In an online world of increasing complexity, gap.com has proved that keeping it simple is not stupid.
Gap.com doesn't shy away from the looking glass. As the click-and-mortar sizes itself up, it doesn't see the reflection of a warped, carny-like image, inflated by the unflattering glare of fluorescent lights. Instead, it gazes upon a perfect mirror image of its offline counterpart.
"It's been important to us that the online shopping experience mirrors the in-store shopping experience," says Rebecca Weill, spokesperson for gap.com. Since it opened shop in November 1997, San Francisco-based gap.com has done just that--transferring the offline chain's trademark bright-white background, pastel palette and clean, uncluttered look to the Web. The shopping site peddles everything consumers can find at the real thing, from Gap classics like jeans and khakis to seasonal favorites like summer shorts, capris pants and flip-flops.
Just as in the offline world, gap.com focuses on simplicity of use and simplicity of style. In keeping with this philosophy, gap.com hesitates to add the bells and whistles, such as shopping guides or 3-D and 360¡ product previews, that bog down some shopping sites. For those with the modem speed, these gadgets and gizmos can induce the gee-whiz effect. Yet for most e-shoppers, the thrill factor is lost to excruciatingly slow download times that frustrate and alienate.
Rather than risk shopping basket desertion syndrome, gap.com sticks with the basics, just as its product line does, to create a straightforward shopping experience. "Gap.com is pretty easy to navigate and it loads fast," reports Peggy O'Neill, a principle analyst for Internet media and market research company NetRatings, Milpitas, Calif. "A big part of the value proposition of shopping online is that [the consumer] doesn't want to wait in line or find a place to park," she explains, advising that e-commerce sites shouldn't waste shoppers' time with non-value-added features and risk "the wrath of the consumer."
With a plethora of clothing, accessory and personal-care product options for men and women, gap.com allows shoppers to view the products as either a list or an image. To take a closer look, shoppers can enlarge those pleated walking shorts or that rayon ruffle skirt they've been eyeing, "examine" fabric swatches and read detailed descriptions.
The numbers reflect the success of Gap's online formula. According to New York-based audience measurement service Nielsen/NetRatings, the click-and-mortar has posted a unique audience monthly average of 830,000 since May 1999. Last Christmas, gap.com saw unique audience numbers climb to the 1.2 and 1.5 million marks in November and December, respectively. But high-traffic fluctuations are not isolated to seasonal shopping frenzy. In April 2000, unique audience figures again reached 1.2 million.
Gap.com has expanded to include some features unique to cyberspace. For instance, consumers looking for just the right fit of Gap jeans and khakis can browse firstname.lastname@example.org to find online-only sizes and lengths. The offering touts more than 175 sizes, 25 fits and 15 colors and washes, along with size charts, measuring instructions and comparison tools. GapMaternity, which launched in March, is another online exclusive. The dot-com line features A-line styles, non-binding waistbands and easy-to-wear jersey and stretch cotton fabrics. "Whether it's the addition of new shopping tools or new and exclusive product categories, we are always looking at ways to improve our customer's shopping experience," says Weill.
Boasting an extended product line that any Gap enthusiast would drool over, gap.com has posted page views that run into the millions. Nielsen/NetRatings reports a monthly average of 19 million page views for the dot-com. In December 1999, page views soared to 39 million. Since last year, the lowest month-to-date is June 1999 with 7 million total page views. According to Nielsen/NetRatings, time spent on the site ranges from seven to 10.5 minutes.
However, these numbers only equal dollars if gap.com turns browsers into buyers, cautions O'Neill. "[Gap.com] doesn't live on a CPM model," O'Neill says. But, she adds, the data reflects that gap.com "has been effective in getting people to buy." According to Nielsen/NetRatings, the site averages a 3.5 percent conversion rate (where visitors make a purchase). In December 1999, gap.com recorded nearly a 7 percent conversion rate. In April 2000, more than 3 percent of the site's unique visitors made a purchase.
O'Neill attributes gap.com's good fortune to a couple of factors. First of all, she says, Gap already has "a good brand. People are more likely to type in gap.com, than go to a search engine and type in 'clothes for mom.' " Secondly, the retailer has shifted some of its focus from teens to adults, who are more likely to have credit cards to shop online. "By emphasizing business casual, they are going after the older folks," O'Neill explains.
With a clear Internet following, gap.com aims to please. To this end, the cybershop concentrates much effort on building and maintaining customer relationships. From the start, the
e-tailer replicated its in-store customer-service tactics. Instead of burying contact information, the site places an e-mail address and toll-free number for inquiries and feedback prominently on each page. Inhouse customer service reps field a variety of questions, including ones about size and fit, product availability and store locations, explains Weill. According to gap.com, representatives usually respond to e-mail inquiries within 24 to 48 hours. Customers also can phone a toll-free number where reps are available 24/7.
In addition, gap.com claims a hassle-free return policy. Online consumers can return any Gap online purchase--even items sold exclusively on the Web--to any Gap, GapKids or babyGap store within the United States or through the mail. The site also offers e-mail gift reminders so important dates don't slip by, a wish list feature so registered users can let others know what Gap items they'd like to receive and the ability to ship to multiple addresses.
Gap.com's customer relationship push has not gone unnoticed, reports Weill. "We have a very vocal and loyal customer base," she boasts. "Through e-mails, phone calls and letters, our customers let us know how much they like the simple design of the site, the friendly and speedy customer service and the added convenience that online shopping provides."
Gap.com does not rely on word-of-mouth alone to drive site traffic, however. In the brick-and-mortar store, for instance, customers are inundated with the URL plastered on shopping bags, register receipts and denim walls. Customers craving a dose of dot-com can even shop the online store in specially designed Web lounges located in eight Gap stores across the U.S. In addition, Gap has launched two advertising campaigns to grow brand awareness. When an e-retailer has an offline brand, "traffic comes cheaper," says O'Neill. "You get more out of your marketing dollar." Internet efforts include a three-year commerce and marketing agreement signed in August 1999 with Dulles, Va.-based America Online, which gives Gap anchor and other premier placements within AOL's shopping destinations. "We look at everything Gap does as the expression of one brand," explains Weill.
Right now, O'Neill reports that the dot-com seems to be breathing life into its brick-and-mortar counterpart. "Gap.com," says O'Neill, seems to be "the diamond in the crown right now."--Ann M. Mack Photo: Angelika Grundle