Amway, A multilevel marketer of cleansers and vitamins, hasnt done business in the U.S. since 1999. Thats when Amway founders invented Quixtar. Its business model: A network of so-called independent business owners, or IBOs, sells products, recruits other sellers, and takes a cut on sales the newcomers book. The difference: Its all done at quixtar.com.
Sales at the five-year-old site have soared to $1 billion, already one-third the total of 45-year-old Amway, which still sells face-to-face overseas. Still, Quixtars Web site suffers from design kinks that any e-commerce company should avoid. Fixing the flaws could produce another $100 million annually, estimates Mark Hurst, president of Creative Good, an Internet consultancy.
Quixtars clubby business model is both good and bad. Good because members know the Quixtar lingo and procedures, and visit the site mainly to place orders. Unlike most online shoppers, Quixtar faithful have a mission when they go to quixtar.com and "muddle through" the difficult site to complete it, Hurst says.
Those steeped in the Quixtar way have learned to overlook glaring usability problems. There are no everyday shoppers rattling customer service lines with complaints.
Chuck Schoeffield started selling Amway in 1973, then moved to Quixtar in 1999. Veterans like Schoeffield may know the difference between the Choices Index and Shopping Directory or that Ditto Delivery means to ship an identical order regularly.
But most shoppers wouldnt. Thats no good because Quixtar also wants to sell to the general public and confusion thwarts sales, says Claudia Case, a usability consultant at Keynote Systems, a Web measurement company. "Every site has secondary users. You want to make them successful as well," she says.
At Baselines request, Keynote evaluated the purchasing experience at Quixtars site. Overall, Case found that quixtar.com lacks a consistent look, and is organized to reflect how Quixtar works rather than how a shopper shops.
And Quixtar has sometimes encountered problems with the sites checkout procedure. Last fall, for example, the site automatically filled in an incorrect "ship-to" address in several orders, unbeknownst to those customers. Quixtar called the 14 customers affected to straighten it out. Technicians then fixed the offending code.
A "fairly comprehensive redesign" of the site is due this fall, Quixtar spokeswoman Anna Bryce says, based on usability tests recently conducted with some business owners. She declines to cite specifics.
To trace problems in the meantime, Quixtar runs Web site monitoring software from TeaLeaf Technology in San Francisco. TeaLeafs RealiTea package records the moves of each quixtar.com visitor—every click and keystroke.
When a problem hits, Quixtar staff can pinpoint the error by playing back particular user sessions from a 2-terabtye database of 10 days worth of user activity.
Still, the TeaLeaf software is only reactionary. By redesigning the site to mesh with common shopping behavior, Quixtar could avoid glitches and convert more visits to sales. The master of multilevel marketing must think like a buyer, not a seller.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Bennett