Zap! Pow! Whizzzz! Thud!No, that's not the sound of the Avengers kicking Loki's butt. Nor is it Batman duking it out with the Joker. It's the sound of Alter Ego's spanking-new comics collectibles web site putting the hurt on its competitors. If web sites could talk, this one would shout: Buy my stuff!The new site explodes with eye-catching graphics—looking more like a comic book front cover by Jack Kirby or Frank Quitely than a conventional ecommerce site. And it fast-cuts like a Spider-Man action movie, switching from one display ad to the next before you can quite take in all the details. It rocks. And (like the Avengers) it's kicking the butts of its rivals.Alter Ego, currently one of the top online stores in the pop-culture collectibles industry, sells comic- and action-movie-related figures, bobble heads, statues, prop replicas and Hollywood collectibles. Some, like a life-size replica of R2-D2, are seriously expensive. (Got a spare $5000?)Alter Ego has been open for business ever since owner Marc Bowker started shipping collectible figures out of his home in Lima, Ohio, in 2003. Ten years later it's still brimming with geeky goodness. Bowker had the drive and a burning desire to succeed—and, as he often says, he was in the right place at the right time. But what set him and his first primitive web site apart was authenticity."I started reading comics when I was 10," he recalls. "I grew up with Super Friends on TV, and movies like Star Wars and Star Trek. Superheroes were everywhere—on TV, on lunch boxes, on bed sheets. It was fresh and new back then. And I never grew out of it."Bowker was working for the Chamber of Commerce, interacting with small businesses on a daily basis, when he got bit by the entrepreneurial bug. "I thought I should go with something I knew, and that was comic-related, TV- and movie-related statues and action figures," he says. Bowker knew some basic HTML so he designed the first Alter Ego web site himself. And since he was such a big a fan of the products he was selling, he already had a presence on the message boards. People were familiar with him. "I was one of them, I was someone they could trust, I was a participant. That helped us grow."Initially it was a typical one-man home business. Bowker worked his 40-hour-a-week day-job at the Chamber of Commerce; then he'd come home and put in 30 more hours answering emails, processing orders, dealing with distributors and manufacturers, and shipping out product. In 2005 he opened a brick and mortar comic book store in Lima, Ohio. And even though the business has grown significantly, Bowker has held his staff to only four people. He manages this trick by outsourcing promotion and design functions.In 2008, Bowker realized that his web site needed some work, so he called on Eric Yonge, President and Creative Director of EYStudios. Yonge (a hugely experienced graphics pro with over 700 redesigns for the Yahoo! ecommerce store platform alone to his credit) was already an Alter Ego customer. "I'm a fan of collectibles," he admits, "and I loved the store but I thought Marc could do a lot better with his design. So when I bought a Spider-Man statue there was a little comment area, and I put in a comment saying, 'I love shopping at Alter Ego Comics and I've got a few ideas to make it a whole lot better. Email me.' And he did!"Eventually, Yonge ended up doing two complete redesigns for Alter Ego—one in 2009 and one in 2012. Mostly it was graphics, but in order to make the graphics work Yonge suggested switching platforms to Yahoo! Store. "Marc sells colorful, fantastic, dynamic products," Yonge explains, "and I felt like the design needed to be equally colorful and flashy. The platform Marc was using was quite limited in its ability to be customized from a design perspective, so I recommended Yahoo! Yahoo! is amazing when it comes to customization. You can design anything on Yahoo! Store. And with Alter Ego we proved it."Yonge believes there are three critical elements to any successful ecommerce site design:
- One, the site has to communicate authority, like going to a store where the staff are experts in whatever products they're selling. The Alter Ego site appeals to fans because it feels like Alter Ego is into the same stuff they're into.
- Two, the site needs to utilize that authority by recommending products. Most ecommerce stores are extremely passive in the way they merchandise and promote their products. Yonge used Alter Ego's authority to recommend additional products to the customer.
- Three, a good site retains customers after the sale. You want users to buy into the brand. Yonge tried to get Alter Ego shoppers to sign up for the newsletter, to create a log-in ID, and to stay with Alter Ego after the initial sale.
Most important, Yonge's redesign made the site a lot more spectacular and cinematic; after all, much of what Alter Ego sells ties into movies. He added larger-than-life visuals and MegaMenu Drop-Downs designed for the shrinking eyeball—mostly to generate emotion, since Yonge believes that buying is an emotional process. The Yahoo! Store platform made it all work—and also supported painless integration with UPS tracking, credit card processing, and Yahoo! name recognition. "We're very happy with Yahoo!" says Bowker, "in spite of a bit of a learning curve after seven or eight years on the X-Cart platform. We've gotten many positive comments on the new redesign, and the benefits of going with Yahoo! in terms of ease of ordering and the tracking information being sent out."Most important, after the 2009 redesign Bowker saw a significant increase in traffic, orders, and positive feedback from old and new customers alike. And last year was the best in Alter Ego's history. Of course Bowker's passion and authenticity make as big a difference as the site redesign. "One reason I have the brick-and-mortar business and the online business is that I want to stay active in the community," he explains. "I want to see comic books get into more peoples' hands. People go to see movies like The Avengers, or watch TV shows like The Walking Dead, but they never pick up a comic book. Or never buy a cool collectible connected to their favorite movie or TV show. I want to see wide-ranging acceptance of the comic book culture. "It's OK to buy this stuff!"