The Pinterest-ization of the e-commerce experience

One of my favorite stores is Richmond, Virginia-based clothing and fashion accessories seller, Need Supply Co. While it is no where close to where I live — that is San Francisco — I still like their online store mostly because I find their website and curated list of items on sale fun to peruse. It isn’t the largest selection, but still, it is engaging. In the past when I visited their website, I had to click through a whole bunch of links to get a better sense of what was being offered. It wasn’t easy and it was time consuming.

So a few days ago when I ended up on their website, I was pleasantly surprised. Gone was the old fashioned way of navigating through the wares. Instead, the site was offering a highly visual, grid-like layout that reminded me of, well, Pinterest. Need Supply Co isn’t the first site that is taking a cue from Pinterest’s design — several larger retailers are being influenced by the grid-style design philosophy that has been popularized by San Francisco-based Pinterest.

In addition to Pinterest, I am also seeing Fashion oriented e-commerce sites take a cue from Tumblr as well. Examples of Tumblr inspired e-commerce sites include Of A kind and Le Coq Sportiff. Tumblr and Pinterest have become the Glimmer Twins of the fashion content platforms and are major sources of attention for brands and products.

A new kind of grid

David Galbraith, an architect and serial entrepreneur who started Wists, a precursor to Pinterest, says that the “UI universe has boiled down to grids and feeds and slideshows, as far as I can see.” (His blog post for GigaOM explains it really well.) And we are likely to be married to those formats for a while, especially as digital information continues to grow exponentially.

He argues that text will be primarily a feed — a theory that was popularized by blogs. Pictures will be in grids while videos and presentations are going to take cue from the slideshows. Today, focusing data into packages that are simply understood by humans is going to be a key challenge of the next generation of the Internet — a topic we are going to be discussing at our RoadMap conference on November 5 in San Francisco. Both Tumblr’s CEO David Karp and Pinterest’s CEO Ben Silbermann will be speaking at our event.

To be honest, grid design is not new and has been around since the early days of the modern web. There was OMG from Yahoo that came to life in 2007. Tumblr had its wonderful archives. Why, even MSN had Wonderwall. (Check out these cool grid designs.) And there was NotCot.

However, Pinterest and its explosive growth has made grid-based designs more accessible to many more people. Many of Pinterest’s users also tend to be those with active interest in fashion, design and products. As a result, these people can influence the purchasing decisions.

Money makers

Today, e-commerce companies are optimizing their websites to benefit from “pinning” and “tumbling” which means they are taking their design cues from Pinterest itself and are starting to resemble the traffic generating engine.

I was reading this interview with Pinterest’s Silbermann on Fast Company’s website and I came across this comment by Leland Rechis, a director of product experience at Etsy.

“Browsing in e-commerce is a more difficult problem than search. Amazon and Google pretty much stink at browsing.”

Michael Williams, who writes the influential menswear blog, A Continuous Lean, and works in the fashion industry, believes that the growing influence of these two content sharing networks is because they are highly visual and as such drive a lot of conversions.

A report from Shareaholic identified Pinterest as driving more referral traffic that some of the other social services such as Google+ and LinkedIn. Pinterest started 2012 at about 0.85 percent of traffic visits on the web and at the end of August 2012 was at 1.84 percent of all visits. Being so visual, Pinterest also drives conversions. Williams said to me in an email: “e-commerce managers would be insane not to adapt their experience to be more like it.”

“Online shopping continues to become more of a rich experience, and the structure and set up of Tumblr and Pinterest lend themselves well to the development of shopping sites,” Williams added. “I also think that customers are more open to a visual shopping experience, and it seems like the back end technology can better support those types of experiences at this point.”

And if there was any doubt about the pinterest-ization of e-commerce, then look no further than eBay, the grandma of all commerce sites, which recently announced a grid-influenced home page. eBay Chief Technology Officer Mark Carges told AdAge that the design (aka The Feed) was a way “to combine the ease of online purchasing with the fun of window shopping.”

Sahil Lavingia, who worked at Pinterest before starting his own company (Gumroad) is of the opinion that the success of Pinterest is leading people to copy the Pinterest’s design, mostly because now the majority of the people understand how these visual grids work. But he cautions that to copy it outright is a bad idea for retailers. Why? Because while grid design is good for quick discovery of goods, it is still important to make the buyer take the final step: shop.

That topic and a whole lot of other design questions will be part of the conversation at GigaOm’s RoadMap conference that I am going to be co-hosting with Katie Fehrenbacher. You’ll hear conversations with Silbermann and Karp, as well as other e-commerce thought leaders like Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp, and Warby Parker co-CEO Dave Gilboa. More details on the conference are here. Hope you can join us.