GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: Gap Inc.’s Antidote: A User-First Web Strategy by Aaron Shapiro author of "USERS NOT CUSTOMERS: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business."
If you read the mainstream headlines about Gap Inc., parent company of Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy, PiperLime and Athletica brands, you may think the news is all bad.
Its third quarterprofits dropped 36 percent. Its stock price for the calendar year has declined nearly 18 percent . Its same store sales for through October is down 3 percent, and since 2004, this key figure’s best full-year was the single time it managed to grow—by one percent.
But look a little further into the company’s performance and you’ll discover an area with double-digit growth: Gap Inc. Direct, its e-commerce division. In the second quarter, the group’s sales were up 20 percent over the same period last year; and in the first quarter web sales were up 18 percent. This isn’t an anomaly; its digital business has been a bright spot for years. Its exceptional performance is powered by what I call a user-first strategy.
Users are everyone who interacts with a company through digital channels. Right now, you’re a CNBC user. When you go to Facebook, you’re a Facebook user. If you’re on 1-800-Flower’s Facebook page, then you’re its user too. Checking the weather on your phone? You’re a user of The Weather Channel. Filing expenses through your company’s intranet or looking for insights from its database management program? You’re a user of your employer.
Digital media and technology is so prominent in our lives, every company has more users than customers; and these users in total are more influential to the company than those relative few who have actually paid for its products and services. Twitterers, user reviewers, bloggers, and Facebook “friends,” all create a swarm of public opinion that shapes brands and drives sales. Employees, job candidates, and business partners determine operational performance, which also influences brand and sales. The key to a success in this digital age is to put users first in all decision making. Give users what they want, and they’ll respond with their loyalty and their pocketbooks.
This is what Gap Inc. Direct has done. Users want one only thing: for digital to make their lives easier. They go online to get things done, like check the stock market, share news with friends, or buy khaki’s, and they don’t want to waste a second wondering how a site works or dreading the number of clicks it’ll take to complete their task. Users want it to be easy. That’s the promise of digital technology. And that’s what Gap Inc. delivered on.
In 2005, Gap Inc. websites were redesigned to better match the seamless experience of in-store shopping, where women quickly browse the racks, grab what they want and keep on going, as The New York Timesreported. Prior to the redesign, a shopper likely had to click through several pull-down menus to view and select an item. Then she would have been whisked away to begin the checkout process. Imagine in a retail location if every time you put something in your cart, you were pushed up to the cash register! To minimize clicks, the Gap team developed a “quick look” feature, where with a simple mouse-over, a larger photo and item details would appear. Then rather than force-start the checkout process, the shopper would be informed the item is in her cart without leaving the page.
Three years later, Gap Inc. implemented another momentous user-first decision. In May of 2008, it pulled all of its brands together into a single site. For the first time users could shop for all Gap Inc. brands with one shopping cart and shipping fee—easy.
The result: About 9 months later, in the midst of the Great Recession, NYTimes.com glowed with the headline“Gap Joins Billion-Dollar Online Sales Club.” In 2008, Gap Inc.’s online sales grew 14 percent to $1.03 billion. That same year, U.S. apparel sales online grew only 6 percent, and Gap Inc.’s total sales dropped 8 percent. Gap Inc.’s dedication to its users powered its online division well beyond the poor state of the economy and the overall company.
Someday soon, a company’s digital presence will be enough to buoy the whole ship. In 2012, 50 percent of consumer spending, which amounts to about $1.2 trillion, is going to be influenced by or transacted through the Internet, according to Forrester Research. In 2014, this number goes up to 53 percent, equating to $1.4 trillion. And it will only go higher. The next generation of mainstream consumers has never lived without the Internet. They will rely on digital technology more than we do today and will have incredibly high expectations of usability. If a website or app doesn’t make their lives easier, they’ll move on to another that does. A user-first strategy will become, if it isn’t already, a company’s make-it-or-break-it point of difference.
Aaron Shapiro is the CEO of digital agency HUGE, and author of USERS NOT CUSTOMERS: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business. Visit www.usersnotcustomers.com or www.aaronshapiro.com.
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