When you are designing a shop, whether online or in the real world, one of the most important design criteria is that you want to make it as easy as possible for your customers to find the products that they want to buy. One of the best counter-examples for this is the London bookshop, Foyles. For many years they insisted on organising their shelves by publisher rather than the more usual arrangement which is by subject matter. This meant that if you wanted, for example, to buy a book on web design then you had to explore each publisher’s section to see if they published any books on that subject. I know many people (myself included) who wouldn’t shop in Foyles until they rearranged the shop a few years ago.
When there are alternative ways to organise your products, the skill is in knowing which arrangement is going to be most useful to your customers. Are most people looking for books goingto be looking for books on a particular subject or books by a particular publisher? In most shops you don’t have the space to have more than one classification on display so you have to pick one.
Online, it’s different. Your inventory is just a database. You are free to put as many different front ends on that database as you want. Amazon can very easily allow customers to browse by subject matter, by publisher, by author or by any number of alternative classifications. It’s just a case of creating a new query against the database.
Not all online shops have worked that out though. I’ve written previously about how I enjoyed buying shoes from Cloggs. I’ve since discovered that I there is another, less helpful, side to the Cloggs site.
On my previous visits, I had been shopping in “publisher” mode. I knew I wanted Dr Martens shoes. On another visit I knew I wanted Levis jeans. And the Cloggs site made those purchases easy. They had a Dr Martens page and a Levis page. I could just choose the exact products that I needed. Recently I went back with a far more vague idea of what I wanted. I wanted to buy some sandals and I didn’t really care who they were made by. I drilled down through the web site to “Guys” (I know!) and “Footwear”. But that’s where it went wrong. I was presented with a list of all of the brands of mens shoes that Cloggs sell. To get more detail I had to visit each brand’s page individually. It took ages. And I still didn’t find what I wanted.
Cloggs have missed an important point about being on the web. Their site is like the (old style) Foyles. Their classification works for some (probably a small number) of their visitors, but not for the majority. And it doesn’t need to be like that. On the web you have the flexibility to present your data in many different ways. You can tailor your web site to any customer’s requirements. Whoever designed the software that powers their site wasn’t thinking about the web. They were apparently still thinking of physical shops where one classification system is the norm.
I don’t mean to pick on Cloggs specifically. I’m sure there are many other online shops that work the same way. Maybe even most online shops work like that. But it’s shortsighted. It doesn’t exploit the power of the web. A virtual shop (and that is what we’re talking about) can be anything that you want it to be. Unlike physical shops, it’s not constrained by the size of the building.
All of which got me thinking. Have any shops tried allowing customers to define the classification of the products? I’m thinking of a site where customers can add tags to products and other customers can search by either shop-defined tags (“men”, “footwear”, “dr martens”, “sandals”) or by customer-defined tags (“what david beckham was wearing last week”). I sounds to me like a powerful way to run an online shop, but I can’t find any evidence of anyone trying it.
Maybe I need to see how hard it is to thrash out a prototype.