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Some More Good News About Online Retailing

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Last week, I decided to share some good news from one of our most recent endeavors, where we evaluate and grade retailers’ online offerings. After years of bad marks, retailers seem to have turned a corner and are on the road to making real progress in many of the criteria we examined.

After yet another week of tumult and consternation in this country (the passing of a supreme court legend, natural disasters aplenty and an election “season” in its full filthy swing), I figured this week we could use as much more as possible.

So here are some of the finer points of what we discovered when we evaluated 80 retailers’ online presence. The average score this year was a 57/100 (far better than the 48/100 from 2019), and this year’s overall winner – Ralph Lauren – scored a 79/100.

Good News Trend #1: More Retailers Are Finding Creative Ways To Incorporate Content Into A Logical Mobile Flow

In past years’ research, retailers’ struggle to determine, “What does a good mobile version of the full desktop site look like?” loomed large.

This year, it became immediately evident that many retailers have been addressing this issue head-on, employing multiple various tactics to get all of their desktop information onto their mobile site. Some are better than others, but below are some standouts:

-A number of brands, (Kay Jewelers, Bed Bath & Beyond) simply reformat everything to make it fit the smaller format without changing the flow. This is a better approach than a carbon copy of the desktop site and shows an understanding of the different ways people want to interact by device – without giving any one channel the advantage/disadvantage to the other without knowing why (for example, a promotion going unseen)

J. Crew, by way of comparison, completely changes the order of all of its images and promotions. Where a particular promotion may be the header on their desktop site, it is all the way at the bottom on the mobile site. This approach suggests it may be A/B testing content in different formats to compare results

-Many (Express, Uniqlo, Tory Burch) convert the longitudinal content of the desktop site into latitudinal swiping options. While this tactic prevents endless mobile scrolling, it does require the user to pay more attention to subtle design cues – sometimes as subtle as dots beneath an image – that suggest there is more content for the user to see to the left or right

Casper does a very nice job of this, making sure big arrows pointing left and right ensure the user knows that there is more content to take in on either side

Northface does a great job taking desktop content onto mobile, as well. It features flash images that are 4-across on the header of its desktop – which then become 2-across that flash to the original 4 on mobile. It is a very clever solution to a commonly-shared problem among retailers. also does something unique: On desktop, the hero bar scrolls with all kinds of outdoor activities. On mobile, they are all unique sections moving top to bottom. This means the desktop is short and wide, while the mobile site is skinny and long – the direct opposite of what a lot of others do. It is extremely effective

Footlocker converts some of its desktop promotions into popups along the mobile experience. This is less than ideal (too many popups often become a problem), but still better than many of the practices we see in our Bad News section, later on

-And others still, (Topshop) simply cut the amount of content on their mobile site down. This is also less ideal, but for a retailer short on technical resources, at least accomplishes the goal of preventing shoppers from having to scroll for miles on their mobile device

Lastly, one of the most interesting approaches to solving this problem comes from Revolve. The brand’s mobile site is drastically different, featuring the same hero image, but with nothing more than a very clean menu beneath it. It is an elegant solution to a complicated problem.

Good NewsTrend #2: The Shopper Experience Has Vastly Improved In The Past Year

Retailers earned the majority of the improvement in their scores this year due to concerted efforts to improve the shopper’s overall experience. In fact, with an average score of 12.3 points out of the 15 points on offer, the retailers in our study averaged the school grade equivalent of an 82%, or a B- here. This is a tremendous improvement. In fact, PVH Corp. did something no other retailer has ever done in our evaluations: its Calvin Klein website took all available points in a category, scoring a perfect 15 out of 15. The video features on its homepage were edited far too quickly for our analysts’ aged eyes, but were likely perfect for the company’s target audience.

Other strong offerings here came from our overall winner, Ralph Lauren, as well as Arcadia Group (TopShop), Talbots, and Urban Outfitters. Overall, we were very impressed with how user friendly most sites have become.

Good News Trend #3: Innovative Technologies For Checkout And Login Pages

New for this year was our criteria to evaluate retailers’ checkout process. Why? Since we already gather data on the number of 3rd party services on these sites, we wanted to take it one step further: How many 3rd parties do retailers have on their checkout and login pages?

There are good, innovative technology services retailers should use on checkout and login pages, but many should simply not be there. The checkout pages are the most vulnerable to Magecart attacks, form skimming and PII data breaches, where the impact on shoppers can significantly damage brands. One of the big factors of those risks are 3rd parties having access to sensitive shopper data.

The 3rd parties that do belong on the checkout pages (3 or 4 at most!) can be great, and help push shoppers through the purchase. Don’t want to pay all at once? AfterPay is a popular service for interest free installments. Want your package faster? ShopRunner offers unlimited free 2-day shipping. Here are some brands that are doing a good job using these innovative technologies:

Urban Outfitters received maximum points here, accepting all major credit cards, PayPal, Apple Pay, China Union, and AfterPay

Neiman Marcus did as well, adding such features as ShopRunner and Ship-to-FedEx Pickup to the fray

Blue Nile goes so far as to accept AliPay, WeChatPay, and even Bank Wire. This matchup of high-ticket-price jewelry and multiple international payment methods is a perfect match here

-And Walgreens and 1-800 Flowers are among the very few retailers accepting the Visa Checkout program, which is designed to skip the hassle of inputting payment and shipping info each time

The bad news here is that retailers got hurt in this category – significantly – due to having way too many 3rd parties at checkout. The average across retailers was 25. While a handful made a respectable showing (Men’s Wearhouse collected 8 out of the 12 points in play), most retailers sacrificed a lot. With an average score of 2.3/12 in this category, the average retailer we evaluated is giving away more than 80% of the points they could have achieved in the checkout category, all because they are putting their shoppers’ data at risk. Read the section below on how the presence of 3rd parties is a legitimate consumer risk to learn more.

Good News Trend #4: Those Who Approach Design With Intent Are Clearly Pulling Away

Among the retailers we evaluated, only a few featured what we would consider next-level design. But for those who did, the difference in ability to “think from the perspective of a shopper who loves the brand” became readily apparent.

Under Armour features quick video uploads on its homepage of regular people doing workouts at their homes during the pandemic. Visitors could not only get ideas for home-based workouts, but each one had a short text explanation from the uploader next to it, and then links to “shop the look” for everything being worn by the uploader

Chico’s site features “submit a picture” functionality for user-generated-content, as well. Each item being worn links directly to shop the look, enabling shoppers to see a more real-world version of the outfit in question than the standard in-studio fashion shoot

In both of these cases, the content felt a bit “staged,” as the photographs and models both seemed a bit too perfect to be man-on-the-street user-generated content. Still – the tactic certainly seemed effective in the effort to both build community – and sell apparel. Those who think in new and different ways about the “traditional” design of their website stand to pull away from the pack.

Of course, within the full report, we also examine some of the less positive results from our research. We invite you to check it out if you’re interested in the full picture.

Newsletter Articles September 22, 2020
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