After interviewing hundreds of retailers over the years I walked away with the idea that many are unaware of the effectiveness level of their websites. After all, even though all of us probably spend an appreciable amount of time surfing the web, most of us know as much about what makes Google tick as we know about quantum physics.
Lots of retailers I have talked with have started out some years back with a pretty simple website, a site put together by that pimply-faced kid down the street. Some years later after a phone call from some slick sales guy, using words like, Boolean and anti-aliasing followed by the big clincher: Those essential acronyms like GCI and SEO that are sure to impress but in reality in terms of what they mean the guy might as well be speaking Bulgarian.
But they worked and we were sold.
Anyway, the new and improved site looked 100% better than the acne kid’s site and we had no idea what all the rest of the stuff meant anyway. We just knew we needed to get in this century as far as being online was concerned. We still had lots of questions about the site but we weren’t asking if our new site was a Hugo or a Mercedes. All we did know was that it had wheels and it moved. We were rolling and at least we were in the ball game just like the big guys.
One thing I know about the Internet is that it changes on a daily basis. What was effective last month is now about as stale as yesterday’s pizza. A website that was producing like crazy a year ago delivering leads like crazy is very likely producing at half speed today.
That’s why I set up an interview with John Simonson of Flooring Web Solutions. John is a font of valuable knowledge about everything Internet and, on top of that, he’s a guy who understands the floor covering industry and the consumer.
The following are excerpts from this lengthy and insightful conversation that helps shed some light on the many confusing complexities of the Internet, how it works and most of all how retailers can better harness it to their advantage. You can find the complete interview in the “Floor Radio” archives section on the TalkFloor.com website, which is also accessible via Floor Trends’website, floortrendsmag.com.
TF: You were exhibiting at Surfaces and talked to retailers for the full three days of the show, what kinds of questions did they most often ask?
Simonson: Nearly all of the dealers we talked with were looking for ways to drive more targeted flooring customers to their website and ultimately to their stores. Many said they are looking for help with a formatted website or a website that they said was really not working as they had hoped. They said they felt their site just didn’t convey the message of their business accurately.
Just about everyone had questions about attracting more local shoppers to their site and in turn to their store. Most, because they’re no longer new to the Internet and now understand more about the web then they did when they made the decision on their earlier site, wanted to enhance what they have and make more impact with social media.
TF: Is it your feeling that many industry sites are simply outdated? They were functional a number of years ago but now they’re just obsolete? Is that what we’re dealing with?
Simonson: Absolutely. So much has changed. Look at Google and the search engines and browsers technology in general. The technology across the board has changed considerably. That leaves many sites old and flat, and I’m talking about not only about retailers but manufacturers and distributors as well.
TF: Do you feel that as a general rule manufacturer’s website are lacking and fall into this category of being outmoded?
Simonson: Absolutely. No question about it. They just don’t address what the consumer really wants today. You have to remember, the shopper of today is very sophisticated about the Internet. She spends a great deal of time online. She knows what wows her, she knows what excites her, and engages her and what sites really don’t measure up.
Now I’m talking about the mid-tier and smaller manufacturers that are way off the mark, you can see the bigger players—Armstrong, Mohawk, Shaw and Mannington—are embracing the technology. But the majority of the players need to step up their investment if they really want to wow the consumer and drive traffic.
TF: Getting back to the retailer, it appears that many dealers were anxious to have an Internet presence and worked to put up a reasonably effective site. But once they got it up and running they rarely seem to think about it. They just go back to business as usual. To make a site effective it sounds like it’s an ongoing venture, something you really have to work at day in and day out.
Simonson: It’s imperative for a retailer to keep his site fresh and updated. It’s important to check Google Analytics frequently to see what elements on the site are interesting the shoppers. Are you getting leads? Are they filling out requests for a free estimate? And if shoppers are not responding then obviously it’s a good idea to make some changes to the site and ask yourself the question: What do I have to do to better engage the consumer?
TF: Can we say that if a website doesn’t look attractive and stylish the consumer can presume you can’t make her home look attractive and stylish?
Simonson: There are several approaches retailers can take with their sites. You can take the Lumber Liquidator or warehouse approach, promoting $.49 laminate or $.49 hardwood with a sample swatch. This is an old standard selling tactic: Throw something cheap out there, a leader item to get the customer in the store and then work to convert her to something more expensive once she walks in the door.
That’s one approach, but if a retailer has a better store and he really sets out to wow the consumer, he probably wants to be thinking about separating himself from the warehouse and big box operators, and have an entirely different, more fashionable look and feel.
In that case he really needs to educate the consumer as to why she should do business with him, which most sites just don’t do. Too often retail sites immediately immerse consumers in product samples. This is big a mistake. Consumers already know about Home Depot and Lumber Liquidators, but they need a strong reason right up front to do business with you verses anyone else.
I have seen many sites that show a host of little product swatches. I look at that and say, “When a women sets out to buys a dress, do they show her a little swatch of fabric? No. They show her the entire dress for obvious reasons.”
And, that is also the most effective way to sell floor coverings—showing room scenes. If a consumer is looking at different hardwoods for example, tiger wood or Brazilian cherry and she sees a tiny swatch, that retailer is just pushing product rather leading with design.
TF: You mentioned consumers have become very sophisticated when it comes to the Internet. They have visited many sites and have seen good ones and ones that are lacking and they judge a retailer not only by the way there website looks but by its functionality as well. It would seem that if a site is not attractive and easy to work with then a mouse click is all it takes to move on.
Simonson: Undeniably. And there are several factors at work here. The first is simply marketing the site. A consumer starts by going to a search engine, so the retailer first has to be found. The dealer has to be on the first page.
Once the consumer arrives at the site, now the user interface, the design and the feel have to engage that person and fulfill her needs as to why she began the process in the first place. Her need might be to learn the retailer’s store hours; it may be to check out the brands that are carried; it may be to see if the retailer offers professional installation, or perhaps it’s to see if financing is offered.
Whatever the need is it’s important that the need is fulfilled straight away on the website and it has to take place as quick as possible and in a way that engages the consumer and doesn’t turn her off. It is very much like the impression our appearance leaves with people—if you look [gruffy] and ragged people will react accordingly. It’s the same reaction you can expect with a less that attractive website.
TF: What about templated websites? What are they and what are their shortcomings?
Simonson: A templated website is a site that’s built on a system where basically all pages on all sites are the same for all subscribers. They do plug in a retailer’s name, logo and address and some specific information and some images unique to each retailer, but otherwise the content is pretty much the same. With virtually all content on all pages being the same, Google and the other search engines filter out all of the formatted sites. There’s nothing in the content that discusses any particular retailer’s unique characteristics. Nothing that separates any retailer from Lumber Liquidators or the big box players.
TF: Many retailers feel assured their site is very effective when in reality as you have said their site might be outdated and does not produce the responses it once did. Is there a checklist somewhere that a retailer can use to get some type of reading as to the effectiveness of their website?
Simonson: At Flooring Web Solutions we have developed a 10-point checklist to help retailers get a feel for the efficiency and effectiveness of their websites. There is a small fee associated with it, but we assess the design, the user interface, the search engine optimization, local search optimization, we go through all the written content, all the visuals, we look at the personalization on the site, the calls to action, as well as customer contact information. We also look at the offerings on the site, if there are coupons and the site’s sales and social connections and the visibility online for the retailer’s targeted audience.
Editor’s note: If you are unsure in the least about your website and its effectiveness, you may want to listen to this entire two-part interview. It is in the “Floor Radio” section of TalkFloor.com and it’s in the archives under “John Simonson, Retailer Misconceptions about Websites.” It’s a great way to take a long, hard look at your website to find if it’s doing what you thought it was doing for your business.
We’d also love to hear your feedback of this and other conversations you’ve watched or listened to on the site, as
well as any ideas of people or companies you’d like to see interviewed. You can contact either Dave Foster at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Matthew Spieler at email@example.com.