At first glance, it seems like Lorne Lieberman, CEO of
online art print and poster retailer Barewalls.com, has an easy
He is selling a visual-only product that is perfectly suited to the
Web medium. "You don't have to touch, smell, hear it or taste it, you just have to see it."
Plus he has got a tremendous competitive edge over traditional
print and poster retailers. Typical brick and mortar competitors
only stock 300-1000 prints per store. Barewalls' site offers more
than 150,000 SKUs catering for all the different needs and tastes
That is where the problems start.
How do you make that range of images accessible to site visitors?
How do you handle aficionados of Seurat and Spiderman, without
offending either group?
What about all those who need to buy "a print," but have no
idea what they want? As Kirsten Weisenburger, Barewalls' Biz Dev
Manager, puts it, "A lot of people are seeking an image they like
- but they don't know what it is, and they don't know what's in
An average of a million unique visitors per month were visiting
the site, trying to find the right art for their walls. How
could Barewalls help more of them find exactly what they were
looking for, quickly and easily, so they ended up buying? CAMPAIGN
Lieberman decided to let the customer answer those
questions for him.
The team employs four techniques to gather feedback on visitor
needs and behavior, then uses the results to adjust site
functionality and modify the way products are presented and sold.
These four critical feedback sources are:
Feedback source #1: Customer service
Barewalls' help pages provide toll-free and international
phone and fax numbers, as well as an email customer service
address. Lieberman insists that customer service
representatives take every opportunity (time permitting) to
solicit feedback from the customers they communicate with.
Says Lieberman, "It's their job to ask people, 'What can we do
better?' It is informal, it's very passive. But we don't want
to waste the customer's time."
Feedback source #2: Keyword analysis
The tech team also track and evaluates all the keywords and
terms that shoppers enter in the search facility. These
keyword searches are the strongest indicator of product
popularity and visibility.
Lieberman says "If we see people are typing in 'landscapes',
we know we better invest more in putting up more landscape
pages and putting up stuff on the home page."
Feedback source #3: Click and sales analysis
As well as watching sales for insights on needs and wants, the
team track the site's logs of how people move through the
displayed product categories. The more popular a category, the
more attention the team gives to developing new sub-
Lieberman explains, "If we see a certain subject is being
clicked on, we know that the depth of that index should be
expanded. If we see that another topic isn't, then we don't
invest heavily in those categories."
Feedback source #4: Newsletter sign-up data
Barewalls' newsletter sign-up page asks various (optional)
questions on subscriber interests and demographics, but also
solicits suggestions for new products and website
Weisenburger says results tell them "What kind of people get
involved in Barewalls, what do they want to know, what are
Combined, these four feedback sources have revealed that
Barewalls' visitors need more ways to search and browse than most
e-retailers provide, especially those visitors who do not even
know what exactly item they are looking for when they arrive at
In response to this revelation, the team have implemented five
Tactic #1: Site search functionality
The standard search criteria assumed by traditional internet
search facilities simply did not address Barewalls' visitor needs
For example, a lot of customer service requests came from people
who needed advice on appropriate artwork for a room or wall of
Barewalls had a librarian redesign their in-house site search
engine, eschewing traditional internet search technology for
their own solution based on their better understanding of how
The basic site search form now offers a keyword search, plus the
option of defining a set price range. The advanced search expands
this to include:
- keyword search by title, artist's name, subject or
association (or any combination of these)
- product size range (height and width in inches or cms)
Put in 'red,' for example, and search by association, and you will
also be shown posters and prints which do not have a red title,
but where red is a dominant color in the image.
Lieberman says, "We felt that if we can fill in their [shoppers]
void of the dimensions, colors, price range, at least that will
satisfy them knowing that they're buying the right product."
Tactic #2: Product categories matching customer purchase
Barewalls' team also learnt that their initial understanding of
how people looked for products was misplaced.
"The initial dream of our company was we thought that someone
goes on to the Internet and they would know exactly what they
want and exactly what they're looking for."
Instead Barewalls had to suggest choices for the consumer:
"show them the answers before they even ask the questions."
As well as listing products in conventional categories like
genre, subject and artist, Barewalls now features numerous
categories reflecting innovative need-based criteria.
For example, after learning shoppers were looking for prints to
go in particular rooms, Barewalls created a "home collection"
category which has sub-categories for each room of the house,
such as "bathroom" or "children's bedroom," as well as for color,
to match existing furnishings.
Office workers can browse an "office: Power and flowers"
category, for example.
Weisenburger says the range of categories means that those just
browsing for "something" can quickly latch on to some criterion
that appeals to them, even though they had not given thought to
that criterion beforehand.
This is especially vital for cracking the all-important gift-
giving market where people are nervous about choosing a product
to fit someone else's taste.
"When they see a list of criteria, they may go, 'Oh yeah! My
sister-in-law, she likes music.'"
Tactic #3: Bestseller lists for customer reassurance
To add further reassurance that visitors have found the right
product, Lieberman introduced various bestseller lists. Visitors
- Top 10 lists for various genres, artists and subjects
- Weekly top 30 and top 100 overall bestseller lists
- All time and "past 12 weeks" bestseller lists based on buyer
location (for seven US regions and six continents)
This last feature (known as "Barewalls Voyeur") is Lieberman's
answer to the top 10 charts published for CDs, books or movies.
He explains, "People still want to know the different moods of
the nation, what are the different tastes, and it helps them in
deciding what they want to buy."
Tactic #4: Split the site by market
In Q4 2002, Barewalls added tabs across the top of the homepage
to allow particular demographics to zoom in on a "home page"
tailored for their tastes, including museum art, contemporary
art, pop culture, photography and a "gift center."
These tabs allow the site to prominently position offers and
categories tailored to a specific market, but without running the
risk of offending the sensibilities of (or boring) other customer
Tactic #5: Match the sell to the buyer
The team also learnt that buying print and posters is a very
emotional vs. price-based decision process.
Lieberman says, "It's not a price sensitive product. We can't say
'free shipping' and someone's going to say, 'oh I'll buy it right
now!' They really have to love the product."
The site introduced a low-key sales philosophy and approach to
make customers feel even more comfortable about buying and, most
importantly, coming back in the future.
Most importantly, the site has taken a reactive approach to
upsells and product placement. The company does not practice
aggressive upselling or base product site placements on what they
need to sell, but rather responds solely to what the customer
wants to buy.
Lieberman says, "It's made us a lot more passive in the sense
that we don't send weekly emails pushing the customer to buy
this, 'oh we have an extra 1000 pieces of this, let's dump it on
the consumer'. We've never had those experiences, we just try to
sell what the consumer wants."
The site's also learned to proactively manage shipping-speed
Barewalls tells the customer that they will get their product
within 10 days, believing such upfront openness may cost some
short-term sales, but secure long-term customers.
Lieberman says "We're here for tomorrow and we know that if we
don't tell the customer when exactly they're going to receive the
product, they will never buy from us again. To get one customer
is easy, to get a customer to come back and tell 20 people,
that's the real challenge of any retailer."
Barewalls reached profitability in 2001, and in 2002
its improved site search and product categorization raised
conversion rates by an impressive 20%.
Lieberman explains, "Allowing the consumer to search by almost
any variable possible and find exactly what they're looking for
within a limited amount of time, the better we can bring
products up quickly, the better we're able to sell them."
About 50% of visitors choose to find products using the search
form, and 50% browse using the categories and indexes.
With the feedback-data programs in place, Lieberman's constantly
refining and revising the search options and categories
The team's next task is to integrate international pricing into
the site. He is exploring services which will allow international
visitors to see prices in their local currency, giving the total
that would be charged to their credit cards if they made a
He adds, "We're just trying to manage our customers expectations
so that there are no surprises in the transaction - that will
always lead to a higher conversion."