Getting Lost in The Amazon: How North Face Site Search secured my sale

Doug TurnbullMarch 14, 2016

Bad site search can halt an e-commerce sale in its tracks. To show that, I wanted to share what happened with a recent purchase of mine. In this tale of online purchasing, Goliath (amazon) frustrated me while another brand’s online store (North Face) differentiated itself through site search to close my sale. Through sharing the story, I hope you see in human terms how real shoppers get frustrated and leave e-commerce experiences that don’t “get” them.

Anyway, so I’m shopping for a new laptop backpack. As a traveling consultant, this is a rather crucial purchase for me: I take my laptop everywhere and travel quite a bit to visit clients. So I need to choose carefully.

My first stop, of course, is Amazon. I enter a search for “laptop backpack.” I’m immediately overwhelmed with the thousands of laptop backpacks that Amazon returns. It dawns on me that there are many many many kinds of laptop backpacks. And amazon sells ALL of them. There’s the laptop bag for my parents. There’s uncomfortable looking hipster backpacks. There’s the bag for the gamer hauling their rig to the video game party. There’s laptop bags for kids. Ugh so many, as you can see below:

Amazon search results for laptop backpack

Amazon isn’t quite returning what I personally need in a laptop backpack. Lost in this jungle of stuff. Luckily, determined, I do become aware of features I care about in a laptop backpack:

  1. Being able to hold a Nalgene water bottle
  2. Hip belt to take the stress off my shoulders
  3. Comfortable for long walks or bike rides
  4. Enough space for my laptop, accessories, clothes for overnights
  5. Checkpoint friendly at airports
vectors are fun

Can't filter using features I care about!

As you can see from my list of requirements, I have active, traveling person laptop bag needs. I want to walk, bike in comfort with my laptop with me. Can I tell this to Amazon somehow? Ugh, looking at Amazon’s search interface (see image to the left), there’s nothing that helps me filter options that would give me active-wear bags.

I’m stuck. I’m fruitlessly scanning thousands of backpacks on Amazon’s search results. There’s no way I’m going to make progress pouring over the thousands of results. The search UX is abysmal for my needs – I can’t even hazard to guess, looking at the results, whether items meet my criteria. In despair, I try a ridiculous query “water bottle pocket 16 inch hip belt laptop backpack” and amazon boots me out of the laptop backpack category altogether! It delivers horribly irrelevant search results from numerous departments. Amazon is confused. It’s offering too much. We’re not getting each other. In frustration, I am about give up.

Luckily, I catch a small break. I notice there’s one thing in common to the backpacks I gravitate towards. I like the North Face brand bags. They seem to have features I like. They appear to have a place for a water bottle. They have hip belts. They seem comfortable. Most importantly I know something about The North Face brand. They’ve attached pretty strongly in my mind to being active and outdoorsy. I realize “these are my people. They get me!” Unfortunately, even still it’s hard for me to evaluate these bags in Amazon, even after filtering down to this brand.

That leads me to try the The North Face online store. I think perhaps they might have a more satisfactory sales experience. And by sales experience – I mean onsite search experience. My hope is the search will understand me better, and let me compare and filter across backpack features important to me.

I go to thenorthface.com and type “laptop” into the search bar, off the bat there’s fewer results all with laptop backpacks that appeal to me. But most importantly I can be very specific about features I care about as an active person. Look at the screenshot below, and you’ll see a filter that hits EXACTLY on one of my criteria:

Northface search results for laptop backpack

Awesome!

North Face paid attention to features I care about when shopping for an active person’s laptop bag. Additionally – I noticed other features I care about. Reflective bag? Great idea when I bike home late at night! ACA – American Chiropractic Association certified. Great! I don’t want my pack giving me back aches on long walks! Northface.com’s search talks to me – suggests features I hadn’t even considered in a backpack. We understand each other.

It’s a fascinating example of what we talk about all the time in our search relevance practice. It turns out, you don’t need to compete with Amazon in your product search experience. Instead customize a savvy sales experience that reflects what’s special about your brand and shows special care to your audience.

Another way to think through it is the in-person sales experience. Amazon’s site search is sometimes the snotty teenager saleperson at K-mart. They don’t know very much about laptop bags, nor do they get your active-person needs. They mostly just point you at the right aisle, and stare blankly as you blather about hip belts and reflective gear. The North Face search, on the other hand, is like chatting with an employee at a North Face outlet. They’re “my people.” They’re probably active, outdoorsy types themselves. Similarly, North Face’s search feels like it gets my priorities. I feel like I’m in the right place. It ranks and filters on features an active person cares about, helping me make decisions using my active-person criteria.

Good site search is your most important salesperson. Without something there that understands and guides users, your users certainly will go elsewhere for their purchase. If you work to understand and help them feel at home, you’ll close sales. If you create a vanilla search solution that shows lack of care, shoppers will feel unwanted and go elsewhere – just like they would if the sales staff was unresponsive.

OSC helps e-commerce sites customize their search UX and relevance to close sales. Heck we wrote the book on search relevance! Contact us if you’d like our help.




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