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Mar 22, 2004
How To

How Crutchfield's Award-winning Site Makes a Bewildering Array of Products Easy to Shop

SUMMARY: Forbes, Time, USAWeekend, Internet Retailer, and have all named Crutchfield one of the best sites for online shoppers. In our exclusive interview, Crutchfield's VP ecommerce says this success is all about content.

Too many eretail sites post the bare minimum on each item they carry. Often copy is nothing more than whatever info the manufacturer provided. By going beyond the minimum, Crutchfield's made over 1,500,000 online sales.

If you market a site with lots of SKUs, or complex products, you may get some useful tips from this article recently named consumer electronics retailer Crutchfield to its Circle of Excellence for the fourth year running. This award was based on thousands of consumers' comments and experiences with the site.

We interviewed Larry Becker, Crutchfield Corporation VP E-commerce, to discover how the site makes the bewildering landscape of consumer electronics products so easy and comfortable to shop that consumers actually enjoy the experience.

He says it's all about going beyond posting basic specs for each product in the store...

#1. Create and develop the right content in the right environment

-- Get the right culture

If staff are passionate and informed about the products they sell, then this feeds through to the quality and value of the content they produce.

So, "...when we bring people into the organization, we look for people who have a passion for electronics and a passion for serving customers."

Becker adds, "Many of us are grown men and women with 4-channel amplifiers, component speakers, and 12-inch subwoofers in our cars."

-- Get organized

Almost all website content at Crutchfield is created in-house by two teams of writers (who write for both the web and catalog); one team for home electronics, one for car electronics. Each writer is an expert for a specific product category within the team unit, and stays up-to-date on relevant product developments and category trends.

Each team has an overall managing editor, plus an editor each for the e-commerce site and (see later), responsible for funneling writing resources and content to their respective website.

The writing teams work closely with the New Media and web IT teams responsible for overall site development.

-- Use consumer insights to drive content development

Becker says, "Our goal is to let the customers' needs guide our development priorities and the presentation that you find on the site."

So ideas for new content tools, features or modifications come from various "customer" sources. For example...

* feedback left through the service.

* site feedback. Every web page has a "rate this page" button, where users can give a 'thumbs up' or 'thumbs down', and leave more detailed comments.

* customer surveys.

* review of the websites of other e-commerce leaders.

* usability testing.

* A/B testing that serves a different version of a site feature or page to a sample of website visitors.

Becker notes that the last two are also great tools for building internal consensus within the organization.

-- Use cross-company innovation to drive content development

New ideas are then fleshed out and implemented by the New Media and web IT teams.

But Becker again stresses the cross-functional approach..."When a new feature is being designed, we'll have a team that will consist of IT folks, user experience folks and editors. And they're getting input from the merchants and other functional experts throughout the company."

Self-analysis also plays a role in content development..."A lot of powerful features come from asking 'what if?' Some of the best features I've seen released have started with someone having an idea at the gut level and then working it through with their colleagues."

#2. Content presentation

Having the content is a good start, but structure and presentation is equally vital. That's because customers are at different stages of the shopping cycle and have different needs anyway.

Becker explains, "The key remains in the presentation, in the formatting and the layering. Information increasingly needs to be presented in a way that allows you to sample as much as you like...move only as far through the buffet as you need to become sated and make a decision."

Otherwise the danger is information overload, which... "occurs when all the information is presented as flat and of equal value."

So Crutchfield offers visitors a range of choices for accessing and filtering content according to their needs. Some examples...

-- open up an information-only site:

A lot of Crutchfield's consumer advice and information is hived off into a standalone info-only site at The aim was to..."create a content resource that was the equivalent of the friend who knows a lot about consumer electronics; your trusted friend who wants to help you."

But why the completely separate site?

Becker explains, "We wanted to underscore the authoritative and objective nature of our information. We also wanted to create an alternative destination for the customer who may be earlier in the consideration process."

Of course, there is a lot of contextual mutual linking between the e-commerce site and

For example, if you browse thorough the digital camera offerings at, you'll find links to relevant content at the information site. And links back to the product category pages from that informational content.

-- offer different navigation options

Becker says, "The way to turn complexity into opportunity is to provide the customer with a way to winnow down all the choices that are out there and all the information that is out there, and leave them with the elements they need to make the right choice."

For example, customers can specify an age, make and model of car, and the website will only display car products that are compatible with that selection.

Becker says an intuitive and well-organized product hierarchy is also critical, but not enough...

"No matter how well informed it is by user testing, product taxonomy is still a company's view of the world. And because the web is a multi-truth world and lots of customers have different needs, we're also paying an increasing amount of attention to site search."

-- split product information into sections

The information listed at the product level is split into sections under tabs, so customers can pick and choose the depth and type of information they need to make a decision.

So, for example, users can choose between an "essential info" tab which describes the key features and benefits of a product, or a "detailed info" tab which contains more specific information drawn from Crutchfield's detailed in-house product database.

A "more photos" tab leads to various product images in different sizes. And not just front view photos, either. A DVD player product page, for example, also includes a large image of the *back* of the equipment.

Becker explains..."We get a lot of customer comments saying, 'that is exactly what I needed to see before I knew this was going to work with my existing equipment'."

Other popular tabs are:

* "What's included?", which tells customers what they'll get in the manufacturer's box. "That's really important because everyone has had the experience of getting a product and finding it doesn't have exactly what they need to get it up and running out of the box."

* "Recommended accessories", which suggests compatible products, a selection of which you'll also find suggested if you add the product to your shopping cart. In many cases, Crutchfield also provides free installation accessories and instructions.

* "Learn about this category", which has relevant links to content on and customer service information.

And does this multi-layered, content-rich approach work? Becker says yes. "The site is highly successful. It's an increasingly large proportion of our business. And if our customers continue to respond positively, then we'll know we're doing the right thing."
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