Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Very ambivalent

Littlewoods Direct became Very on Sunday. No, a noun isn’t missing from that sentence. Shop Direct Group rebranded its Littlewoods Direct fascia, renaming it Very and radically overhauling its website. The goal is to attract and retain a young, upwardly mobile audience by offering loads of social-networking features as well as some hip new brands.

So, is the new website Very fabulous? Or is it Very much of a misfire? Or is it Very much a matter of much ado over nothing, or perhaps a work still Very much in progress? (Okay, I’ll stop now with the Very bad play on words—but really, with a name like Very, the brand is asking for it.)

Let’s start with the home page. The product categories are clearly delineated near the top, and in the centre of the page the links to “Hot holiday fashion”, “View our new and exclusive brands”, and “Top offers” are more prominent than that for “Introducing our network”. So far, so good. But could there be a stronger call to action to encourage sales? Absolutely. That the product shots on the home page are minimal, in both size and number, and there’s nothing that says, “Shop now” or “Like this skirt? Click here” hints at the drawbacks of having one website serve two apparent purposes: to engage via social networking and to sell product.

The social aspects of the site, in and of themselves, are fine. Product reviews, of course, have gone from being a nice-to-have to a must-have for consumer ecommerce sites, but Very uses a pleasingly thorough template for its reviews that sets them apart from most others. The product pages also include widgets that make it easy to post the items onto Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter. The live chats with its celebrity designers such as Fearne Cotton, who created an exclusive range for Very, are a fun way to create buzz.

There’s also a forum, and a People networking section: You can sign up, fill out a questionnaire, follow other participants a la Twitter, post comments, and put together product “bundles”, such as outfits or room furnishings. It’s all very kicky, but I wonder if all these networking features will distract site visitors from shopping rather than encourage them to do so.

In the July issue of Catalogue e-business, PR and social-media expert Katy Howell, of Immediate Future, advises keeping community sites separate from transactional sites: “People go to online retailers to shop. For advice they will go elsewhere.”

And while there’s much to be said for making the online shopping experience more social, just as offline shopping is, making it too social could suppress sales. Think about the gaggles of teens you see at shopping centres, trying on sunglasses and hats, leafing through magazines, sampling CDs. How many of them buy much of anything other than sodas and sweets?--SC

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