By  on October 15, 2010

Ulta is taking a personal approach to online shopping.

The beauty purveyor of mass, prestige and salon products has tapped Omniture Inc., a business unit of Adobe Systems Inc., to personalize the customer experience with more relevant content on its Web site. Ulta.com had previously worked with the Omniture Business Unit to analyze the effectiveness of promotional offers, and together the two companies created a series of tests to determine the impact of personalized content. It also helps to organize the 12,000 items sold on ulta.com, which compares to the 21,000 products stocked in Ulta’s 350 brick-and-mortar stores.

For instance, a shopper who browses the makeup assortment on ulta.com could be presented with a promotional offer related to the category during her next visit. The technology also allows Ulta to test four to five different layouts for the homepage, the site’s most heavily trafficked area.

Consumers seem to like the extra attention: Ulta.com saw its average revenue per visit gain 12 percent after delivering promotions based on category and brand affinity. In August, ulta.com ranked fifth on the list of top 10 online beauty retailers, according to comScore Inc., with 774,000 unique visitors that month. Avon.com ranked number one, followed by sephora.com, bathandbodyworks.com and marykay.com. Sephora, in particular, continues to sharpen its virtual edge in the digital realm. Last week, it expanded its mobile strategy to include Sephora to Go, an iPhone app that is usable on iPod Touch and iPad devices, as well.

Speaking about Ulta’s online initiatives, Kevin Metz, the retailer’s director of e-commerce, said, “It allows us to test things in advance and get insight on whether it will work before the [information technology] team builds them. It’s proof of concept testing.” He added, “It lets me test things to see if a customer will respond.”

Citing an example, Metz said he can test a program that offers free shipping on a customer’s next purchase — an online banner may read, “Did you forget something? Here’s free shipping on your next purchase” — against the purchases of customer who did not receive the offer. The outcome of the test will determine if the promotion is worth the investment or if any tweaks need to be made to improve performance. Typically, the program would take three to four weeks for Ulta’s in-house IT team to build, and testing would require additional time.

Some of the findings from the technology’s analytics have been surprising. “We made the decision to do product recommendations based on what [items] customers were browsing,” said Metz. When he tested product recommendations against a control group, he learned the program did not meaningfully lift sales as he had expected. “But, then we began to ask, ‘Maybe the placement isn’t right? Or maybe the verbiage is wrong? Moving forward, maybe there are some things we can do better.’”

This fall, ulta.com plans to test customized video segments on the product detail page, specifically for items that promise longevity in the market or those with high price tags. “So, 50 percent of our visitors will see the product-detail page as it is now, and the other half will see a video icon,” said Metz. “We can measure the return and compare it against the cost.”

The retailer also plans to begin profiling its shoppers by their motivation for visiting the site. The bulk of visitors fall into three categories: those who browse online before buying in the store, those looking for a discount and consumers seeking information. “Based on what they do, we can assign them a category,” said Metz. “For example, if they go straight to the clearance tab, they are discount shoppers, and we can present them with certain [value] promotions happening in the store.”

Metz said, “It’s an ongoing process.”

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