Design View | Articles and opinion on design professionalism, technique and culture by Andy Rutledge

The Stepford Wives

April 21, 2007

Sure, there’s something to be said for sticking to your guns. But when every US department store website looks like it was designed by the same person on the same day, and left that way year after year, something is dreadfully wrong.

This epidemic clone aesthetic could just mean that plain, boxy, sales–flyer style design is what you must present online if you’re a department store company. It could mean that online sales are not really a focus for department stores, so they don’t waste time on putting creative effort into their websites. It could mean that there’s only one way to design a retail website and they all got it right 8 or 10 years ago and don’t want to mess up a good thing, …but it really doesn’t mean any of these things. It more likely means that department store companies are just plain cowardly and unimaginative.

The featureless character of this repetitive landscape is indicative of several grave errors of retail practice, marketing, and design; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to recognize this. So I’m left a bit baffled as to why not a single one of these otherwise successful companies has been interested in taking advantage of this ridiculously ripe situation.

Like the fictional citizens of Stepford, Connecticut, these retail powerhouses all seem content to be wed to virtually identical, vacant-eyed, submissive partners to represent them online.

Meet the Cast

I’ve selected 10 from the greater pool of department store websites to help illustrate my point. There are several others, and they all embody this same bland approach. For this article I’ve concentrated on stores located in the US, as these are the brands I’m most familiar with. First, have a look at the main pages of these stores’ sites.

Pete
Repeat
Pete
Repeat
Pete
Repeat
Pete
Repeat
Pete
Repeat

Now, it is widely understood among designers that clean lines, airy layouts, and simplicity are all desirable features of website designs that are intended to coax dollars from wallets. In fact, due to some initially successful designs back around 1998 to 2000, many web designers began to refer to this white background, gray line–delineated aesthetic as “retail design.”

The popularity of this sort of layout and crisp look and feel inevitably spawned a clichéd aesthetic, which it remains today. Only today it is a much more tired cliché. But it certainly “works” on a fundamental level so one might ask, why all this fuss? Well, because of context. Fundamentals are important, but context is the great leveler (and you thought death was the great leveler. So naïve). If you ignore context, distracted by what is otherwise fundamentally sound, you become ripe for failure and ripe for irrelevancy.

Pete and Repeat

There's a lot going wrong here, but I'm only going to touch on a small portion of it. In order to get a better grasp of just one aspect of what’s so very wrong with the designs of these sites, try this test: Take any one of the logos and put it on any one of the other sites’ pages.

Works perfectly, doesn’t it? The Bloomindales’ logo works fine on the Dillard’s site. The Macy’s logo would work just fine on the Neiman Marcus site. The colors might have to change, but virtually nothing else. If this happened tomorrow on the actual websites, I doubt a single person in the whole world would notice – including the marketing staffs of any of these companies. This is problematic.

With these sites’ designs there's no attempt at originality. There’s no attempt to engage visitors in a compelling way. There’s no attempt to articulate any sort of (visual) brand experience. This sort of design has become plain brown wrapper for this branch of online retail.

What this means is:

These companies have been doing a pretty good job of continuously producing print ads and newspaper inserts in a specific way for many years. So when they go online, they ignore the environment and can’t seem to see past their own noses.

And when an environment is so very ripe for exploitation, that differentiation is comparatively inexpensive. You’d have to be an idiot or a coward to let your competitors have first dibs.

Complacency coupled with ignorance – this is what characterized the newspaper industry’s approach to its online instruments just a year or two ago. Because of the ripe opportunity this created, today both grave fear and worthy efforts are weaving their way through online news. There are winners and losers, clearly defined.

This same thing is going to happen, not might happen, is going to happen in the department store online environment. It must happen because trends are the world’s pendulum. They must swing first one way then another. Furthermore, where there are brands, there must be differentiation. Where there is conformity, there must be an iconoclast. Where there is a pack, there must be vying leaders.

At present, all of these Stepford wives look, feel, and act the same. But this shouldn’t be; these are all distinct brands with different strengths and weaknesses. It’s as if a group of women of different body shapes and sizes are all agreeing to wear the same fashion and to cram their respective feet into shoes of the same style, size, and color. They all think this one shoe fits them perfectly.

The next department store to leave its brethren behind is likely going to be the one that gathers its courage and decides to break the mold – to articulate its brand better than any of its competitors (while offering a significant social or financial value, of course). Today, brand articulation leads or co–leads with the online channel. And when an environment is so very ripe for exploitation, that differentiation is comparatively inexpensive. You’d have to be an idiot or a coward to let your competitors have first dibs.

Yes, it’s not necessarily kind to blatantly suggest that the online world of department stores is currently populated by cowardly idiots. But if the shoe fits…

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