens. Internet insiders knew all along that community was what made the Net different – only a few visionaries had any clue that one day the Web would buzz with commercial communities and that people would actually want to spend time there. They do spend time there, on average twice as long as at sites without communities and they come back more often.

So designers of on-line stores are going to have to forego the kind of psychologically complex, immersive sensory techniques they use in the real world. Incense, jazz music and uplighters have no useful analogues on-line – in fact, try to duplicate that real world ambience at your peril – there’s nothing cheesier than a dumb metaphor. Instead, focus on the design of places where people can talk to each other, feel at home and make a contribution. It’s these on-line communities that are making sense of the bewildering networks for novice users, populating the deserted spaces of the early Web and keeping users glued to websites in a way the average shopkeeper would kill for.

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