E-Commerce Site Structures – A Design Perspective

We recently had a discussion about changing some aspects of the site and numerous comments appeared with regard to what we should change (over and above our current discussion).  Part of that it seems is a misconception about what can/cannot be changed in terms of a site.  So I thought I’d see if I could clarify some points.

The Site As A Physical Store

Let’s assume the website is a physical store. If you think of a physical store, there are aspects of a store that come pre-set – the way the walls are set-up, the floor plan, the number of windows, the amount of storage space and where your electrical outlets are.  Other aspects are easier to change – paint and trim, the physical layout of the store – and others vary on a regular basis – the personnel, the games, etc.  Each of these features cost a varying amount to change.

The Walls & Floor Plan

Most e-commerce sites run off a main e-commerce system – a central program that runs everything.  We use Magento, others might use Shopify, Zen Cart, osCommerce, etc.  Each of these e-commerce systems have an in-built set of features, the floor plan and walls that make up the site. Among the many in-built features in any e-commerce system would be:

  • Order Management
  • Customer Information Management
  • Checkout Pages
  • Site Search
  • Reporting Tools

To change any of these systems in a significant manner, it would require specialised work; just like it would in a physical store.  Want to put in some new windows? You need a contractor to cut the hole in the wall, get the licenses sorted, make sure electricity & plumbing isn’t an issue (and hire the necessary contractors for that if it is), etc.  It’s a big change, and requires a lot of planning to make sure that it doesn’t destroy the store.

Store Layout & Colours

On top of that though, there are store layouts and colours.  You might have a barebones shop, but what you do to it – how many shelves you put in, what colours and trim are added, where each category of items is located – can make a huge difference.  Working smart, you can make even a horrible floor plan less horrible.

In terms of a website, your store layout translates to:

  • site design (colours, fonts, layout)
  • category pages and their layout
  • store information pages and their layout

These are ‘simpler’ to change.  You can dash a coat of paint on much easier than ripping a wall down; you can put a new font in rather than adjusting site search. It might still require specialised help, but mostly you could do it yourself.

Iterative Changes

When you look at the changes that happen on the site, you can see how each of these changes play out.  Some, like fixing Site Search require a lot of planning and a lot of funds – it’s not easy ripping out retaining walls, shifting plumbing and electrical outlets to make the store better.

Other changes are simpler and can be down with minimal external help – changing how our products are categorised, the skin (colours) and even the general layout can be much easier.   These can be less ‘planned’ and because in many cases we don’t need external contractors, can be changed much more often.

Pre-Orders, Returns and Policy Changes

There recently has been a highly contentious thread on BGG on Return Policies for Online Game Stores.   I am not going to discuss the other store’s policies, though we thought we’d clarify our own thoughts on the matter and bring up a question that has been on our mind.

Return Policy

For those of you who haven’t read our Return Policy; it’s out of the norm it seems for the online game store industry.  I’ve rewritten it slightly to clarify some points that were clear in my mind but wasn’t so in the policy itself.

It seems that online game stores either provide returns 14 days from time of order (i.e. the count starts the moment you order) or when an order is received (after shipping).  The vast majority who do pre-orders do returns from 14 days from time of order; due to the potential concern it seems about returns for ‘older’ items held on the order.

I can actually see the reasoning behind that; but we’ve yet to have a customer ‘take advantage’ of our return policy in that way so far.  If anything has ‘cost’ us; it’s our willingness to take returns for opened products.  So far at least, we’re happy with our return policy as is and we’ll be keeping it as it is.

Pre-Orders

So let’s discuss pre-orders.  We like pre-orders; in fact, we go out of our way to encourage customers to make pre-orders by providing more points for pre-orders and creating a new section for them.  We’re in the process of putting together a blog list of pre-order release dates as well since it’s one of the major requests.

Why do we like pre-orders?

  • Indication of customer interest

Actually; that’s it.  Knowing what games are of interest to our customers helps us not order too many ‘dead’ games; which makes a big difference really.

There’s some talk of game stores ‘getting’ the capital beforehand – but we don’t charge orders till we ship them generally.  We allow for the possibility for this; but we generally don’t take advantage of it.

Policy Changes

Which does bring us to a potential problem.  We currently take pre-orders, do not charge the orders till they ship, and then take returns on these orders up until 14 days after receipt.  There are two issues here:

  • products ‘on-hold’; uncharged for months (in some cases like Catacombs, nearly a year!) that might actually be returned
  • inconsistent policies – due to the way PayPal functions, we can’t ‘hold’ an authorisation for very long and must charge the card immediately.  So some customers get charged and others don’t.

Which leads us to something we’ve been considering for a while – switching to charging all orders immediately to make it more consistent.

Why haven’t we?

  • potential customer dissatisfaction; though some indications are there that customers don’t even realise our policies of not charging or care
  • additional charges for cancelled orders and the need to refund customers

Of course, we could do it the way other online game stores do it; consider a sale final after 14 days of the order.  On the other hand, that brings its own host of issues including a counter-intuitive returns policy.  So what do you all think?