One of the biggest challenges with setting up online retail stores is the presentation of products. How best to merchandise, promote and sell products to consumers? When working in a bricks and mortar environment it’s a familiar recipe – find a space with shelves for products, add a register and well-trained sales staff and attract customers to buy things.
This is the kind of environment to recreate online – and central to this is the product database that houses and organises the product range.

There are hurdles to overcome when getting your database into optimal shape for online use. If starting from scratch then a database that suits your needs has to be built. If a database of products already exists for actions like stock control and shipping it’s probably not suitable for public viewing. It might contain unedited content, or categories and product names that only your employees can understand. Showing this information to the public is like letting customers into your stock room – a retailer wouldn’t allow it in a physical store and shouldn’t allow it in their online retail stores.

So how do you make your database great?

Aside from the right technological platform with the right administrative system to maintain it, an information architect may be needed.

Information architecture is primarily the study of category and order. Categories are designed to organise, and could contain things or themes, or maybe seasons or places. Calling out the difference between these things is called differentiation, meaning people can tell things apart, and is good for users as they can find what they are looking for.

Looking a bit deeper into one of these categories, such as ‘things’, there is more to be ordered. If this is a clothes store, these ‘things’ might be t-shirts, jeans, hoodies, jumpers, dresses and skirts. These could be made of many colours, or fabrics, or be for a certain purpose like formal wear, or for people of a certain age such as children. To take all these defining factors into consideration means creating a taxonomy, which is good for users for the same reasons as categories.

Taxonomies exist to create a place for everything, and a logical, ordered basis for the way that people navigate through a site. It has been said that an online retail store’s taxonomy mirrors the setup of the shelves and the aisles of a store, however this does not adequately describe the full picture.

A taxonomy also forms the basis for a much more powerful toolset to help people find things, which is vital to an online retail stores success. This toolset is made up of navigation structures, filters and sorts – critical mechanisms that allow customers to identify what they want.

And if they can find what they’re looking for, they can buy it.