When it was the new thing, e-commerce seemed to be all about fun.
Analysts suggested that Web sites use offbeat design and eye-grabbing graphics to keep fickle surfers from clicking away. The idea of shopping being fun drove the rise of EBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) and helped some early pure-play e-tailers make their mark.
A few extensive growing pains later, e-commerce is more mature. The mood surrounding it has changed — some say completely. So does fun still have a place in e-commerce?
According to Gartner G2 research director David Schehr, playfulness is still an element of online sales, but no longer a driving force.
“Retailers realize their customers have come to expect to be able to usethe Web to help them make purchase decisions,” Schehr told the E-Commerce Times. “Anything that detracts from that, by slowing the process down, is probably not helping.”
Richard Wagner, a professor of e-business at Kent Law School in Chicago, went so far as to say that “fun is definitely out.”
Said Wagner: “A site attracts and keeps visitors by offering a value proposition its users want. This is a fact of life of brick-and-mortar businesses and does not change on the Internet. The idea that the Net was different in this way was wrong from the beginning.”
Even so, not everyone is ready to give up on the idea that they can put customers into a buying mood by putting a smile on their faces. Internet sellers that still focus on fun range from niche players, to sites vying to grab customers from more established Web businesses, to big-name companies looking to grab any edge they can.
Some sites hedge their bets by injecting fun into the online shopping experience, only when the shopper asks for it specifically.
Venerable catalog company Spiegel.com, for example, has injected small doses of customer-demand fun into its recently redesigned Web site, spokesperson Amy McGee told the E-Commerce Times.
Rather than inundate shoppers with graphics or choices, it lets themdecide whether to use features, such as one that lets shoppers zoom in on items orview them from different angles.
Other features, like custom horoscopes and video fashion show clips, are a click away.
“Customer response has been very good to the new features,” McGee said.
One upstart taking aim at eBay in the auction world, BargainandHaggle.com, has found a place for fun in how its users rate buyers and sellers.
BargainandHaggle spokesperson Don Hunt told the E-Commerce Times that the”funky chicken” icons used to denote a seller’s rating add a visualelement and a dash of fun that pure numerical rankings do not.
Fun in the Sun
Naturally, some types of e-commerce lend themselves to marketing andselling through fun more than others.
Through its partnership with Travelocity (Nasdaq: TVLY), VacationCoach.com lets shoppers identifythemselves as one of several types of travelers, such as “sun worshipper,””Shop-a-holic” or “trailblazer.”
The labels are a way for the VacationCoach to narrow travel choices, but do so in a way that does not make the shopper feel as though he or she is wasting time entering data to the Web site, according to Lora Kratchounova, senior vice president for marketing at VacationCoach.
Would-be travelers also use sliding scales to rate their preferences foractivity level, cost and other aspects of cruises or other vacation packages.
Pick Your Spots
“These features keep shoppers engaged and make the process of working out the details less like work,” said Kratchounova.
For the most part, however, fun has taken a back seat for Web merchants. If nothing else, the mood of shoppers has to be taken into account, noted Wagner. Most have a business-like approach these days that is primarily about finding value.
Said Schehr: “If it’s not central to the shopping experience, it probably shouldn’t bethere.”