6 Ways To Untemplate Your Retail Website

untemplate blog

The template has it’s place.

The ease with which you can create your website, your landing page, your newsletter. your message. The mechanics that hindered digital marketing for so long are now gone.

You can start trading online in a few hours. You can start creating and sharing content in minutes.

12 years ago I launched my own retail business. I bootstrapped. I wanted to learn the mechanics. I couldn’t afford the alternative – hiring others to build the website for me.

So I learned. Trial and error got me to the stage of a website I could launch. A frankenstein effort. But it provided me the online home for my retail proposition. It also forced me to consider the message at each and every touchpoint I had with my online customer. A tailored proposition.

Today, for you, it’s different. It’s easier.

And there lies a major problem.

In the template/theme driven world of today everything is provided straight from the box. It’s more paint by numbers than create from the canvas. No opportunity to mix your colours and create. Instead, the template website leaves you little to do apart from sell, sell, sell.

The template website comes ‘conveniently’ pre-filled with a template message. Does the one-size fits all website shackle the opportunity to stand out from the competition?

Is it time to untemplate your online business and start building your brand less ordinary?

I want to share with you six places where the template impacts your business. Six opportunities to build connection, build revenue and build your brand less ordinary.

Untemplate - Differentiate Your Online Brand

1.) Untemplate Your Homepage

The homepage is where you spend most of your time tweaking and refining. That time is spent refining your pitch, incentivising people to click on the products you want them to see. To get ‘more info’ from you, ‘learn more’ about the product and that devil of all the call to actions… ‘add to cart’

Because of the amount of time spent tinkering with your homepage, it’s also where you can become the most disjointed.

There are 3 key points your homepage needs to address. For your business’ own benefit, but with a clear focus upon the questions of your customer.

Peep Laja summarises this best in his 5-second test

  1. Where am I?
  2. What can I do here?
  3. Why should I do it?

Is your logo a strong enough identity to welcome your visitor and tell them exactly where they are?

Have you jumped the gun? Have you, due to the template of your homepage, raced into telling your visitor what they should do next? Larger brands can do this. They’ve spent time and money building brand awareness within their market. Have you? Are you in a position where you don’t need to tell people who you are and where they are?

This isn’t about the logo or your URL. It’s about your value proposition. Who are you? What can you provide me? Until those two points are addressed I will proceed with caution. That hesitancy will stop me from doing what you want me to do, or what you expect me to do.

Maybe I won’t click on that large and inviting hero image at the top of your website? Maybe I’ll click ‘about us’ to answer those two questions in my head? Maybe I’ll just drift back to Google to find my next port of call.

Take the 5 second test. Want to see what’s really happening on your homepage? Enrol at usertesting.com and receive feedback direct from your visitors. Beyond Google Analytics consider using Crazy Egg or HotJar to see exactly where your website visitors are heading on your homepage. It will give you the data validation you need to adjust your message. To untemplate your message.

I believe the objective of your homepage is to make your visitor feel at ease, to feel welcomed, to feel at home.

I want to scan your homepage and feel clarity of how you can help me and assurance that I’m at the right place. Will showcasing a sale of ‘50% off everything!!!’ do that? I’m not so sure. Will a stream of product images tell me that? I doubt it.

Lead with a statement of intent.  Candid do this well:

Candid - Homepage Proposition

If I’m in the market for a product to present images from my brand’s community within my own site, I can convince myself Candid is the right place to be.

They haven’t jumped in and sold me the product. They’ve addressed my need. I need to sell more. To inspire my own website browsers to buy. The call-to-action of ‘request demo’ is my route to discovering more about the product. It’s seeding the idea in my head that I can reach out and discover more about the product itself.

It’s not the perfect homepage. There are some great little phrases hidden away – ‘Candid joins with Instagram to help create honest, inspiring e-commerce experiences powered by real fans’ offers more clarity that ‘ready to celebrate your community…’ I’d, personally, test the response bringing that message to the forefront of the homepage. It’s not difficult with products such as Visual Website Optimizer and Optimizely on the market. Cost-effective split-test tools that allow you to test hypothesis and make decisions based on facts rather than opinions.

My favourite online retailer is Huckberry. They blend content and product brilliantly. It’s baked into their value proposition of ‘your favorite store, your grandpa’s favorite store and your favorite magazine’. A blend of product, brand, category and story. Huckberry invite you in. Clarity of intent through the ‘shop now’ call to action. You know Huckberry’s in the business of retail. You also know they’re in the business of being interesting. Articles that are in clear context of their ideal customer. Curated seasonal, focused promotions blend product with content.

Ideas To Improve Engagement on Your Retail Homepage

The Huckberry homepage is exactly that. A home. A welcome mat that tells you exactly where you are, what I can do and why I should do it.

Look at your homepage and ask yourself, ‘is this how we would present our business if we removed the template?’ Is the template of your homepage restricting your opportunity to connect with your audience?

Are you overwhelming your audience with choice? Are you trying to present everything for everybody?

To persuade your website visitor to take that next step, to open the door to your website, are you passing the 5-second test? That’s the core purpose of your homepage.

TAKEAWAY No.1 – Depth vs Curation

Template brands rely upon product depth. It will overwhelm and confuse your customer if your intent is to present everything. The paradox of choice.

The brand less ordinary focuses upon product curation. To present just enough, a blend of product, category and insight, to make people feel at home.

2.) Untemplate Your Product Page

Key questions to consider:

  1. How will I feel owning this item?
  2. Can you reassume me I’m making the right decision?
  3. How will I get this item?

So now you’ve got a product to sell. Whether your visitor is guided from an ad click, a search click or your homepage your objective is to win attention, place your product in the context of your customer’s life and persuade them to buy.

If there’s one message I want you to remember from the article it is this. PEOPLE BUY BASED ON EMOTION. See, you forced me to bring out the Caps-Lock. I’ll repeat. People buy based on emotion. Your job as a marketer is to create the hook that gains interest and the trigger that persuades action. It’s all about the hooks and triggers.

Want to know what’s not going to work? The copy-and-pasted product description lifted from the manufacturer brand’s own website. This is where retailers, in particular, become unstuck. The desire to fill the virtual shelves with so many products that there’s little time spent considering how you sell those products. It’s the age old quality vs quantity problem. Will 300 poorly represented products really earn you more revenue than 50 carefully selected products supported by content crafted by hand? I doubt it.

Another problem I see. You believe that the next day delivery is a winner? It’s not. It’s a standard your customer now comes to expect. Free next day delivery? That offers a compelling reason to purchase. Any old next day delivery? Not so good.

Now consider the images you present of your product. Stock photography supplied by the manufacturer or smart high quality photographs of the product presented in situ? I.e. how I, as your consumer, would expect to consume. The rugged hiking boots look far more compelling worn traipsing woodland compared with the stock image on the white background.

This is why fashion retailers present the lookbook. The opportunity to show products in context. Clothes being worn. A context your ideal customer gets. Take a look at Jeff Sheldon’s lookbook at Ugmonk. Compare it with Norwegian Rain’s product pages. Which page inspires purchase? Which product page gives you a sense of how ownership of that product will make you feel?

The product page should also provide you with the opportunity to differentiate from the competition. To focus down on what really matters to your target audience. Rapanui do a great job presenting how their clothing is made and where it’s made, from ‘seed to shop’. If ethical choice is important to your customer then that is the flag you shall fly. A simple tab-based delivery of the information of value to your customer:Rapanui - great example of a retail product page

A use of icons to demonstrate and reinforce the message that is valued – ‘ethical’, ‘low carbon’ and ‘organic’. The product page, however, is let down by two issues that I would look to rectify immediately. The price is only visible on the ‘product’ tab. Whilst the ‘Add to Cart’ button is a constant, it’s vitally important to retain the price at full view of the user. Would you ‘add to cart’ without being aware of the cost of the product? No.

My second gripe is the Add to Cart button itself. An arrow pointing to the left? Take a look at the top right of  your browser. The left arrow relates to going ‘back’. Adding a product to the cart is a forward progression. It should be presented in that style.

Two potential user experience issues easily rectified when you untemplate the product page. Your role is to remove any barriers or potential hesitancies. Assume your customer is naturally hesitant. Now, take a look at your own product page and discover the roadblocks. What stops you from removing them? The template? Fix it.

TAKEAWAY NO.2 – Stock vs Real

Template brands use stock photography and stock messages.

The brand less ordinary builds the product page around user experience. To present the information of value to the customer. Nothing too smart. There’s no need to seek originality. Functionality and being of interest rules.

3.) Untemplate Your About Us Page

Key questions to consider:

  1. Why does your store exist?
  2. What is your backstory and how does it relate to me?
  3. Will you be around tomorrow?

The templated about us page is a conversion killer. Why would I be interested in finding out more about YOU and your business? Natural intrigue or am I considering buying from you? Am I looking for a glimpse behind the scenes of your business. Am I looking to discover what makes you tick? Am I looking for reassurance that I can trust you.

‘We are a leading supplier of ….’ Seriously? Do you believe this will impact upon my purchasing decision?

Writing your About Us page will be one of the more difficult tasks you face.

Your objective is too build liking and trust. To open your doors and show me what’s inside. Your brains as well as your business.

I love the Yeti ‘our story’ page.  From the headline that tells us of the fact this is a family business to the core mission of Yeti – to ‘build the cooler we’d use everyday’.  Yeti are pitching a product valued at 10x the competition. A product with sales totalling $450 million since it’s launch 10 years ago. A cooler. Nothing more. A business in operation for just over ten years. 2 brothers with a shared vision. Built upon an authentic and everlasting backstory. Simply presented. Hugely impactful.

Great example of a retailer about us page


Read your own about us page and answer me one simple question. Why should I, your prospective customer, care?

What firsthand experience brought your own business into the marketplace?

How can you create a story that matters to your audience that fuses emotion and purpose?

How can you tell that story in just a few paragraphs? Or maybe the catalyst for your business success? Just like Under Armour do:

Under Armour - Back Story

This is the power of the shared journey. Finding the sweet spot, the intersection, of what matters to you (your mission) and what matters to your audience (their mission). What are the frustrations you’ve shared? What is the appeal of your product in solving that frustration?

Put simply, how do you make what you make matter? That’s the clear objective of your About Us page.

  • your people
  • your process
  • your perspective
  • your mission

TAKEAWAY NO.3 – We are vs we believe

The template brand tells their audience ‘we are….’

The brand less ordinary shares with their audience what ‘we believe….’

4.) Untemplate Your Contact Us Page

The great afterthought. What do you do when somebody wants to contact you?

You’ve probably already had the email address vs contact form debate.

There are pros and cons to both.

Simply providing a clickable ‘mailto’ link that opens a new message in the user’s email software is an easy task. For you and your website visitor.

It allows you to direct the email to the most relevant recipient (i.e. enquiries@ or marketing@ etc). It also removes the potential problem of browser failure that can cause huge frustration if your user has typed a message which fails to send.

In favour of the contact form? You’re probably concerned, and rightfully so, of the level of spam you receive when  you publicise your email address. Secondly, using a form allows you to easily track ‘conversions’ as well as store correspondence in an accessible database.

There’s no right template to follow.

What matters is how you utilise that template.

I love how Unbounce have built their contact form. It’s not simply the ‘click here’ to contact us. 3 categories of enquiry – General, Technical & PR with clickable email links. There are also links to key areas of the Unbounce site:

  • The Academy – where you can learn more about the product.
  • The Community – where you can share insight with fellow users.
  • The Partnership – working alongside Unbounce.

Pre-empting 3 possible reasons people may contact you and directing them to further, immediately accessible, information.

Excellent example of a contact form

And there’s a powerful trick you’re probably missing out on…. the names and smiling faces of the people that will respond to your enquiry. How to build trust in a simple and easy step.

Flip the statement ‘contact us’ into a question to consider internally.

Ask ‘why would people want to contact us?’ and make it as easy as you can. From the department down to the individual (for Unbounce these are the ‘friendliest humans around’. Isn’t that what we’re always looking for when we take the time to contact a company?

If you’re going to use the form then keep the fields down to a bare minimum. Don’t expect your customer to do the work. This is customer service. You do the work. Don’t ask ‘how did you find us?’ It’s lame and for 99% of the enquiries you’ll receive it won’t matter to the customer. It’s an annoyance. That’s why people whatever’s first in the drop down box.

I consulted with a company where 20% of enquiries came from people who had found them ‘through TV/Radio advertising’. The company had never advertising on the TV or Radio in it’s lifetime.

We’re talking right now about how you build your brand less ordinary. Your brand is the perception  your audience has of your business. If you do things that frustrate, no matter how easy to rectify they may be, you’re tarnishing your brand. It’s a negative in the ‘should I buy from these people’ column.

One final example of a great contact us page is from Hugh & Crye. You have an enquiry. Who’s going to respond? That’ll be either James or Ryan (the links direct to their own Twitter accounts).

Example of Good Retail Contact Us page

Also notice the connector – ‘your experience with Hugh & Crye means everything to us. Please get in touch with us anytime’. A simple sentence that demonstrates how you can persuade your audience to connect with you. Whatever the reason, Hugh & Crye would ‘love to hear from you’.

Consider your own contact page. Are you reaching out to invite enquiry? Have you discretely hidden the contact form in the footer because you’re not too fussed about hearing from tyre-kickers?

Are you using the contact form ‘right out of the box’ without considering it’s purpose?

Each and every customer touchpoint on your website is an opportunity to create and solidify connection and trust.

A few simple words on your contact page that demonstrate your willingness to help will go a long way to building that trust.

TAKEAWAY NO.4 – team vs people

Template brands are a ‘team’.

The brand less ordinary is about ‘people’

5.) Untemplate Your Newsletter


  1. Why should I register?
  2. What will I be receiving?
  3. How often will I hear from you?

What’s that? 10% best selling items this week only? Really? Like the same newsletter I received last month offering the same 10%… and the one I’ll probably receive next month?

I’ve found no such thing as the average email newsletter. People either want to receive it because it’s of high value or you’re in the category of ‘meh’ and teetering on the verge of the great unsubscribe.

Make your newsletter of high value.

This doesn’t mean you’ll be seeing open rates in the 60% or 80% range. People are people. We’re in business. No matter how much we may love your brand. We have our own lives to lead. Be happy with 30% as a good starting block to build traction from.

Newsletters are like websites. We spend too much time considering the design and ‘look and feel’ over the content. You know, the stuff that actually matters to your audience.

Don’t forget that now the vast majority of your newsletter readers are viewing on their phone. So, retailers and makers, pay particular attention of your imagery. Be visible and be clickable.

First port of call, however, clarity in what your newsletter provides. The call-to-action isn’t ‘submit’. It relates to what I’m about to receive… am I simply getting updates? your blog articles sent to me? exclusive offers?

The template will invite recipients to ‘receive news and updates’. As yourself, is this all you can offer? Is this what you’re willing to share due to the time you have available?

Can you construct your own branded newsletter? Something you can be proud to send each week or month? Something that your subscribers will want to receive?

I mentioned Ugmonk.com earlier. Ugmonk founder Jeff Sheldon updates his audience with a blend of story, new product and that all important secret ingredient of the journey. Nobody who receive’s Jeff’s email doesn’t have an idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. Jeff shares his journey from designer to business owner and now, successful fashion retailer.

Each of his products carries a story. Through his newsletter he invites you in to hear more.

Good example of a retail newsletter - ecommerce

You know what Ugmonk is about. You know Jeff’s journey. Journey, a simple, yet powerful, tool that helps you build connection with your audience. A window into Jeff’s business. He’s not banging the drum of ‘buy this. buy that.’ Yes, there are the occasional discounts and yes, there are the timed incentives that influence action, but the theme is the journey.

We often ignore journey as a marketing mechanism. Why? Are you still afraid to let people see inside your business? Will the competition steal your ideas? Shall I get the violins out as you announce there’s little to communicate? Rubbish. There’s an awful lot going on. Your job is to make that of relevance to your customer. I wrote earlier about the journey of two guys making a cooler box. You’re telling me your journey from zero can’t be made appealing?

The only way you will learn is by doing.

Consider how far from the newsletter ‘template’ you’ve wandered. Still going the route of sell,sell,sell and focusing in on revenue as your single performance indicator? Concerned your time compiling each newsletter can be spent on better projects? Too few people in your database? There’s a reason why.

Clarify the value you offer and present that in your newsletter subscription. Develop your newsletter strategy and document it. Then build your template around your content, not the other way around. Now you have a proposition beyond ‘latest news and updates’. Something that stands out and will differentiate you from the competition. No other business shares your journey.

TAKEAWAY NO.5 – sell vs inform

Template brands want to sell, sell, sell

The brand less ordinary wants to educate and inform

Guess which route sells more?

6.) Untemplate Your Follow-up

Questions to consider:

  1. Is your customer happy with what they received?
  2. Can you be of further assistance?
  3. What made your customer choose the product they did?

Successful post-sale follow-ups are few and far between. The SaaS market has the idea of ‘onboarding’ at the core of their sales process. The subscription service provider knows the value of the long-term customer.

Retailers? They’re more concerned about the one-off. The sale is the result. Wrong. The sale is the opportunity.

The screenshot below is a recent follow-up email from UK retailer Debenhams. Yes, those are broken links, not non-downloaded images.

How to follow up on retail sales

All the effort is placed in winning that sale. This email sent a shudder down my spine. Why?

  1. ‘recent purchase’ – how about mentioning what that product was? It’s probably in the same database as my first name
  2. ‘you can even share your review on Facebook’ – seriously? can I? wow.
  3. ‘reviews are really useful to other shoppers’ – they’re not my concern.
  4. ‘a great way for us to learn where we can improve’ – defeatist. Why assume I didn’t have a great experience?
  5. ’10 chances to win £1,000′ – what’s my chance? If I don’t know then there’s no incentive

and the big one. ‘The Debenhams team’. Wow, not even ‘your Debenhams team’? Not even a sign-off from the Customer Success Manager?

Then there are the simply UX issues such as hyperlinking ‘complete a review’, but we won’t go down that avenue right now.

The email follow-up is your way of asking ‘did you enjoy the meal?’ How are you feeling about us right now? Did we serve you well?

More importantly it’s simply a mechanism to show your customers you actually care. That age-old commitment to customer success can take you far in the online world.

It’s not difficult to pull data from a database and present it within an email newsletter. First name? Check. Product ordered? Check. Time since order? Check.

Do it right and you incentivise further purchase. Maybe a quick line to remind your customer that your next newsletter is on it’s way [insert day of week].

A quick thank you and a reciprocated thumbs up.

Again, create the content and build the template around what you want to present.

Final Takeaway – sell again vs ‘please come again’

Template brands want to sell again

The brand less ordinary wants to say ‘thank you, please come again’.


Thanks for staying the course. I know I’ve covered a lot of ground here. I want you to look at the opportunity the web presents your business as a blank canvas, not a dot-to-dot. It takes energy and commitment to craft a customer-centric digital strategy. It takes evaluation of each and every customer touchpoint. From the homepage to the order follow-up. It takes time to get it right. You need to ensure you’re heading in the right direction.

The template represents an opportune starting point. An express route to success. The problem is that it’s the same template that your competition follow. It’s the same template that your customer sees in every journey they take. It’s the same template they’re we, as consumers, are programmed to ignore. The default need not apply.

Take time to plot out that buyer journey. Take time to evaluate the purpose, both for your buyer and your business, of each touchpoint. Make those touchpoints yours. Add personality. Add leadership (because deep down you know what  your customer is looking for).

Make it entertaining. As marketers we sometimes forget our role as storytellers. Storytelling is entertainment. Storytelling is the sharing of the journey. From zero to where? You tell me. That’s your mission. Don’t fill in the gaps. Write the script.

Written By:

Ian Rhodes


First employee of an ecommerce startup back in 1998. I've been using building and growing ecommerce brands ever since (including my own). Get weekly growth lessons from my own work delivered to your inbox below.

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