John Lewis is one retailer which has been a success online over the last few years, experiencing consistent sales growth, and has often been used as an example of a usable website on this blog.

I’ve been asking John Lewis Direct MD Robin Terrell, one of the keynote speakers at the recent Internet Retailing conference, about the company’s approach to e-commerce…

What is your approach to usability? Is it a continuous process of testing and improvement?

Being part of a very customer centric organisation, trying to engrain usability within the heart of has always been an important priority for us. All new features or pieces of functionality that are added to the website go through our in-house UX team. For significant pieces of work, UX is represented throughout the entire project lifecycle, and we will employ customer testing at multiple stages of the development.

Do you have any examples of usability tweaks that have paid off for you?

There is no single usability tweak that I would highlight, but making small incremental changes across a sequence of pages combine to produce a significant overall result. Once those changes have been made we then start again in a continuous cycle of change, test and learn.

The checkout process is well designed and enclosed to reduce distractions for the buyer , did you see a marked improvement in conversion rates after its introduction?

Yes, we did see an improvement in checkout conversion when it was redesigned in 2008. I wouldn’t describe it as a step change though, as we were coming from a strong starting point. It was more of a gentle evolution and we continue to evolve and see continually improving results by testing iterative changes through our MVT tool.

Can you give me any figures on sales and visitor numbers? What are the growth areas on the site?

Last year we reached around 3m visits during our peak week, and achieved £327m in turnover for the full year. We’re seeing growth in all areas but currently we’re seeing a significant uplift in our fashion categories, reflecting the step change we’ve made to the online assortment in this product area together with the new search and nav and refreshed fashion product pages.

What does your e-commerce team look like? Do you develop the website in-house or via external specialists?

We have a strong in-house design and development capability. We occasionally supplement the team with third parties when there is a specific need for a particular specialism or increased resource.

You have a reserve online / collect offline service, how has this worked out for you?

We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the popularity of the service. For some weeks, orders placed via this method can be up to 10% of the total. Although the main reasons customers choose this method are convenience and surety of stock, therefore implying significant cannibalisation – we know that approximately 13% of orders are incremental.

I have heard that, for every sale the web generates online, it pushes three in store. Does this apply to John Lewis?

We don’t have the exact same statistic but what we do know is that multi-channel customers spend twice as much with us per year than store only shoppers. Further, we know that 38% of customers who select our deliver to shop for collection service go on to make an additional purchase in store when they pick up their order.

What were the biggest challenges in implementing this on the website? How hard is it to join up online and offline so that things like stock levels are accurate?

As with any other significant initiative, we went through several stages of customer engagement and testing to ensure the deployment was as smooth as possible and made sense to our customers. Beyond the website, making this service work required a huge effort from lots of teams across the whole business.

We essentially delivered this from idea to rollout across all stores in five months. The fact that our customers immediately embraced the service made the teams justifiably proud of their achievements.

Our service leverages the stock in our dedicated online warehouse, not in store stock, so we manage the stock levels in the same way.

What is your approach to social media?

We’re currently in a ‘listen only’ phase on social media. We’re formulating a strategy now on how we engage in this area in a truly John Lewis way as we don’t want to get involved in this area without thinking thoroughly about what our customers want from us and how we can add value for them through our social media interactions.

Do you have any future plans around mobile?

We’re acutely aware of the growing use of mobile for web browsing and are currently reviewing what we can do in this area and that of mobile apps.  

What developments are planned for the site over the next 12 months?

We have ambitious assortment growth plans as we continue to move towards a full line department store offer of 250,000 SKUs. To support this growth we’ll be making further investments in our search and navigation functionality.

Additionally we’ll be adding richer product information and content in order to provide an online customer experience that is even closer to that seen in store. Customers are also demanding ever more flexible delivery options and so we’ll also be further developing our delivery proposition over the next 12 months.