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How to achieve the right category structure for an online store

By Richard Stevenson,

By ensuring that your product categories have a clear structure, help visitors find their way and make their shopping experience an optimal one.

Every online shopper has a particular aim in mind. Susan, for example, seeks the very best price for a new iPhone. Ben is on the hunt for a low-cost kettle with a 1.7 litre capacity, while Mike is looking for an up-to-date electronic item as a birthday gift. Although all three customers have different ideas, they’re all pursuing the same goal: to find the right product as quickly as possible.

Using categories to show the way

Just as equally on a supermarket floor as in the digital world, the product categories presented to visitors are critical to the success of any store. Your aim should be to make it as easy and user-friendly as possible for your customers to find their way around your store. After all, if they cannot find what they are looking for, they will simply leave, as the next online shop is just a click or two away.

Even if you are starting out and have only a few products in your shop, it is still worth taking the time now to think about how you can create a clear and expandable category structure. With the day-to-day business of running the shop, owners can end up forgetting their overall concept. In the worst case scenario, this can result in duplicated or even empty product categories, and a real danger of losing customers as a result.

Here are Five Simple Tips that can be applied to any online shop:

1. Don’t overwhelm customers

Aim to create a straightforward category structure with only a few top-level headings and appropriate sub-categories. Having between five and six main categories has proven for many to be an effective strategy.

2. Top-level terms that are clear and don’t overlap

Decide on a set of words that are familiar and easy to understand, taking your target market into account. You should therefore avoid technical terms unless you are specifically addressing a technical audience. To avoid any confusion about the right category for each product, select top-level terms that do not overlap in what they cover.

3. Avoid including product features in the category names

Having too many options in the menu makes it unnecessarily complicated for people to navigate your shop. Instead of listing separate dress sizes or colours as categories, you should offer customers the option of filtering their search based on those features. Stand-alone brands, however, represent an exception to this rule in the fashion sector. In that case, it is worth placing major brands prominently and offering them as an option right away – for example, by assigning a top-level category to “Brands” and then including particular well-known brands as sub-categories.

4. Use a “Mega Menu”

If you really cannot avoid having a “deep” category structure (lots of sub-categories), then include a Mega Menu. This will open to provide a clear view of the sub-categories whenever a user hovers the mouse over a menu item. The additional menu items can all be seen within one view – the visitor does not need to move the mouse pointer to view more levels within the site. If your shop includes a large number of sub-items, the mega menu will make it easier to navigate and create a neat and orderly impression.

5. Take a look at competitors’ sites

In many cases, some kind of standard for certain product types will already have established itself. In the fashion sector, for example, stores tend to be have Women, Men and Children as the three top-level categories. Will the same structure work for your shop? Customers are happy when they can reuse their familiar shopping techniques when visiting your shop.

An excellent technique is to workshop with customers in order to learn how your product range is perceived and the mental structures your customers use to categorize your products. This will help you find the perfect structure – one that not just you but also your customers will completely understand.

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