Sunday, January 18, 2009

Big three retail web stores

First off, let me confess, I am employed by Sears Holdings Company, so my evaluation might have some bias. I have tried very hard to be as unbiased (for OR against) as possible. That having been said, one thing that really bothers me is how many large retailers with an online presence continuously fail to understand basic things like web design.

As a quick and unscientific measure, I thought I'd review a big box retail sites and give a quick once over. The selections are based on my personal preferences and have no real scientific backing. Let's use the following sites:
Sears (obviously)

To make it real, I'm actually going to try and buy some new socks. It's winter here in Chicago and my last pair of Smartwool socks now has a hole in it. Again, not scientific, pretty practical.

First off, the 800lb gorrilla of retail.

One thing that blows me away is the huge waste of real estate for anyone with a wide-screen monitor. If you look at this image, the yellow and black hatching shows how much wasted space there is. I've spoken with some folks working in online divisions of other retailers and all I ever hear is "but it's HARD to build a page that fills different monitor sizes". My Answer "Yep, that's why competent web designers and developers get paid lot's of money".

Beyond that, there are advertisements from third parties hawking car insurance (apparently from two different companies). It's pretty cluttered and seems to have no rhyme nor reason to how things are organized. Overall I'd say my impression is that it's design is on the borderline of professional and hobbyist.

Frankly, the site is cluttered, crowded, and otherwise a cacophony of sights and sounds reminiscent of the days before people started paying attention to basic design tenets.

In addition to the clunky design, the menus seem to pop underneath the advertisements when using Firefox. The Marketing guys at Wal-mart's online division would probably be a little upset if almost 1/2 of their potential customers will have a crappy experience. Why is this simple thing broken? I bet it 1/2 the people at a Wal-mart got hit in the head with a brick when the entered the store it would get fixed quickly.

Now I search for "wool socks" and get a good 20-30 pages of ever kind of sock EXCEPT wool. Cotton, nylon, aluminum (just kidding), but no wool. Only at the VERY bottom of the page do I get results for wool socks, but they're from a different retailer.

OK, Walmart, you get an 'A' for honesty, but an 'F' for usefulness. If I wanted general purpose search, I'd use google and never bother with your search tool.

Now for Sears.

Sears has the same wasted space problem as walmart. It's as if the online retailing giants all got together and decided to ignore wide screen monitors. Sears, on the other hand, looks nice and tidy and it seems they've spent a lot of time making thing work together. In addition, it doesn't have the apparently random advertisements that appear on Wal-mart's site. Sears works and looks nicely in Firefox.

Search blew me away, it displayed a sane number of results and they where ALL wool socks, exactly what I was looking for! Or so I thought. It turns out I assumed they where all wool, but nowhere on the page did it explicitly say that. If I had my way, I ask to have the search term displayed in context with the results.

Next, Target.

Huge waste of screen space again, all three so far all pretty have this same problem. Target also looks clean, uncluttered, and well organized. The bright red is a striking contrast to the cool blue for both Wal-mart and Sears. I suppose this could work for or against it. As far as Firefox, Target seems to work as well as Sears.

Search was wholly disappointing, Target returned only 1 result for my search which, instead of being socks, was a book!

For a company that uses a bullseye as their logo and a name like Target, they sure missed this one BIG.

Overall, I'd say the results are pretty surprising. For a company as large as Wal-mart with a veritable license the print money, it's web site is pretty clunky. It's search is antique and off-mark and the clutter of the extra unrelated advertisements just makes the site seem unfriendly and cluttered.

Target, on the other hand, looks very nice and clean and seems to function well. The inability to return ANY relevant results is a serious miss though. They probably need to go find a real search engine and properly index their site.

Sears, though, was a clear winner. The site was clean, functional, and it's search results where perfectly on the mark. My only improvement would be to make sure that the relevant search terms could be mixed into the list of results to make comparison shopping a little easier. Good job!

Like I said before, I happen to work for Sears Holdings (though not in in the division) but I've tried to be as unbiased as possible. I haven't been paid for this and frankly thought that Sears was not going to perform as well as it did.

If you think my findings are suspect, try for yourself and form your own opinion. I would love to hear your personal results!

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