There are tens of thousands of online merchants who use Yahoo's Storefront platform, and just as many approaches to using this popular e-commerce platform.
Plenty of merchants launch with Yahoo's basic template and hardly change it for years some sellers even do several million dollars in sales using the default design (along with plenty of ad dollars and elbow grease, of course).
Other merchants launch a Yahoo store and soon feel cramped by the template's limitations. One such seller is Howard Geschwind, owner of Spytown, a New York-based site that sells surveillance equipment. "Yahoo is very limited as far as what it offers in its tools," Geschwind says. By his count, he has spent about $25,000 improving the basic platform.
But Geschwind didn't do the work himself. As noted in Part 1 of this article, there's now an entire community of Web design firms that specialize in sprucing up the Yahoo storefront. Geschwind hired SolidCactus, a design firm in Pennsylvania, to improve Spytown's appearance and functionality.
Spending 25 Grand
So what did Geschwind get for his $25,000? "I could go on and on," he says. For example, Yahoo's template doesn't allow shoppers to add multiple items to a cart at one time they have to click back and forth between pages to fill the cart. SolidCactus programmed Geschwind's site to allow multiple items.
"So if the main item is a camera, and I want people to also look at the accessories the lens, the cable, the power supply instead of having to take five steps now they just click this, click that, and it all goes in the cart."
SolidCactus also changed Spytown's Yahoo template to include a customer-login tool. The public site shows one set of prices, but customers with coupons can enter a code to see discounts. Geschwind's repeat customers can also log in to see prices specific to their own account. (Some Yahoo stores use this login tool to run both a wholesale and retail operation using one database.)
"Yahoo told me they might have this [login tool] set up in about seven months, but I can't push this a year down the line, so it's worth it to me to pay $1,000 to get it done now," he says.
SolidCactus redesigned Spytown's front-page layout to display photos of Featured Items and Best Sellers right up front. They also added a clock tool, allowing shoppers across the country know whether Geschwind's New York store is currently open.
Moreover, the revamped site automatically optimizes itself for each shopper's maximum screen resolution something the Yahoo template certainly doesn't do. The site looks good for shoppers with monitors that are set for the standard 800 by 600 resolution, as well as for monitors with a higher resolution an ever-growing audience. "It will always be full screen for whatever resolution."
Geschwind dramatically boosted his site's image display capabilities. "With Yahoo, you just have the main image, and you can set one icon and it will be a small icon." But with his enhanced style sheet, when shoppers move the mouse over a product image, it automatically displays several different views. "They've given us five additional icons that I can add underneath the main image." So a shopper who mouses over a camera might see the tripod that works with it.
Joseph Tantillo uses the Yahoo platform for his store GreekGear, which sells fraternity and sorority gear. But he found the template lacking. "Yahoo has a lot of tools, but it just don't look all that great," he says.
Since many of his customers buy in quantity (for the entire sorority), he wanted to show quantity discounts next to his prices. But when the Yahoo store displays quantity prices, "it doesn't look good," Tantillo says. He changed the site to display prices in a grid, so shoppers "see the discount right there, in plain sight."
Tantillo charges a one-time setup fee for GreekGear's custom orders, but "Yahoo doesn't make it easy to do that," he says. Shoppers had to order, say, 24 glasses, then go back and click a button that says, "Add $30 for set-up charge." However, "You're not going to get people to do that." Now his site automatically adds setup charges if needed.
Other site improvements include an animated button, which changes to display a new sale offer every few seconds; a tool that allows shoppers to sort products by price, by name, or do a "view all"; and a custom message with his shopping cart, which pops up to offer a phone number if a user is having trouble.
Merely a Starting Point
Yahoo, acknowledging that many merchants want to enhance its basic platform, recently launched the Yahoo Developer Network, which lists designers who specialize in its platform. For these Web design firms, the basic template is merely the starting point a launching pad to leave far behind as they enhance it almost beyond recognition.
The changes that these firms make include:
The concept of "branding" the way a site shapes customer perception of its products is the first thing Jim Holloman, of ET Productions, a Boston-based Yahoo design firm, changes. He says that's because Yahoo's template is generic; it's not equipped be a branding powerhouse.
Depending on what a site is selling, Holloman tweaks its design to enhance branding in any number of ways. If appropriate, "We like to show a picture of the product with a human using and obviously benefiting from it." Also, "We like to make sure there's plenty of product above the fold, so that you don't need to scroll down to see all the products." He advises storeowners to avoid a common (bad) practice: Filling the top of their home page with text describing how it's such a good store. A hurried shopper "has no earthly idea of what that store does."
Additionally, he uses CSS (cascading style sheets) to create visual interest, like buttons that change when a mouse rolls over them, which makes the navigation seem to jump up off the page.
|Spytown is a Yahoo-based store, but relied on the graphics talent of SolidCactus.com for a more effective design and better functionality.|
Site Map Optimized for Search Engines
Many Yahoo store designers add a site map to the default template. This not only helps shoppers but also helps search engines index a site.
"We program the RTML (Yahoo's proprietary language) to go and pick up [the site pages] and display them the correct way," says Shawna Fennell of 1Choice4Ystore, an Indiana-based Yahoo store designer. "The default Yahoo template will put 20 items, and then have a pagination, but Google doesn't like the pagination." ("Google is the pickiest of all," the engines, she says.)
A question that keeps merchants up late at night is: Why are shoppers leaving the site without buying anything? Most sites (including those built with the Yahoo template) give their owners little clue about why this is happening. Hollomon inserts a small pop up "exit poll" that asks shoppers: What else did you want or need? The exit poll also has a fill-in-the-blank section to elicit general feedback. While many customers won't fill this in, "enough will so that you begin to develop a picture of what's going on."
(Editor's note: Yahoo's site statistics are also woefully inadequate, given our experience with a Yahoo-based store.)
For a storeowner to post a continuously updated news or information feed from another site or news aggregator, they need to install a small application that reads an RSS feed (RSS stands for "real simple syndication"). An RSS feed typically displays only the headlines of a story.
This feed can be quite a crowd pleaser, as when the site that sells sailboats posts a feed displaying all the headlines about international sailboat races. (However, these headline links usually go to another site, so some storeowners feel they're a bad idea.)
For certain clients, Hollomon adds a customer review section to the Yahoo template, allowing users to post product feedback. These reviews, of course, must be monitored and, in some cases, edited to avoid spam and off-the-wall comments.
For stores that sell items that customers buy again and again like office supplies it's essential to enable buyers to get in and out quickly. They don't want to have to browse again to find their brand of toothpaste. To facilitate this, Hollomon builds a "My Orders" module, which enables shoppers to log in and see a list of past purchases. Shoppers simply click listed items, choose quantity and proceed to checkout.
Automated Link Builder
Search engines, especially Google, award higher ranking to sites with many inbound links. But trading links with other sites is time consuming busy merchants hardly have time for this essential process.
The automated link-building tool that Hollomon adds to Yahoo stores makes this close to a no-brainer. Here's how it works: First, storeowners add a link to their site that solicits link trades. When users click on this link they see a form to fill out with all the related site's information; this form is then sent to the store owner to review. After the store owner reviews it, the tool sends back an automated e-mail to accept or reject the transaction.
Pop Up Window Information
Shoppers like to get more information about a product without leaving the page. Alpha Store Design, a Yahoo design firm in New Jersey, adds a pop up information window to allow this.
A shopper clicks for more details and a pop up presents a customized sales pitch. The pop up can take many forms: it can simply be a short paragraph, or it can be a large photo with a magnifying glass, enabling users to enlarge any aspect of the image.
Shipment Delivery Date Estimator
This little built-in calendar tool not only shows when a shopper can expect delivery, it can be programmed to show different delivery scenarios: standard delivery, second day air, or rush delivery, with the costs of each.
The List Goes On...
There are umpteen more tweaks that these design companies make to the Yahoo template. In sum, these firms can take a site that is "ugly as sin," explains SolidCactus's Joe Palko, and make it look competitive. Says Aliss Inozemtseva of Alpha Store Design: "We're sort of like interior designers for a Web site."
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