Why toy shopping is far from childsplay

It wasn’t so long ago that most of my online purchases were for expensive shiny gadgets that I didn’t really need, but just had to have. However, since I became a parent last year my gadgets have been gathering dust and I’m more likely to buy toys than technology.

As an impulsive online shopper with a credit card in hand the the desire to spoil my first born child I should be a dream customer for online toy shops. Despite this I managed to spend 2 hours online last night looking for something to buy and still ended up spending half of what I intended. Compare this with my average gadget shopping trip which would usually take well under an hour and resulting in me spending twice what I intended and it is clear that something went wrong.

What went wrong?

Imagine a supermarket that stocks everything that you would expect to find in a supermarket, but decides to organise the aisles by brand alphabetically. A customer looking for some breakfast cereal would need to know what companies made cereals and visit each aisle to see what was on offer. As the customer walked between the Kelloggs aisle and the Nestle aisle they would probably question the logic of the layout, but they would miss out seeing products by brands that they are less familiar with. They might even find themselves getting frustrated and leaving the store as they struggle to remember who makes Weetabix (Answer: “The Weetabix food company” who also make Alpen. Thanks Google).

The example sounds far fetched, yet many online retailers do exactly this.

BabyJacks online store

BabyJacks is an example of a retailer who takes this approach. I chose to use them as an example not because they are particularly bad, but because they have a pretty good website with a wonderful product range that I just found difficult to navigate. In short their navigation lost them my sale.

The Baby & Child Toys section of the BabyJacks website organises the products largely by brand, but also with some “by type” categorisation such as “bath toys”. Each category contains up too about 8 pages of products which appear to be organised alphabetically.

As a customer who is not yet familiar with many of the brands they stock I would need to work my way through all of the sub pages of each category (as well as clicking through to product pages where I am interested) in order to view their products. I loved the look of what they had on offer, but I honestly wasn’t going to work my way through 103 pages of product listings to find something suitable.

Big stores have problems too

The organisation of products is critical to any store, but this becomes even more apparent if you look at larger stores. Woolworths have recent re-launched online and still stock a bewildering range of toys for children of all ages. The most logical non-brand category I could find there was a “toys for toddlers” section which contained 411 products ranging from cot toys to walkie talkies.

Why this didn’t work for me

Shopping by brand works well when you know exactly what you are looking for and are familiar with the brands on offer. Even our brand organised supermarket would work well for a customer who went in looking to stock up on Heinz baked beans. Many customers however are not as clear in what they want to buy and organising products by brand does little to help these customers find what they are looking for.

The key to effective navigation is to organise products in a way that matches what the customer is looking for. Whilst I have only mentioned two stores above I in fact visited over a dozen toy and baby stores almost none of which had navigation to meet my needs. The majority of those that offered toys for all ages didn’t even organise toys by the age of the child expecting me instead to browse hundreds of unsuitable products in the hope of finding what I was looking for.

A better approach

Early Learning CentreBig name stores seem to be moving more and more towards the concept of layered navigation. Layered navigation blends traditionally categorisation with the power of product search and offers the customer the chance to navigate the site in a way that suits their shopping needs.

The Early Learning Centre offers a good example of this. Clicking their Baby & Toddler Toys category

returns a large number of results, but the side navigation then allows you to filter the results by the criteria that are important to you. In my example I would have selected “6-12 months” in the age category and “£30-£50” in the price and I’m then presented with a very manageable selection of 19 products to choose from. Additional filtering options such as by type, by brand and by skills are also offered allowing customers to choose the path through the site that best suits them.  Some people might argue that this approach shows me less products so can’t be as good, but the key is that it is showing me products that I am likely to buy rather than those that I am not.

Other large toy stores such as Hamleys and Toys’r'Us offer similar approaches and across other markets this approach seems to be gaining in popularity. I would imagine that the increase in popularity of layered navigation and other means of providing multiple navigation paths has come about as the result of usability testing proving the effectiveness of such approaches.

What can a smaller retailer do?

Most retailers don’t development budgets of companies like The Early Learning Centre and Hamleys, and most of the affordable off the shelf solutions still lack in this area. With some thought though existing systems can be used to provide more choices in navigation.

  • Consider how your customers shop
    Before doing anything take time to consider what are the most important criteria for most of your customers and make this the main focus of your navigation. Use your search logs and customer feedback to check that any assumptions you are making are accurate.

  • Offer multiple methods where it makes sense
    If multiple navigation paths make sense for your products then include them.

  • Don’t mix navigation concepts
    If you want to categorise both “by type” (ie Soft Toys) and by Brand (ie Steiff) clearly separate these choices and label them clearly to prevent confusion. Most e-commerce platforms offer you at least 2 means (category & brand) which you can use to different effect.

  • Don’t forget product sorting options
    Even if you are limited in how many ways you can categories your products you may be able to offer additional product sorting options enable customers to find what they are looking for easier.

  • Consider linking to internal search results
    If you can see a clear need for a means of navigation that is hard to offer in your ecommerce system consider deep linking to internal search results. With the right product descriptions this should allow you to group almost any combination of products.

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Comment by Dan Waldron
2009-08-12 15:17:00

I must say this is a great article i enjoyed reading it keep the good work :)

Comment by OlivierS
2009-08-12 20:04:51

Great post ! Thank you

Comment by Nic Jones
2009-08-13 10:59:11

Interesting article which has made me think about how we organise the categories on our website. I also wonder what you would have made of our website had you come to us credit card at the ready! Come to think of it if you still have some spending to do we would love to see you (and hear your opinions) – http://www.thetoyforest.co.uk

Comment by admin
2009-08-13 16:19:26

Hi Nic,

Actually I have been on The Toy Forest before, but I don’t think that I have made a purchase yet. I actually wish I had remembered it better when I was writing the last part of that article as your store is a good example of separating the navigation concepts. Although you offer navigation by type, price and brand these are clearly separated and avoid the confusion that some stores do.

It’s a nice looking store with a lot going for it. You managed to avoid most of the things that drive me nuts about shopping online. Considering what an impatient shopper I am this is no mean achievement!

I’m publishing an article tomorrow “20 ways to lose a sale”. You should check back on that – scanning through the list you do pretty well, but I reckon there are a couple of things you might take from that.

Right… now where’s that credit card.

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