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Local Zappos Labs Experiments to Enhance Online Shopping

Zappos Experimental Lab

Zappos is one of those original San Francisco startup success stories.

Founded by Nick Swinmurn in 1999, what started as an online shoe shop grew rapidly over the years into a giant online shoe and apparel business, doing hundreds of millions in annual sales. 

The company left here for Las Vegas in 2004, where it kept growing, eventually getting acquired by Amazon in 2009 for a reported $1.2 billion.

Although it’s still headquartered out in the Las Vegas metropolitan sprawl, Zappos has been operating a small office in SoMA the past couple years called Zappos Labs. 

The idea for the eleven-person team here is to try out new ideas, work with other tech companies, and develop features that may eventually make it back onto the Zappos home site.

“Labs is about experimenting, making mistakes, and learning,” explains Carrie Whitehead, Product and UX Manager at the company. “We look for ways that are more fun and useful to people when shopping for shoes and clothes.”

One of those experiments is Glance, which launched in late February.

Glance provides curated content, uncovering the latest fashion trends, social buzz and hot products.

“We know choice can be difficult for shoppers,” says Whitehead.  “If you search for a black dress there might be 60,000 choices. But in our collections on Glance, there may be 15-30 products.

“The beauty of Glance is that fashion changes daily, there's always a seasonal element too. We try things we see on the streets, on blogs, anywhere we find it, and tell our users we think ‘this is what’s coming.’”

The site places a heavy emphasis on social media, drawing in what’s hot on Pinterest for example, or Facebook.

When it comes to Twitter, the staff at Zappos Labs is experimenting with another product called TweetWall.

“So what we have with TweetWall is any tweet of any Zappos product is automatically pulled over in real time,” says Alice Han, UX Designer/Product Lead.  “We are in process of applying this on Zappos.com. It is temporarily hidden as we iterate and improve it. We tested it on Zappos.com with a small percentage of the traffic, and now we are studying the data.”

The team at Zappos Labs has also experimented for a game-like approach to shopping on Facebook called “Eye for Style,” among other projects.

Whitehead said current initiatives include developing new tools for shoppers: “We’re focused on what are the different things we can do to empower the user to create their own shopping experiences.”

A few hours after visiting with Whitehead, Han, and Virginia Ruff, Project Manager at the Labs office, I described the philosophy employed there to a colleague in another organization.

“What a great approach!" he said. "They can experiment, make mistakes, learn, keep going. I love it.”

Related post: We covered Zappos founder Nick Swinmurn’s new company, Threadlife, last year.