One of the most pressing strategic questions facing e-commerce sites in their struggle to become profitable is how to turn browsers into paying customers. Part of the answer is a robust search engine — smart technology that makes it easy for customers to find what they're looking for. But an even bigger part of the answer involves human intervention — smart people who can interpret customer inquiries and deduce what they really want.
That's Alissa Kozuh's job at Nordstrom.com. Kozuh, 28, who formerly worked on search-related projects for Microsoft, is now the editor of Nordstrom.com, where her most important role is to analyze the words that people put into the site's search engine every month. All 45,000 of them.
"People in the fashion industry can call a trend anything they want," Kozuh says.
"But what the customer decides to call it is ultimately what matters most to us." That's why Kozuh keeps a giant spreadsheet of the most-popular search entries on her computer and regularly adjusts the site's proprietary thesaurus so that people looking for "hobo bags" will see purses, not bandanas on a stick. "We're interested in what kinds of results people got," Kozuh says. "Were they relevant? Did they get the merchandise that best applies? That's the difference between bringing a human element into this process and leaving it to technology."
Most of the time, Nordstrom customers shop in one of five ways, Kozuh explains. First, they shop for particular items. Of the 200 terms or phrases that people plug into Nordstrom.com most often, the word "shoe" appears in 10 of them — even though there's a large tab on the home page just for shoes. Kozuh suspects shoppers may take the long route because they think they'll get a broader selection that way. They won't, but that doesn't seem to have deterred them any.
Shoppers also shop by trend. That's why, in addition to her spreadsheets, Kozuh keeps neat stacks of fashion magazines on her desk in the open-plan offices that Nordstrom.com occupies in downtown Seattle. "Animal prints are popular right now," she notes. "But people aren't necessarily going to enter that phrase into the search engine. If it's leopard prints they're looking for, then they'll enter that." (See also leopard coat, pink leopard-print rug, and leopard bikini.)
Visitors may browse the Web store as if it were its brick-and-mortar counterpart. "Brass plum," for instance, was the most popular search in the first month after the Web site's relaunch last August, popping up in the query logs more than 5,000 times. "Brass Plum is the juniors department at Nordstrom," Kozuh explains. "Young customers look forward to shopping there from the time they're six years old. But the fact that people want to shop that way on the Web sort of threw us for a loop."
Certain search terms are also constants, such as designer names and perennial occasions. Shoppers seek out brands year-round, so the site offers boutiques for designers such as Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren. Other search terms, such as "prom," are more seasonal. "But you have to make sure that all of the appropriate items show up when someone enters that term," Kozuh says.
By poring over the statistics each day, Kozuh can suggest tweaks that will give shoppers a better hit rate. Nordstrom.com won't disclose what percentage of its shoppers abandon the site empty-handed. But the company does say that after it introduced the new search engine, along with the overall site redesign, sales jumped 32% during the next three months compared with the six-month period before the relaunch.
While these are not exactly skyrocketing numbers, Kozuh thinks that they will only get better as she delves deeper into the minds of Nordstrom.com shoppers over the next year or two. "Our customers have come to expect a certain level of service," she says. "A computer can't provide that level of service without some help."
Contact Alissa Kozuh by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Sidebar: No Sex, Please. We're Shopping
Alissa Kozuh, who once tracked search results at msn.com, knows how wacky and raunchy the entries of Web surfers can get. Now that she monitors the searches of upscale shoppers at Nordstrom.com, the range of entries has narrowed — somewhat.
"The most popular queries on other search engines have nothing to do with being well-dressed," Kozuh says. "But we don't get those here, and that's been a delight. For the most part, people are looking for items related to fine apparel and shoes."
Still, some ribald stuff does pass through Kozuh's spreadsheets from time to time. Even if people aren't searching for sex per se, they still want to look sexy. Many online shoppers hunted for "sexy dresses" during the month after Nordstrom.com introduced its new search engine last August. "Slinky" things were popular too."Sexy shoes" also turned up, as did "sexy bra" and "sexy nighties."
Some people also hunted for "women's sexy lingerie." And one person even typed in "fredericksofhollywood.com." (No one, however, sought out sexy lingerie for men.)
Other people opted for a more conversational approach: "Very nice simple dress" showed up in the query logs. So did "special occasion skirt." A few customers were even in the hunt for things that were "ugly," though the search engine — this is Nordstrom.com after all — doesn't return any matches for that term. Others got even more specific. "Men's boat shirt" and "orange thong panties" both appeared multiple times.
Offering people a big blank space to fill in with the things they want most is like conducting a vast anthropology experiment, Kozuh says. "It is fascinating to look inside the minds of our customers." Given the power of contemporary database technology, can a matchmaking service be far behind?
A version of this article appeared in the February 2001 issue of Fast Company magazine.