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The Littlewoods Direct website has relaunched this week with a new name in an effort to appeal to younger customers, and billing itself an an 'online, social department store'.
The site has been rebranded as Very, and contains a social network element with contributions from celebrities such as Fearne Cotton, as well as as the usual e-commerce stuff. I've been trying it out...
The homepage is pretty simple, with the majority of the page being used to promote the various sections of the site; celebrity designers, the Very Network, special offers etc, as well as offering an explanation of the site to visitors who may be unfamiliar with the name.
All this means that there is less space devoted to navigation. For users that arrive at the site and just want to get on with searching for a product or browsing by product category, the links on the top navigation bar and the search box could stand out better.
Also, the page is narrow, and seems to have been optimised for lower screen resolutions, which isn't strictly necessary when most internet users now have 1024 x 768 or larger.
Further down the page, there is an email sign up option, which seems a good idea to get more subscribers, but this takes you to another where users are asked for more details.
This would be fine if this was used to get more relevant information on things like preferred product areas, how often they want to receive emails etc, but what is actually does is get you to confirm your email address and full name, which is asking for extra effort from potential subscribers without getting any useful information to target emails.
Navigation / site search
The top navigation bar allows you to either click on the product categories or hover the mouse over until a drop-down menu appears with sub-categories.
I think this one falls into the category of 'huge drop-down menus' which, according to Jakob Nielsen, are good for usability since they avoid the need for tiresome scrolling by allowing users to see all the options at once.
This is certainly better than small drop downs that you have to scroll down, but the ease with which you can lose the menu through careless cursor control can also make a difference, and this one disappears the instant the cursor leaves the menu.
One you click on an option or product category, there are some decent filtered navigation options so shoppers can narrow down their product search by product type, brand etc, with more filtering options, including price range, as you narrow the search further:
The site search seems pretty good too; if you search for a 'black camera', then only black cameras are shown (on some sites I find that adding a colour to the search term doesn't always work.
You can also confine your product search to a specific section of the site, while the same filtering options you see when browsing are there to help you narrow down your search results.
The product pages on the site are decent, though varied in quality. Some pages, such as this one for a cot, provide a good range of images, showing products from a range of angles, while others are less impressive.
The pages tick most boxes in terms of providing information, though the product descriptions are not especially inspring. Elsewhere, delivery information is vague in many cases, with some pages showing delivery charges, others not.
Information on expected delivery times was poor too. The page above promises delivery within seven days, though this was as much as 14 for other items. This can be vital for the purchase decision, as some shoppers will want items as fast as possible.
A next day delivery option, or at least the promise to deliver within a couple of days, should be provided where possible to lure such customers in, while a vague 14 day estimate is just no good at all.
The pages also include the option to 'Twitter this product', as well as adding it to Facebook and MySpace profiles, but the Twitter link just places a bit.ly URL which leads back to the product page with no accompanying text to explain it, which defeats the object.
Product reviews are provided where available, and these are done well, thanks to Power Reviews. The key here is to organise the reviews so that, even if there are a large number, they are easy to make sense of.
So, as well as an overall user rating, keywords are picked out from reviews and listed as pros and cons, and other shoppers have the option of rating the reviews as useful or not, while reviewers are also verified, so you know that this person has actually bought the product.
The Very Network looks to have some decent features, including a TV section which contains various fashion related videos, ans something called the VIP Lounge which promises live chat with Holly Willoughby, Caprice, and other celebrities:
The network also includes product reviews, grouped into various categories and ranked by ratings score. This is reasonably useful, but better use could be made by incorporating the review scores into the search and filtering options on the main shopping section of the site.
The Very Network appears to want to be an exclusive club, or at least give that impression, since logging in to the network is reserved for 'buyers' and 'insiders':
If the aim is to build up a decent amount of users to provide enough content, placing barriers in front of people (they have to fill in a form giving details of interests etc) wanting to sign up for the networks is a strange not the way to go about it, though perhaps the aim is to prevent people leaving unreliable reviews and spamming the site.
Basket / Checkout
The shopping basket page is fine, though it could provide more information on things like the available payment options, as well as giving some reassurance about security issues.
At this point, it is necessary to register to enter the checkout process, and some customers may wonder why a date of birth is needed to buy from the site:
This information is really not necessary, and if sites insist on asking for dates of birth and other such details, then it should at least be made optional to avoid the risk of deterring potential customers.
This is only the first page of registration as well. After this, customers need to enter email addresses, phone numbers and set a password before they can get on with the job of entering their address and payment details:
There are a few potential sources of irritation in the process, such as the error messages, which can be unclear. In the screenshot below, an error message appears above the LCD TV I am on the point of paying for, meaning that it has not been included in the total price:
The error stems from the fact that I have apparently not entered a property type and phone number for the delivery address, but I have already provided a phone number earlier in the process, while the need to enter a property type was not made clear.
On closer inspection, this information should have been entered in the box above, but I skipped past it because there was nothing to indicate that it was obligatory to enter anything here, while previously, required information was indicated with an asterisk.
Also, the small box turns put to be there to enter my dialling code, though this is not immediately obvious, especially as only one box was needed when I entered a phone number earlier in the process.
Not realising this means another error message appears, which is one more source of frustration for shoppers, and something that could easily have been avoided with some consistency.
The Very.co.uk site is a mixed bag, containing some good examples of e-commerce best practice, such as well sorted product reviews, decent navigation and filtering options and site search that works well.
The network features look interesting too, though whether restricting membership to buyers and insiders is a good strategy is debatable. ASOS, which has some excellent community features on its site, doesn't make it this hard to join.
There are drawbacks though, such as vague delivery information on product pages, while the checkout process could certainly be improved. Far too much data entry is required to complete purchases, especially for first time shoppers, which makes the process longer than it needs to be and makes it more time consuming for customers.
So, a few tweaks here and there are needed to make it a more usable e-commerce site. That said, it's much better than the recently relaunched Woolworths site, the last release from Shop Direct Group.