An antidote to boring e-commerce

Brahm Buck

Visit the website of the clothing retailer Entireworld, and you might think your browser is broken. A patchwork of square images hovers in space over a mostly white background. Pictures scroll on top of a sparse navigation pane set awkwardly to the side. New-age music reminiscent of whale songs plays […]

Visit the website of the clothing retailer Entireworld, and you might think your browser is broken. A patchwork of square images hovers in space over a mostly white background. Pictures scroll on top of a sparse navigation pane set awkwardly to the side. New-age music reminiscent of whale songs plays in the background.

It’s disconcerting, a little weird, and entirely intentional. The look is an example of “brutalist design,” a descendant of a post-war architectural style that emphasizes raw materials, geometric shapes, and a bare-bones color palette. It’s part of a trend to shake up web marketing that just might be the rejuvenation of conventional retailing.

Neck-snapping website designs like these are a response to what Phillip Jackson calls the “Shopify Effect.” Jackson, who is senior vice president of commerce solutions at customer experience agency Rightpoint, explains that while Shopify has democratized e-commerce by making it easy for anyone to set up a retail website, it has also had the unintentional side effect of homogenizing the web.

“Every single e-commerce site looks the same,” he says. The result is: “It’s cheaper than ever to make a site, but costlier than ever to find a customer.”

He has a point. Take a look at any B2B tech company website and you’ll see the same basic experience: big photo up top, a few bullet point sentences with “learn more” links, a video or two, and an assortment of logos or blog post titles. And the ubiquitous “hamburger” menu often sits off to the left.

Blame this pervasive sameness on Apple and Google. The former invented the modern smartphone which now accounts for more than 50% of overall web traffic. The latter made mobile-friendliness an important factor in search results. The result has been responsive design, an approach to website construction that sacrifices visual variety for device compatibility.

Brick-and-mortar strikes back

Brutalism is just one response to what Jackson says is a backlash to the sameness that he believes will spill out into brick-and-mortar retailing as the pandemic recedes. “I believe there’s a possibility that social media could drive more foot traffic into brick-and-mortar stores than we give it credit for,” he says.

This has happened before. Back in the late 1990s, nearly every consumer-oriented bank went online to respond to changing customer preferences. It wasn’t long before every bank looked pretty much the same online. That was a problem for institutions that had invested heavily in branches that fewer and fewer people were visiting. Many people predicted the branches would die entirely.

Quite the opposite has happened. Many branches were shut down and relocated into shopping malls and supermarkets where customers were already going. Others were converted into upscale coffee shops, outfitted with immersive virtual and augmented reality displays, or turned into virtual experiences themselves. While the number of bank branches has declined slightly since its peak, there are 12,000 more of them today than there were 20 years ago.

Conventional wisdom says in-store retailing won’t bounce back, but Jackson thinks a convergence of factors could support a surprise resurgence. One is what he calls “revenge shopping,” a result of homebound buyers releasing pent-up demand by flocking to retail stores. That’s what happened in China, although there’s no guarantee it will happen here.

Another is Apple’s recent decision to throw down the gauntlet on app privacy, making it much harder for app developers to collect data about users. That will force brands to get more creative about connecting with customers. One way to do that is through in-store events.

Retailers are also stepping up their game online. Nike is designing custom workouts and training programs. Gucci partnered with Snapchat on augmented reality glasses. Otherland assaults your senses with color. Animal Pak leaves nothing to the imagination about the people it wants to use its nutritional supplements.

This new web aesthetic “looks like a bad PowerPoint,” Jackson says, but that’s the whole idea. “The look is purposely designed to be disorienting,” he says. “It introduces friction at the right time.”

This is good news for small and midsized businesses. Having built their e-commerce presence, they now have the latitude to experiment more with things like shoppable content, which allows viewers to buy from within the content they’re consuming. Anyone with an Instagram account or Pinterest account can get in on the action.

And don’t give up yet on retail stores. After a year of isolation, many people are itching to get back in the company of others. Give them a reason to visit and you might be surprised how many of them do.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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