Case Study: For Site Upgrade, Sam's Club Stays In-House

When the time came to upgrade its year-old Web site, the management of the world's largest membership warehouse club -- following both the philosophy of parent company Wal-Mart and a trend in a time of close-to-the-vest spending on IT upgrades -- turned inward rather than hiring outside developers.
By Mike Espindle

A part of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sam's Club, with 480 store locations and over 42 million cardholders, is the world's largest membership warehouse club. Its online store site, samsclub.com, was initially launched last summer.

Over the past year the site has undergone weekly updating, using shopper feedback to introduce changes and innovations. And when the time came to go to market with large-scale upgrades, Sam's Club management -- following both Wal-Mart's philosophy and a trend in a time of close-to-the-vest spending on IT upgrades -- turned inward rather than hiring outside developers.

"We quick determined that the best resource to respond to our customers' needs and our own corporate initiatives was right in-house," Scott Sandlin, Sam's Club divisional manager of merchandising services, said. "We identified several big-ticket changes to make, and relying on our own resources and on Wal-Mart's central IT department allowed us to wrap the new functions into a true V2.0 of the site on its first-year anniversary. We'll continue weekly changes, but we're also looking to introduce major site innovations to our customers annually."

To make the online shopping experience as easy as possible, Sandlin's team reviewed usability, navigation, personalization, design, and product category issues from the customer perspective. Working with team members Randy Salley and Emily Gore of Wal-Mart's IT division, it also determined the impact on existing back-end technologies.

"Our plans developed in concert with a back-end upgrade from BroadVision 5.5E technology to the latest BV 6.0 version," Sandlin said. "The central shopping cart function was completely redesigned to streamline the shopping experience, we added on-the-fly shipping estimator modules, and the existing chat function was better integrated into the site to offer this option to our customers in a more meaningful way."

Group effort
With all business divisions located on the Sam's Club campus in Bentonville, Ark., the project pulled in the talents of many departments -- content, imaging, business analysis, and IT -- to define an integrated, collaborative process that saw the site revision to completion.

"One of the things you learn as you move online operations forward is to rely on input from many business units," Sandlin said. "Our catalog group helped us focus our previously retail-centric approach onto offsite consumer behavior. Even simple ideas, like re-labeling a product category from 'HBA,' which resonates with retailers, to 'Health & Beauty Aids' can carry a lot of impact."

Other changes including reducing the product purchasing process from nine steps to three; changing product categories to better reflect shoppers' habits; improving the search engine to let customers drill deeper into the product categories; recoding the site to simplify content management and to synchronize marketing initiatives and product availability data; and adding tools to identify club members as they enter the site, allowing them to opt into customized content based on their purchasing histories.

Covering the basics
"The lion's share of the work was 'back to basics': enhanced Javascript work, a lot of HTML re-coding," Sandlin said. "Even seemingly small color scheme and menu-location decisions were based on customer feedback. We can introduce customized themes for the site more easily than ever before. 'Back-to-school' can have different meanings and different timeframes -- back to grammar school or back to college? We can respond to those varying needs without going through the sometimes lengthy manual process the older site structure dictated."

Product descriptions were also examined. According to Sandlin, the original strategy of offering customers as much information as possible sometimes lead to verbose text blocks.

"Customer feedback all lead to the idea of making the experience more fun," he said. "Our colors went from pastel to vibrant, our copy went from lengthy to quick-reads. We also added some 'fun-facts' interactions and some personalization functions."

The payoff? According to Sandlin, a 35 percent boost in site traffic since the redesign was completed earlier this summer. More significantly, online sales have in the short term grown by four times over last year.

Sandlin said, "Our investment in improving customer interaction, even down to the text and navigation level, is starting to pay-off. Creating the best user experience possible, especially if its based on front-line feedback and real-world expertise, doesn't have to rely just on using the latest technology. We took what our customers were telling us and put it to work, with very positive results."

Mike Espindle is a freelance writer.






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