Are the design rules for selling online the same as those that are used on the high street? John Ryan investigates the art of retailing on the web

Time was when the brave new world of online retail was viewed as a threat to traditional retailers – a new channel that would erode the need to visit a store. It’s now about a decade since the first transactional web sites opened for business and savvy shoppers began to realise that they could browse large numbers of offers from the comfort of their armchairs.

Back then it was assumed that if terrestrial retailers were to counter the threat, a bricks-and-clicks strategy was required where shoppers could buy online, via a store, or even a combination of the two.

Since those early days, still less than ten years ago, pure online retailing, without a high street presence, has flourished and shoppers are just as comfortable in front of a monitor as they are browsing the shelves and rails of a good-looking store.

There are even online high streets – of a sort. Tony Vasishta, international development director at outlet centre operator McArthur Glen, says: “If you’re on the first page of a Google search, then you’re on the high street. That’s the shop window. If you look enticing enough, people will go inside and from then on it’s a matter of fulfilment.”

But where does this leave the retailers that have opted to pursue a multichannel strategy? Has design helped the high street’s hardy perennials avoid the Doomsday scenario of consumers visiting a store, checking out the products and then heading home to buy what they want online?

David Dalziel, creative director at design consultancy Dalziel + Pow, says that retailers have to embrace the web, but that some, particularly in the mid-market, have yet to do so. He stresses that there have been some positives, citing Habitat, which has combined well-designed stores with an equally well-designed web site. He also draws a distinction between transactional and non-transactional web sites.

“Non-transactional is just about brand usage, where transactional web sites have to do quite a number of other things as well,” he says.

Dalziel believes retailers will, in future, insist upon store design consultancies and web designers working together more closely. He says that if the web is really to be treated as just another channel, then this has to be a given. “There’s hardly a client that we have discussions with these days where the web site isn’t part of the agenda,” he notes.

In spite of his misgivings about the pace of e-tail uptake, it seems that almost every retailer, with the inglorious exception of Gap, is on the transactional trail and web site designers look set to be kept busy for the foreseeable future.


Assuming that Dalziel is right and that all retailers will eventually have a transactional presence online, how should the web be treated visually and is it different from the real world?

Paul Lewis, director of Paul Lewis Design and creative director of projects for e-inBusiness, which counts fashion retailers River Island and Faith among its clients, says that it is important to remember the provenance of online retailing.

“I have grown up in a bricks-and-mortar environment. So I tend to bring the kind of things that you see in a bricks-and-mortar environment,” he says. “I don’t think there’s as big a difference between online and bricks and mortar as people say there is. Technology will increasingly offer retailers the chance to do online exactly what they do in real life.” As an example, Lewis points to the revamped New Look site where shoppers can wander around a store, visit a virtual changing room and then mix and match items of clothing.

Lewis argues that the rules surrounding in-store navigation are the same online as they are when you walk into a shop: “It’s a matter of customer service: finding your way to the products. If you walk into any decent store looking for a handbag, you can immediately see where handbags will be, provided the layout and navigation have been well done. It has to be the same online.”

Giles Delafeld, head of online at Currys, broadly agrees, saying that for high street retailers, online success is about considering the customer experience in the same way as it is done in-store. “We think about the online customer experience as very much about the customer journey,” he says. “So we ask: What are the barriers to purchase? This means what are the key things the customer needs to know? The first thing is to provide very high-quality images. I can’t say we’re the best in class at this, but we are improving. Next comes product information.”

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, it turns out that a well-designed transactional web page is a matter of providing the right thing, in the right place.

“We’ve been doing a lot work to merchandise the pages and to provide the right information at the right point on the page,” says Delafeld. “For example, in our prototyping page, we put the delivery information very close to the image itself.” In practice this means two different pieces of information have to be put alongside the image: the cost of delivery as well as the time a purchase will take to arrive at the shopper’s home. These are the things that are most important to the customer.”

But there are many elements that have to be incorporated on to a web page. “When we were designing a page, there were sometimes 50 items that we needed to include,” he says. He adds that this in extreme cases, this can mean very long scrollable pages with a hierarchy of information running from the need to know towards the nice to know further down.

What all practitioners and observers agree upon is that if you are in the business of creating online stores, there is a pressing need for shopper familiarity. When a visit is made to a web site there is as much science and thought underpinning the way a page appears as there is in the creation of a new shop.

Next head of communications Christine Gerrard says that the home page of the retailer’s web site is the shop window, inviting shoppers to venture inside and a shop all rolled into one. This makes creating a retail web site that engages and entices just as difficult as providing a spanking new retail environment.

Gerrard argues that easy navigation, good visual merchandising and attractive web design are all essential elements that combine to make shoppers buy off the screen-based page. Next has redesigned its web site of late and Gerrard says it “has certainly freshened things up in the same way as its [store design] has done in the stores”.

Creating an online store is as simple – or as difficult – as designing a new store and many of the same caveats apply. Fashion is an environment in which people feel at ease. Make sure customers can find their way around and present the products engagingly and informatively. And when it’s time to pay, make sure that this is straightforward too. All of which leaves you with the impression that online retail design is every bit as complex as its terrestrial equivalent.


At Tesco, a purely pragmatic approach is adopted to web design and the business of selling from a screen. marketing director Kendra Banks says: “Our approach to web site design is fundamentally the same as our approach to any design task in Tesco: what can we create for our customers to help make their shopping experience easier?” She continues: “We have learnt through extensive research with our online customers in all areas – grocery, Tesco Direct, flowers, wine, or entertainment – what aspects of our site they like, and what they’d like to see improved. We aim to meet our customers’ needs through a simple design that is as inclusive as possible.”

Tesco’s grocery web site is an exercise in making things simple with little frippery and a concentration on product images. It’s a theme that is recurrent across the major supermarkets’ online efforts and serves to highlight the difference between the kind of shopping where people need to be tempted and that which is conducted out of necessity.