As e-tailers grapple with trying to make their Web sites easier and easier for online visitors to use, a disconcerting question is coming to the fore: How dull do you have to be to shop online?
Yes, simplicity is important. All things being equal, customers will certainly choose an easier-to-use Web site over a harder one.
But maybe all things are starting to become a bit too equal. As sites that once presented information in a unique way fall in step with all the other sheep, the magic of the Web — magic that keeps people logging on to shop, by the way — could dwindle.
Never one to miss out on a chance for some free publicity, Amazon.com this week unveiled a parody of the disputed presidential ballots from Palm Beach, Florida.
The parody is designed to show the world how simple and friendly Amazon’s site is by contrasting it with the maligned butterfly ballot.
In fact, Amazon is easy to use. The search box is front-and-center, the tabs about as clear as you can get, and the links separated by enough white space to make it easy to go right where you want. But that doesn’t mean I want every site on the Web to look like Amazon.
Already, Barnesandnoble.com looks frighteningly like the Amazon homepage. Tabs at the top, search box below, a hodge-podge of featured information below that. In fact, put a couple hundred Web users in a room and take out all the identifying names and logos and my bet is that most would have trouble telling the two apart.
Then there’s Walmart.com. The discount retailing giant has taken its site down four times in recent months to redesign, reconfigure, add bells and whistles and otherwise tinker. The result? You guessed it, another Amazon clone, complete with index-file-like tabs.
Over in the apparel category, it’s much the same story. The welcome pages of Gap.com and JCPenney.com are all far more similar than they are different. In fact, my eyes see nothing to distinguish them from each other.
Now I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with these designs. They must work, otherwise so many e-tailers wouldn’t be falling over themselves to copy it. But there is something troubling about a medium that can do so much being used by so many to do so little.
Maybe it was the chilling effect of a few high-profile shakeout victims, such as Boo.com, taking their fancy Web sites down with them that has led to so little innovation. Everyone’s painting within the lines, trying to make sure they don’t scare anybody away.
But I think the result — if not the intention — is far more sinister. E-tailers seem to have decided that Web users are comfortable only navigating pages built a few different ways. In other words, the Web is being dumbed down.
So what, you ask? Apart from frustrating more savvy users, what is the harm?
For one thing, boredom. From what I can tell, retail stores are always changing their layouts and their decor — within reason of course — to keep shoppers from going glassy eyed. Why should the Web be any different?
Yes, the Web has ever-changing content — but that’s not enough. Cookie-cutter Web sites run the risk of making experienced shoppers — the ones that study after study say will be the rock-steady foundation of all future e-commerce growth — lose interest.
If you engage my mind with your Web site, you’re more likely to make a sale. After all, this medium is supposed to be less passive than television, right? And shopping in the real world is an activity, however dreadful to some, that engages more than one of the shopper’s senses. They can touch clothes, smell the flowers or the food, drink in the surroundings.
A Web site should do all it can to be interesting to my eyes. Engage my mind, and the rest of me is likely to follow. Bore me, and I’m off to the mall. At least they’ve got a food court.
What do you think? Let’s talk about it.