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Innovating the shopping experience: Q&A with Zappos Labs

Zappos Labs, the research and development arm of the giant online retailer, was launched to test new ways of improving the online shopping experience.

To date, Zappos Labs rolled out a number of initiatives, including Glance, which uses Zappos products to create a personalized shopping experience; PinPointing, which recommends Zappos products to consumers based on their Pinterest postings; and TweetWall, which enables users to browse Zappos products that are trending on Twitter.

The genesis of many of those experiments comes from the offline world, where Zappos Labs staffers spend hours observing brick-and-mortar shoppers in action. In the following interview, Will Young, the director of Zappos Labs, explains what’s behind the drive to help online consumers “shop happy”—and what it is about department store directories that fascinate him.

Q: Can you describe a Zappos Labs experiment and what you learned from it?

A: The first big project that came out of Zappos Labs was an iPad app called the ZN [an interactive monthly fashion magazine based on Zappos products]. We learned a lot from that project and really saw first-hand how hard it is to create a monthly magazine. Glance [a website customized according to customer's personal tastes] is the next generation of the ZN. We learned that customers loved the curation that we provided in the ZN, but we needed a way to put out more content more regularly. Once a month wasn’t enough.

Q: Zappos Labs staffers spend a lot of time observing the shopping habits of brick-and-mortar shoppers. What have they discovered?

A: One thing that was obvious and expected was how shopping is a very social experience in malls. Many people shop with friends, significant others, and coworkers. That is some of our inspiration on why we think cracking “social shopping online” is worth it. Other areas we find some inspiration in: stores that theme individual areas to match the lifestyle they are selling and how some malls try and create a just-chill-out-here-for-awhile environment that makes the overall shopping experience more relaxing and enjoyable.

I also have a small fascination with the various ways malls or department stores create floor directories. Some [mall directories] are tough-to-digest rows of text and I think that’s what we see online a lot. However, some stores have nice visual maps with context (“You Are Here”) that I think can inspire some different ways to navigate online. We haven’t implemented anything directly from these lessons, but keep them in mind for project inspiration and ideas.

Q: Can you describe one element of the offline shopping experience that’s been hard to replicate?

A: We piloted a site that tried to solve the problem of “What should I wear to [fill in the blank.]” It was very social because often sites like Zappos aren’t the best place to get an answer to something like “What should I wear to my first date with Amy on Friday at Café Claude?” We don’t necessarily know what kind of restaurant Café Claude is, what Amy’s style is, or what is natural for you. Your friends have the right context to answer that question. We’ve put that project on the back burner because the first few versions didn’t get the engagement we were looking for. But it’s a huge user problem that we keep revisiting.

Q: What makes Zappos so open to experimentation?

A: It’s baked into our Zappos core values. This sounds like corporatespeak mumbo jumbo, but Zappos really does make a lot of decisions based on our values. Take, for example, our No 2 value—”embrace and drive change.” We see that online retail is changing fast, and it’s all about embracing that change and getting ahead of it. No. 4 is: “Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded.” I think that describes what we try and do in Labs pretty well!

Q: What can other online retailers do to replicate Zappos Lab and the results you’re seeing?

A: I think the biggest thing retailers can do to experiment is just make time for it. I understand not everyone can carve out a big labs team dedicated to trying new experiments. However, there are lots of other models that might work well depending on your organization, for example, Google’s 80/20 time where 20 percent of people’s time is to work on other creative initiatives or companywide hackathons/hackdays.

Note: This article first appeared in MarketingProfs

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