The Hill’s Online Store Lacks Basic Functionality

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Since The Hill was outsourced to Barnes and Noble College last year, the bookstore’s management has placed an emphasis on its online sales through regular emails to students. These emails provide information on online sales, but are usually so generic (besides the Hill logo dominating their headers) that they could be sent to any college student and have the same effect. While it might be impractical for the company to create unique emails and websites for every school they service, doing so would create a personal consumer-retailer relationship that might attract more customers to its doors.

Barnes and Noble’s simplistic mail designs, most likely made with the intention of reaching the widest available audience with the least amount of work, trade off a sense of familiarity with our bookstore in favor of saving manpower (and money). With 771 campus stores nationwide, Barnes and Noble is saving loads of cash by having one design team make one mailer for all the schools they service.

What separates these emails from the rest of their graphic designs — and therefore excusing the copy-paste format of them, as well — is that they are meant to be sent out regularly enough to remind students that their bookstore exists. Creating almost 800 emails in about a week’s time would be a tasking feat for even a highly-skilled group of designers.

This distinction only holds true with their emails, however, and does not excuse their website’s hilariously perplexing design choices. Unlike emails, websites are a one-and-done kind of presence where you can update the name of an item once and let it sit there for the rest of eternity. Even so, Barnes and Noble has left The Hill’s website in a state of peaceful disarray.

For example, none of the anteater plush toys on The Hill’s website are actually labeled as being an anteater. Instead, they are displayed as “custom plush” and “custom pancake,” leaving visitors to wonder whether Barnes and Noble is legally bound to not call the toys anteaters or simply does not care to. This problem appears across many of their websites, opting to use the word “custom” in place of what the merchandise actually is.

Is it nitpicky and entitled to ask for every school to have websites with in-depth descriptions and names for every item available for sale? Probably.

But tagging an item as an anteater is a mutually beneficial act for both customers and retailers. Correctly labelling items allows shoppers to use the website’s search function as it is intended, delivering them a smoother online experience and saving them from having to navigate The Hill’s many, many tabs. In turn, the retailer not only completes a sale but creates a bond with their customer, hopefully warranting repeat business in the future.

In its current form, items that should appear during a simple search do not. Looking up “mom” only returns four items, which, if you have ever been inside The Hill, is a hardly a fraction of what should be displayed.
Correctly naming merchandise improves customers’ online purchasing experiences, and Barnes and Noble’s failure to do so is only harming these interactions.

Let us go back to the plush toys department for a moment, where each school has some sort of teddy bear wearing its logo on a shirt. The strangeness here comes into play because, for whatever reason, each teddy bear on each website has its own name.

UCI’s bear, Baxter, stands alone as the only named stuffed product on our website. Yale, whose bulldog mascot is actually labelled as such, has their own Elliott the Bear, and UCR, despite not having any toys associated with their Highlander mascot, sells Dexter the Bear in their online bookstore.

Who are these bears? Why are they given the symbolic recognition of a name that so many other school mascots are deprived of? What is the purpose of naming random bears but not the iconic mascot of a school like UCI?

Again, these toys could just be Barnes and Noble’s way of padding a newly created website with cookie-cutter products while it creates more personalized merchandise, but how hard could it be to type “anteater” on a few items in their website? The Hill has been in operation since fall quarter and yet it is unnecessarily difficult to find a nice anteater novelty toy on its online store.

The purpose of an online store is to provide a shopping experience as convenient, if not more, than shopping in-store. In its current state, however, The Hill’s website is more difficult to navigate than its physical location, making online shopping more difficult than it needs to be.

With an underwhelming sense of direction on its online store and a lack of any merch available in the actual Hill, the physical store is by far the best place to go for any UCI-related shopping needs. Although the management of the store has issues of its own, its layout is considerably nicer than its online counterpart and, despite receiving backlash for small revisions in its product placement, is pretty attractive to walk through.

It is clear that The Hill’s website needs more patronage than it is currently receiving, but changes need to be made to it before Barnes and Noble can expect anyone to actively use it. Though seeming innocuous, the lack of tags on products makes it harder for customers to find items and could even prevent The Hill from selling items.

Luckily for students, these design issues seem to be the only obstacles stopping people from buying their own Baxter the Bear. Prices do not seem to have changed due to the shift in management and the Ring Road store more or less operates on the same functional level it always has.

I expect us all to receive a new email from The Hill in about a week telling us about new sportswear for sale, but I hope that some action will be taken to improve the website before students are urged to shop there regularly. This is a small issue but should only warrant a small amount of work to reconcile. And if Barnes and Noble cannot find someone up for the challenge, I am free this weekend.

Isaac Espinosa is a second-year electrical engineering major. He can be reached at imespino@uci.edu.

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