Does Rakuten's Move Mean E-Tailers Should Re-Think Web Design?

When global e-tailer Rakuten told IRCE attendees last week of its plans to more aggressively push into the U.S. market later this summer, it spoke of its differences with Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) and specifically stressed its preference for much longer pages than is the U.S. online norm.

Have times—and shoppers' preferences—changed so much that a complete reversal is a wise move? Should e-tailers (including Amazon) be rethinking their fundamental Web design strategies? Has this $4.7 billion global retailer—operating in 27 countries—figured out something that others haven't?

The argument really comes to a simple choice: scrolling versus clicking.

The argument for clicking is that it makes for a cleaner and shorter page and that all of the additional detail is there, but it's not cluttering up the page until the shopper wants to see it. There might be a link for technical specs, but those numbers will only appear when it's clicked on. No need to distract the reader who doesn't care about those specs.

The argument for scrolling (or using a lot of the PageDown button) is user apathy or lack of awareness. If the shopper truly thinks the product is complicated, that shopper would have no interest in clicking the demo button. But if that really simple demo just autoplays, it might persuade the exact shoppers who would have never been likely to click.

The other key part of this debate is shopper desires/expectations. A lot of these minimalistic page design strategies—best exemplified by famed design guru Jakob Nielsen—were first championed back in the mid-1990s, when E-Commerce began, almost 20 years ago. Have shopper expectations changed radically in that timeframe, fueled by dramatically faster bandwidth and machine speeds? Or will the desire to not be overwhelmed not change with the years?

To try and figure this out, reached out to Jakob Nielsen himself, who connected us with the interface design director of his group, Amy Schade. Schade argued that bandwidth and machine changes are helpful, but that "people's behavior doesn't really change that much. A long scroll is still going to be overwhelming to a user, if it doesn't make sense for that page. It's information overload."The name that many have given to the Ratuken Web philosophy is the storytelling approach, also known as shopping versus buying. "Everybody's talking about storytelling, but that doesn't necessarily meaning that everything has to be on one page," Schade said. "When you put it all on one huge page, you're not really telling a story. You're just putting a lot of information out there."

The practical reality that Schade is arguing is that page length has to be based on nature of the audience and the e-tailer. An engineering or medical audience might be fonder of long pages than a generic consumer or an audience that has less of an attention span.

To be kinder, it might be less of a strict attention-span issue than the level of interest of the user, which might easily speak to how down the purchase path they've gone. For example, this might say that a much shorter initial page is appropriate, but a much-longer second page might be in order, given the higher level of interest assumed for a shopper who has already clicked on one of the product's pages.

But a much more amorphous issue is the skill of the merchant's storytelling. If the writing, presentation and design has a strong enough narrative, that initial page mightbe able to effectively a lot more than the typical U.S. e-tailer page. The problem there is obvious: many smaller merchants might be terrible storytellers and no set of tools provided by Rakuten will change that fact.

It's hard to say how much of this might reflect a difference in the typical shopper in Japan—which is Rakuten's homebase and also where it makes most of its money—but the U.S. consumer is used to having the Web be a very fast experience. Search for it, find it and buy it. The fewer seconds it all takes, the better. U.S. shoppers "don't read on the Web. They scan on the Web," Schade said.

That means that whether that additional information is being offered via a slick or a long scroll, the shopper still needs to be told what awaits them so that they'll bother doing either the scroll or the click.

"Users do not mind scrolling down a page, but they need to know what they are getting on the page. The page needs to be organized very clearly so users know what they are looking at, or they will easily be overwhelmed by the amount of information presented in one page," Schade said. "This problem is compounded if each merchant on the site is presenting different combinations of product information. The information needs to be organized within the page such that the broadest information (of most use to most shoppers) is at the top, with details below. The most important information must be prioritized on the page. In usability testing, shoppers perform well with sites that layer content for the them. For instance, giving them the choice of seeing full technical specifications rather than forcing them to see them."

Rakuten does not expect its merchants—who operate in a typical marketplace environment—to be experts in how to present products/services online. That is specifically Rakuten's expertise and it provides the guidance and tools to each merchant to help them do it. This means that Rakuten's mastery of the nuances of U.S. shoppers is crucial to how well its U.S. launch plays. (Technically, given Rakuten's purchase of Buy.com, this is less of a launch than a radically intensified U.S. push.)

That means that the imminent battle of Amazon (and, to a lesser extent, eBay) versus Rakuten for the hearts, minds and SKUs of every small e-tailer will match Amazon's existing huge audience against Rakuten's proven track record (elsewhere in the world) of delivering for its merchants. And Amazon marketplace merchants certainly have no shortage of complaints, despite the fact that Amazon knows how strategically powerful its marketplace is. Ramuken knows that, too, and is sees those merchant complaints as its weapon.

But even with those gripes, Amazon's marketplace merchants also know the sizes of those checks from Amazon. Will Ramuken be able to deliver larger checks soon enough to woo merchants? That gets us back to the storytelling strategy. Will the Rakuten approach work in the U.S.?

For the moment, it's something that Amazon retailers could try out for free and see if it works. It would have to be evaluated on a strict sellthrough percentage basis, rather than on strict dollars, given how long it will take anyone to match Amazon's marketshare.

Then it will be a matter of retraining U.S. shoppers on what to expect from a site. Those are two huge hurdles: retraining shoppers and merchants on what to expect. If I were Amazon, I might be sweating a little—but only a little.

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