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The Future of Websites

Radical personalization and more fluid design are on the horizon.

It’s simple, clean and functional, but Debco Solutions’ (asi/48885) Alex Morin just doesn’t love it anymore. In fact, he thinks his company’s website is dated and missing some important capabilities. Those are big reasons why Debco is launching a new site that should be up within the next six months.

Meanwhile, Prime Line (asi/79530) is also getting set to introduce a new website. The current one hasn’t been updated in several years and lacks some key things visitors want, the company’s director of marketing David Fiderer says. The new version will be rolled out in a few months.

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Examples like these are becoming more common across the industry as firms try to keep up with the curve of technology and customer needs. They want the website of the future – something engaging and useful, something that predicts what users want. For Morin, that means accessible imagery with more variety and a user-friendly interface. Fiderer is focusing on a larger list: live chat, responsive design, streamlined freight estimates and inventory checks, social media integration, speed, search functionality and more engaging content.

According to Matt Zentz, CEO at Marketpath, a content management system provider for web content, Morin and Fiderer are on the right track in achieving that ideal website – though the target goal is constantly evolving.

“Sites will continue to become more and more integrated with back-end business systems, primarily for building highly tuned, personalized experiences for both customers and prospects,” Zentz says. “New development techniques and design patterns will emerge, allowing developers to finely tune content and layout.”

The Dream Supplier Website
No doubt, both suppliers and distributors have many ideas of what would make the best interface, including everything from very detailed product searches to real-time inventory integration.

“I envision a supplier website that is fully interactive, one that has the ability to provide a lot of concise information in a way that is both easy to understand and to access,” says Kathy Cheng, president at Redwood Classics Apparel (asi/81627). “Ideally, it should be a self-serving e-commerce platform where you can ask for help through an integrated customer service chat widget.”

Cheng also would like sites to better serve corporate customers by having tools like an online catalog, an account creation tool with access to order history, real-time inventory access, virtual samples, online ordering, and freight cost estimates.

Morin agrees, noting that the more integration and data collection a supplier can have in a website, the better. His web utopia would feature integration to such a deep level that customer service can understand each buyer’s habits and predict the best solutions for them, or that the website would be able to monitor and track eye patterns. That would help firms understand what people look at first online – as well as what they immediately dismiss – so sites can be customized when buyers first arrive. And though it may not be completely realizable just yet, he thinks it’s on the horizon in the near future.

Fiderer also sees the value in that sort of in-depth information. “The ideal user experience not only gives users everything they need fast, but does so in a personalized way,” he says.

Danny Rosin, co-president at Brand Fuel (asi/145025), is looking for even more distributor-friendly features on supplier sites: an estimated time when merchandise will arrive if it’s out of stock, freight estimates with delivery dates, an option to ship via truck for large orders, the ability to download invoices, virtual images and detailed product information.

Changing Distributor Sites
Supplier sites aren’t the only ones moving into the future – distributors are also working on major overhauls of their websites to match the evolving needs of consumers. The Brand Fuel website is focused on driving leads for both promotional products and other services the company offers, but Rosin admits it can be confusing in its current iteration. “One of our goals that has helped and hurt us is that we want to zig where everyone else zags,” he says. “That can cause confusion for clients and present us with a potential identity crisis scenario.”

Traffic to the site continues to increase, though, so Brand Fuel is using visitor data and company goals to inform what changes should be made. Rosin notes updates are in the works to alert customers that Brand Fuel sells more than just branded products, but also offers delivery services and product experiences. To accomplish this, there will be more video, imagery, case studies and blog posts on the site. Rosin’s ideal version of the website would be “highly visual, emotionally compelling, educational, very interesting and simple to use, so much so that prospects would be so impressed that price for product would become a secondary concern,” he says.

Henrik Johansson, although satisfied with his company’s current site as CEO of Boundless (asi/143717), thinks that sites should constantly evolve to keep customers engaged, whether it’s through new blog content, videos and images, or something else. “The website should never be static,” he says. “It’s not just an online brochure to explain who we are – it’s there for a specific purpose.”

In other words, companies should think about the purpose of their website as they work to lay it out. “What are you trying to get people to do, what do you want them to feel, what do you want them to learn, what action do you want them to take when they come to your site? If I were to give any advice, it would be to really think through what you’re trying to achieve,” Johansson says.

Evolving Company Stores
As websites evolve across the industry, those changes will trickle down to distributor-managed company store websites as well. Boundless manages these sites as a big part of its business, and Johansson believes its solutions are a bit more modern than others in the marketplace.

“We have our own platform that has evolved and it has much more of what you would expect from a current retail site,” he says. “It has more interactive features, you can collaborate with buyers, you can create idea books, which are almost like a Pinterest for promos.” Johansson, though, recognizes there’s still a long way to go.

He says millennials in the workforce were the harbinger of needed changes to these websites in an industry that’s historically slow to adapt to new technology. He expects upcoming managed store innovations in both personalization and the mobile experience. “From an industry perspective, I don’t think the online store has evolved a lot in the last 15 years or so,” Johansson says. “It’s a small number of SKUs that somebody puts up and slaps a logo on. Millennials grew up with Amazon and they expect an Amazon-like experience. They don’t want an old stodgy store that’s not up to par with what they experience in their real life when they go buy things.”

For Johansson, that means websites will begin to recognize the user and suggest products for their upcoming campaigns – much like Amazon’s “recommended for you” section. It also means that the mobile versions of sites will be completely redesigned.

“I don’t think anybody’s innovated around creating more of a mobile user interface,” he says. “It’s still about clicking a little button and pull-down menus. It’s going to be an evolution we’ll see in the next few years, how mobile shopping experiences are changing. That’s the next frontier when it comes to the retail end of online stores.”

That’s something many in the industry agree on: the mobile revolution is coming, if not already here. And that means websites have to be user-friendly on every device. Both Cheng and Fiderer are preparing new sites right now with responsive design, a feature where desktop websites can be viewed on any size browser in a functional and engaging way.

The need for modern capabilities and engaging functionality is necessary for all industry websites, mobile or not, Johansson thinks. “You can‘t get away with old crusty technology,” he says.

Morin agrees. “Our goal is to look into the future and understand it as best we can, and then build campaigns and products and our companies around where we think the world is going,” he says. “Websites and internet and data are so tied to that. Technology changes so radically and so quickly that you have to think outside the box.”

– Email: jennifer@jenniferbillock.com