E-commerce meets e-environmentalism

Most Web sites fulfil one of two objectives. Either they try to sell you something or inform you about something. In other words, sites are generally either e-commerce or e-information.

Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) recently launched its revamped Web site which has managed to meld the two into a cohesive unit. Prior to the recent incarnation, members could view catalogue goods but could not purchase them on-line.

According to Georgette Parsons, MEC’s Vancouver-based chief information officer, the process of setting up the Web site took some time since the company wanted to not only give members the opportunity to buy on-line but also impart some of the specific environmental values that are important to MEC.

Existing Web traffic analysis made it clear that the solution would require some innovative thinking.

“From analysing the log files we could see that the vast majority of the traffic was going straight into the gear,” said Alan Etkin, MEC’s Internet co-ordinator.

But a fine line had to be walked. If the environmental information was too obtrusive it would making the shopping experience less enjoyable. If it was too hard to find, MEC’s messages would be lost.

“The way we have structured the site, the [environmental] information doesn’t get in the way of you seeking the gear but you brush by it when you go to the gear,” Etkin said. “The old site didn’t do [this].”

“It was a big puzzle to try to figure out how to make that work and we spent a lot of time thinking about it and a lot of time working with the design company we used,” he added.

The solution was arrived at by making the content interesting and placing it unobtrusively at the side of product pages. So when members are shopping for a sleeping bag, they can click on related information such as backcountry etiquette or survival essentials, thus imparting some of the MEC vision of enjoying the wilderness without leaving a trace of your visit behind.

Though Etkin did not have the exact statistics, he said traffic to the informational portion of the site has increased since the redesign.

Anybody who has ever visited an MEC store quickly realizes that the employees practice what they preach. So, though MEC has a specific group dedicated to producing the Web content, any of their 1,000 or so employees can help generate content.

building the solution

To create the new Web site, MEC went with a software solution from Blue Martini Inc.

Ken Meidell, director, consulting services with Blue Martini in San Mateo, Calif., said, since their solution is object model based, users are not pigeon-holed when they design a site. For example, on the MEC site users can either shop by product or activity depending on whether they are shopping for a specific item (crampons) or need a series of items for a specific endeavour (rock climbing).

He said the solution used was straight out of the box. The solution did take a little longer than usual he admitted. “MEC is a very consensus-driven culture and we were very conscious of that,” Meidell said.

“They had very strong feelings on how the site looked and so there was a lot of testing and it took a little bit longer than traditionally. [But] they took their time and did it right and I think the proof to that was that our launch was extremely smooth.”

But there were some hurdles specific to MEC’s requirements, he added.

“The membership issue was unique. You have to be member so it is not your normal checkout logic, so there is some complexity to ensure the person is a member,” he said.

Since MEC is a co-op, you have to become a member before you buy. Essentially you are buying one share in the co-op for $5. It is a lifelong membership.

“There are also some shipping restrictions like shipping butane fuel and that some of their vendors don’t want shipped to States,” he added.

Much of this was quite easy to do since MEC has been a catalogue shipper for years, Meidell said.

MEC and the Web

Adding e-commerce capabilities to the Web site is part of a overall goal to provide a variety of ways to service their million plus members. Since there are only five stores nationally (Toronto, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa – with Halifax and Winnipeg still to come) many shoppers are not close enough to drive to a store. Adding Web to the traditional catalogue sales gives customers another avenue.

“Our goal is to have the Web enhance all the channels that are working,” Parsons said.

MEC is opening a store in Halifax this summer. It will be a smaller store and won’t be able to have a complete product line so MEC will pilot a Web kiosk at that location, she added.

“So we are seeing the kiosk as a way to enable customers to see a product that may not be in the store. Our vision is that ultimately the Web site will have the most complete product offering.”