Transplanting the In-store Experience to the Online Environment

By Mark Brixton | 10 Jul 2012

Replicating a fantastic retail experience online is paramount for e-commerce success, Mark Brixton from SLI Systems pinpoints the crucial elements to achieve web store optimisation.

The online retail space is an increasingly competitive industry to be involved in. As a merchant, the difference between failure and success can sometimes leave very little room for error, and this is particularly true when it comes to site design.

Consumers may shop online for a variety of reasons, however recent trends are showing that having the best price isn’t the be all and end all of e-commerce success. Customers demand quick and easy access to relevant product information, and they prefer to buy from stores that can best replicate a fantastic retail experience in the virtual environment.

In order to satisfactorily reproduce that in-store experience, careful thought must be applied to the design, navigation and product presentation at every level of an online offering. This may be more crucial in some verticals, like fashion, but any brand that excels in these areas stands to get ahead in a crowded market, no matter what product they sell.


When it comes to designing a retail experience, too many sites approach the task from a features and functionality angle.  Instead, careful consideration should be given to how different users want to exploit those features and functions.

To begin with, customers must be thoroughly researched, by attempting to segment them into broad categories. How did they find the site? What are they coming to the site for? Next, it becomes a case of ensuring that site design meets the needs of each of these customers in a manner that’s as efficient and frictionless as possible.


No matter which customer you observe, the most important factor in replicating the in-store experience for them will be in the site’s ability to find products for the customer.

For example, when customers walk into a bricks-and-mortar store, they may want to aimlessly browse products on racks or shelves. Yet, they will still invariably want the option of being able to ask a sales assistant to find a specific product for them.

The online experience should be no different. By applying intelligent search functionality to a site, customers are provided with their own personal concierge. Intelligent search can yield accurate results quickly, as well as providing relevant product alternatives, accessories or customer service suggestions should a specific product be unavailable.

Bicycle retailer CELLbikes has utilised intelligent search for maximum benefit. When a site user searches for a bicycle brand not stocked by the retailer, such as Giant, a clever banner is returned in the search results reading, “Don’t make a Giant mistake’, positioned above alternative product suggestions.


Beyond the customers’ ability to find their ideal product, the presentation and content associated with their search results is usually the next area of focus that has the power to lift conversions or boost bounce rates!

Merchandising for an e-commerce shopfront essentially incorporates a delicate balance of product imagery, search functionality, social media and user-generated content such as ratings and reviews. Again, exactly how a retailer arrives at the correct mix of these ingredients relies on careful analysis of consumer behaviour and preferences, and continual performance testing.

Site search functionality can be employed to further the potential power of a web store’s merchandising efforts, with returned results including product images as well as user-generated content. Site search merchandising can be utilised for the following techniques:

  • Highlighting and adjusting product position within search results, based on defined options and rules
  • The ability to control search result ordering to match your site objectives
  • Define custom landing pages for specific high use search queries
  • Control the placement of banners on search results pages to highlight specific promotional activities
  • Up-sell and cross-sell products with dynamic banners, related products, and related searches

When using fashion pure player Zodee’s search function, relevant results are returned along with other search suggestions under the heading “Search Suggestions”. Customer reviews and ratings also appear on the page, along with customer questions and answers, related searches, price saving information, colour options, and product features. With all of this information, Zodee aims to answer any potential questions customers may have about the products it sells.


Stepping beyond a site’s merchandising capabilities–and the way search functionality can be used to further harness them–is its general navigation structure. This too can be optimised for recreating the in-store experience.

Intelligent navigation makes finding desired products on a website even easier by dynamically building site navigation pages using product metadata, and by analysing the behaviour of site visitors.

Site visitors are given more options for navigating a site, while retailers gain a powerful way to merchandise online product catalogues. An intelligent navigation tool such as SLI Systems’ Learning Navigation also continually tracks visitors’ aggregate click-through behaviour to list products in order of most to least popular–increasing the likelihood that people will find what they’re looking for, and make a purchase.

For retailers that stock and sell thousands of different types of products across numerous categories, effective website navigation is essential. Appliances Online, a pureplay appliances retailer, has executed well-organised and resourceful navigation. With its main categories easy to locate and further divided into sub categories, its website visitors movements are tracked with breadcrumbs so they can easily find their way around the site.

It’s easy to see that implementing intelligent search, merchandising and navigation methods allows for a higher level of personalisation, so that each segmented user-type can be optimally catered for. The point of such consistency is to not only replicate the in-store experience, but to make it such that it’s a frictionless one for the customer too.

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