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NYC-UPA Talk by Andrew Purcell:
How FreshDirect Delivered e-Commerce Success

by Alan Seiden
Senior Developer and Technical Lead
Strategic Business Systems, Inc.

Alan Seiden is a software developer and an advisory board member of NYC-UPA. Contact Alan at alanseiden@acm.org.

The speaker, Andrew Purcell, was at FreshDirect from 1999-2005. He is now an Information Architect in the Global Web Services Group at Starwood Hotels.

FreshDirect, the fantastically successful Long Island City, N.Y.–based online grocery store, began developing its web site in 1999 with the goal of providing “the freshest perishable food at great prices, delivered.” The site opened to the New York–area public in 2002. By 2004, over 100,000 regular customers were ordering through freshdirect.com, generating $100 million in sales. How did the business thrive in New York’s competitive food scene?

On June 21, 2005, the New York City chapter of the Usability Professionals Association hosted speaker Andrew Purcell, FreshDirect’s Director of User Experience, to hear how FreshDirect did it. Andrew described FreshDirect’s methods to over 100 audience members.

The lessons for success that Andrew described can be applied to many e-commerce businesses.

Understand Your Product
FreshDirect’s creative team started by researching the offline food buying experience—visiting stores and interviewing merchandising experts. The team spent a lot of time learning about food from FreshDirect’s savvy product managers. Eventually, Andrew and his cohorts “knew more about cutting steak than most butchers in the city.”

Excite the Senses with Pictures and Words
Andrew noted, “Online, we can’t let people interact with the food, but we can take beautiful photos.” FreshDirect uses in-house photographers and food stylists to produce photos that are mouth-watering.

Once tempted by succulent images, customers can use the site’s comparison charts to choose a product. The “pears” page, for example, compares varietals such as Asian, Bartlett, and Bosc, by price, usage, sweetness, tartness, and crispness. This information is more detailed than that provided by most real stores.

The food writing is vivid. FreshDirect hired writers across the USA who had expertise with specific foods. The Asian pear sounds delectable: “The mild, sweet taste comes fully forward with incredible crunch and juiciness.”

Be Willing to Break with Convention
Most e-commerce sites, in their product listings, show thumbnail images to the left of the corresponding products. Alvin Kwok, FreshDirect’s Chief Creative Officer, discovered that showing five product images horizontally above the listings could improve shoppers’ ability to find what they wanted.

Experiment with Specialty Departments to Increase Sales
Sales of Adirondack Cheddar, from upstate New York, increased fourfold when the cheese was added to a new “Local Foods” department.

Slow Can Be Better
While FreshDirect’s site is generally quick and efficient, it sometimes encourages shoppers to slow down in order to understand a customized product. For example, FreshDirect cuts all meats to order. The center-cut filet mignon can vary in thickness and weight. It includes options such as a salt-and-pepper rub. Want to grill the steak? The on-screen “thickness guide” suggests 1.5–2 inches for grilling. The site then does something unusual. The "Add to Cart" button launches a cart confirmation page, showing the details of the steak order, including the estimated price, so the customer understands what was added. Andrew explained that the goal was to “get people through the page with the right decisions made, not necessarily the quickest way.”

Clarify the Check-out Process
Early usability testing of the check-out process revealed that many users stopped short of clicking the “Submit Order” button. Although the order was not placed, the users thought they were done. Andrew lamented, “There can’t be anything worse.” The solution? Andew and his team added a large, gaudy, orange banner reading “Click submit to place your order” across the top of the page. “It still hurts to look at this, but the business win was huge. This alone paid for the usability tests a million times over.”

For more information
See Andrew Purcell's presentation slides in Microsoft PowerPoint (.ppt) format (2,219KB)

NYC-UPA thanks its sponsors:
Sachs Insights, a Qualitative Market Research Firm, for videography services.
FreshDirect, for catering the event with their delicious food.

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