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Want to learn how to improve your company web site? Then let's take a trip to the mall.

Most web sites are still designed and developed by IT professionals. Some of the most accepted rules of the road for site design still reflect an IT mindset.

First among the well-entrenched rules is the belief that a well-designed web site will allow you to get in, get what you want and get out quickly. Probably a close second in the rule book is the idea that web copy should be short and less than one screen per page.

Ridiculous. To debunk such silly rules, let's first head to a department store for some men's underwear. Following established web development rules, the men's underwear should be hanging from a prominently displayed rack at the mall entrance to enable you to grab and go. But retailers have found that a store design that puts commodity merchandise front and center doesn't make much of a profit.

The retail store model looks quite different. Entering the store from the mall entrance, you'll probably be accosted by someone sampling fragrances, be forced to work your way through the cosmetics counter maze, past the fine jewelry and into women's shoes before finding a clear path to the men's department.

The reason is simple. Marketers know that fragrances are an impulse purchase and they also know that fragrances have the highest markup in the store. Commodities--like men's underwear, blue jeans and socks--will probably be the furthest from the mall entrance.

To make matters more difficult for the man on his underwear-buying mission, the store has eliminated a direct path from the mall entrance to the men's furnishings department. Instead, to get to the men's department, you must follow the yellow brick road, as it were.

Big stores tend to be designed according to what's commonly called the racetrack model. That means that to get to the back of the store, you must travel in a circle that takes you past a fair number of enticing aisle displays before you arrive at your destination.

Is this annoying? Sure. A little. Does it sell more merchandise? Sure. A lot!

Before we get into what online marketers can learn from department store designers and merchandisers, let's stop off at the supermarket for a gallon of milk.

If any bricks and mortar retailer should know how to get you in and out quick, it should be a grocer. In fact, they do a pretty good job of this while continuing to operate with sound retail marketing principles in mind.

First off, are bread and milk near the front of the store with their own checkout line? No.

Like the department store, the grocer puts the milk at the back of the store and separates it from its cousin, the bread group, in order to make you pass through a lot of yummies to accomplish your mission.

I've never visited a supermarket laid out on the racetrack model, but grocery marketers have their own ways of putting profitable product front and center. End caps, the displays at each end of an aisle, are the moneymakers of the grocery world and you'll likely encounter a half-dozen on the way to the milk and back.

And, as you walk to the dairy section, pay attention to the real estate you're passing through. In all likelihood, you're passing through the deli/bakery. Prepared foods are the fragrances of the grocery business. Don't think they're making fresh-roasted chicken and potato salad just to make your life easier.

If you've visited lately, you know how this online retailer has taken a cue from the grocery store in its marketing. At the checkout counter at Amazon, you find an array of last-minute, impulse opportunities specially selected based on what's already in your cart.

I've found it not uncommon to pause at the checkout at Amazon to review a book they've presented to me at the last minute. And, I've even bought something a time or two.

That brings us to point of this shopping exercise. Getting people in and out of your company web site as quickly as possible shouldn't be the chief goal. The chief goal should be to sell something--even support sites should be approached from a sales perspective!

Understanding this goal, the question then becomes how to balance sales strategies with service strategies. How do you enable someone to navigate with ease through the web site while taking advantage of the selling opportunity that their visit presents?

One way is to determine the purpose of the visit quickly. One strategy for doing this is to separate existing customers seeking support from the browsers. Another is to ask the visitor upfront what he or she wants to do--buy a book, look for a job, listen to music samples, find a software patch, and the like.

The general idea is to get them on their way quickly. The less a visitor has to hunt for what he is looking for, the more likely he is to notice his surroundings. And, that will enable you to deliver important sales messages throughout the visit. Recognizing repeat visitors is another segmentation technique.

The thought process for the web developer, as well as the bricks and mortar retailer, is essentially the same--increase hang time for visitors, but ensure the time is productive. For the web developer, that means making things easy to find, making pages load quickly, and reducing clutter.

Secondly, use visitor research to steer people past your end caps.

At, the online outdoor outfitter, I can navigate to men's underwear quickly from the home page. But at each click, I'm faced with prominent sales pitches to buy seasonally promoted items (the end caps of the online retailing world).

Also, on the home page I'm enticed to visit pages I never intended to visit with powerful pitches and offers to help me improve my outdoor experiences.

Even web sites that don't sell product online can adopt this same mindset.

First, you need to understand that the chief purpose of almost every web site in cyberspace is to present information that makes someone want to take some form of action.

Second, you need to know what you sell.

And, third, you need to know how to convince people who visit your site to bite.

At the product is school buses. Most are purchased through the bid process and visitors to the site can't buy a thing online. But the site still exhibits a retailer mindset.

Check out the home page, where visitors are enticed to view the latest product innovations through clickable news blurbs. And, at each click, headers and secondary artwork show the various models of buses that the company offers.

The goal of this site is to get visitors to hit the contact page or visit the dealer locator page and to then make contact with the company. The two most-linked-to pages in the site are therefore the contact page and the dealer locator search page. The company knows its mission and it is reflected in the site design.

The Thomas Bus site also ignores the rule that insists copy should be short. Some pages feature three screens or more of text describing specifications. Why? The reason is that many times visitors to the site are shopping for offline decision makers, and they want to be able to provide them with a full and extensive selling package by printing a few pages.

These web developers understand that making friends with visitors by getting them in and out of their site quickly is not a goal. Their aim is to make visitors aware of their own needs and offer ways their company can help them meet those needs.

Continue reading "What Web Developers Can Learn from Retailers" ... Read the full article

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Stern Dixon ( is president of MarketComm, LLC, of Charlotte, North Carolina, an integrated marketing communications firm.

MarketingProfs Partner