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Health & Wellness Retailer Vitacost Turns To Tablets To Drive Serendipitous Sales

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Vitamin and health food online retailer Vitacost has launched a tablet-optimised website for the iPad and iPad Mini that’s designed to encourage shoppers to put more than just the core items on their shopping list into their digital basket. Introducing a little serendipity into the buying process makes a lot of sense when you’re selling 40,000+ different products but what’s interesting is that Vitacost sees tablets as the place to do this.

Vitacost already has a smartphone app but says its tablet “experience”, which is designed for the iPad but built in HTML5 so is not a native app, is “entirely different” to the smartphone app — with a focus on allowing shoppers to discover new items, rather than just making it quick and easy to shop by category.

“The tablet size and form-factor encourages browsing,” says Vitacost CMO David Zucker. “Information-rich, large catalog retailers work really well in a browsing format on a tablet, which is difficult to achieve on a smartphone.”

“The iPad experience is not an app but an actual website in HTML 5 to exploit the tablet and its functionality.  Our phone app is optimized for that size screen while the new iPad experience is designed for the mid-size screen and the iPad functionality,” he adds.

It’s still early days in the retail gold rush to mine riches out of tablets. As slate ownership ramps up — with almost 200 million tablets predicted to ship globally this year (Gartner‘s figure), powered by YoY growth of nearly 70% — the swelling addressable market for selling stuff via slates is putting the dollar signs in retailers’ eyes. Especially as tablet owners are already showing signs that they are in the mood for casual browsing — so may be more likely to make an impulse buy.

Designing tablet-centric ecommerce that encourages a more casual kind of shopping, to help shoppers discover products they didn’t know they were looking for, seems like a natural next step in digital retail strategy. Certainly for ecommerce companies that have a large number of SKUs to sell.

“The tablet is the ideal ‘couch commerce’ browsing environment,” says Zucker. “Their large screen, high resolution and good sound make rich browsing experiences possible… We see the growth in tablet usage as a ‘third screen’ and interaction with commerce and brands is increasing. Tablet usage has grown 10x faster than smartphone usage comparing the first two years after introduction [and] is expected to grow at 50% compounded annual rate through 2015 – this is where the puck is going.”

So what exactly does Vitacost’s tablet “experience” do to get more shoppers encountering stuff they didn’t already know about? Firstly, the shopping experience is built around gestures to make it easier to browse and choose items, with swipes to quickly flick through scores of items on virtual shelves. Products that the shopper wants to buy are then dragged off the virtual shelf to the bottom of the screen where they are added to the basket.

Vitacost tablet

Another feature, called ‘browsing bubbles’, displays related info next to the products (such as ingredients and dietary info) but also bubbles up similar products to get users to widen the spectrum of their search.

Vitacost browsing bubbles

Add to that, a proprietary ‘sprinkler algorithm’ introduces an element of pure serendipity by pushing random categories and items into the mix too, so that shoppers end up encountering a much broader collection of products than if they have been shopping via the traditional ecommerce staple of drop-down category menus.

Vitacost sprinkler

The effect Vitacost was aiming for was to digitally recreate a bricks and mortar style shopping experience where the act of shopping naturally involves discovery, says Zucker. “Consumers using our new digital platform are offered an endless array of product suggestions through the browsing bubbles, increasing awareness of the vast selection of products and brands that Vitacost carries,” he adds in a statement.

The company gets 1.5 million unique views to its ecommerce website per month but does not yet publicly disclose traffic to mobile devices. Zucker tells TechCrunch that “mobile/tablet revenue is a non-trivial portion of our total revenue” but said, first and foremost, the decision to develop the tablet shopping platform was driven by “the desire to remove friction in the buying process for our 40,000+ SKUs”.

“We chose the iPad to exploit the functionality that this device has, such as dragging, swiping and other functionality that enables more gesture-based shopping.  Second, we needed a user experience that better enabled a consumer to discover the products we have; since a typical consumer will enter a brick and mortar grocery shopping experience and emerge with items they did not initially intend to buy,” he says.

“This ‘discover’ process is difficult to build in a website and we believe we have made significant strides with our new experience to develop a sense of discovery using our shopping bubbles and sprinkle algorithm. Finally, we wanted something that people actually liked to use and found fun to interact with.  I don’t think anyone would say that web shopping is in itself a fun experience, although theVitacost iPad experience is.”

Here’s a screengrab of the less fun/more utilitarian shopping experience offered on Vitacost’s website:

Vitacost website