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After analyzing stores 21 to 30 and 11-20, this week we uncover the top 10 e-commerce sites and their iterations in the past decade. We deconstruct changes and highlight major takeaways from all 30 stores. Learn from their experience and then apply continuous optimization to your own store to improve the shopping experience and increase revenue.

Here are the top 10 stores and their evolution over time:

10. Lowe’s
9. Northern Tool
8. Sears
7. American Eagle
6. Beach Body
5. Cabela’s
4. US Auto Parts
3. AutoZone
2. Symantec
1. Crate & Barrel

#10 Lowe’s

Lowe’s Companies is an American company that operates a chain of retail home improvement products. With the motto of “Never Stop Improving,” we hold their brand dear to our heart as our motto is “Always Be Testing!”

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Implemented a sophisticated navigation experience in early versions for their first ecommerce site with a left sidebar that included: links to user account & info, dropdown for shopping categories, search bar, and cart overview. The top navigation focused on corporate info, tutorials, and a store locator.
  • Search function became more prominent over time and eventually moved to a highlighted position at the top.
  • A store locator has always been important, but in late 2000s, it became more prominent at the top and users could directly input zip code, removing an extra step. Accessing a personal account had a similar trend by also staying at the top and turning into a dropdown navigation menu.

#9 Northern Tool

Founder Donald L. Kotula started Northern Hydraulics by selling cylinders, valves, and how-to manuals via mail catalog. Kotula and his family mailed catalogs, answered calls, took orders, and shipped packages to run the entire business. Today, it is named Northern Tool + Equipment and remains a family business worth over $1.5 billion dollars.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Maintained order and account related links in the top right and added shopping cart shortly after early 2000s.
  • Implemented an “Order from a Catalog” feature on the right sidebar that allows users to add items to cart with a catalog number (free catalog order typically placed under this).
  • Moved category navigation from left sidebar to below the fold around 2010 to give more emphasis to hero image and sales.

#8 Sears

The fifth-largest American department store company by sales with $21.6 billion in revenue in 2011. Sears was one of the original mail order catalogs.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Emphasis on search bar on early sites since department stores have so many items.
  • Constantly iterating the navigation and display of departments through time.
  • Uses seasonal relevancy in hero images with timely sales on recent versions (“Thanksgiving sale” or “Christmas gifts!”).
  • Began using shipping-related incentives as the site progressed to remove fear of costs and time.

#7 American Eagle

American Eagle (AEO) is a clothing retail company that is publicly traded with a market cap of $3.33 billion, employs over 30,000 workers, and targets 15 to 25 year old males and females.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • One of the first to sport the TrustE logo (1999) but AE doesn’t use any trust seals today.
  • Started acquiring email addresses before the 2000s with an above the fold email subscription which is now removed.
  • Even in the early 2000s, AE created urgency to get customers to make purchases (“Beat The Clock” and “To get your gifts by December 24th…”).

#6 Beach Body

Beach Body’s best-known product is Tony Horton’s P90X, which they sell along with fitness programs, supplements and gear.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Huge emphasis on contests such as “Win $200.00” or a “FREE Hawaii Trip”.
  • Continues to use a drop down listing for all their products.
  • Tested best sellers and home fitness program categories.
  • Moved their phone number from beneath their logo to the top right header (standard location).

#5 Cabela’s

Cabela’s is a specialty retailer of hunting, fishing, camping, shooting, and related outdoor recreation merchandise based out of Sidney, Nebraska. Boasting over 16,000 employees and publicly traded under CAB with a Market Cap of $4.13 billion, they are pioneers in the outdoor goods market.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Emphasis on the search bar ever since the early 90s due to the wide variety of goods.
  • One of the first to use segmentation to create unique shopping experiences (For Him, For Her, and For Kids).
  • Continues to test placement of their customer service number (most companies keep it on the top right).
  • Started testing value propositions such as “100% satisfaction guaranteed”.

#4 US Auto Parts

Valued at $73 million and trading at $2.00 per share, US Auto Parts is a provider of online sources for automotive aftermarket parts and repair information.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Continues to guide customers to select a vehicle as the 1st step in the buying cycle.
  • Started experimenting with “FREE shipping over $50” in the mid-2000s.
  • Tested adding a “live help” and “retrieve a quote” button next to their cart info.
  • Continues to iterate their header banner with customer service numbers and order status information.

#3 AutoZone

AutoZone, based out of Memphis, TN, is the second-largest retailer of aftermarket automotive parts and accessories in the United States. Founded in 1979, AutoZone operates over 5,200 stores across the globe, employs over 5,000 individuals and generates $9.5 billion in revenue (2013).

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • AutoZone does a fantastic job at highlighting their value proposition, constantly testing headlines such as “The right part. The right price. And good advice.” &  “The fastest and easiest way to shop for auto parts”.
  • Continues to experiment with “Free Ground Shipping on All Orders” vs “FREE ground shipping on orders $75.00+”.
  • In 2013, they revamped their site to 3+ CTAs above the fold, promoting AutoZone rewards and same day store pick-up, which is very important for car parts buyers.

#2 Symantec

Better known for its products, such as The Norton Antivirus Suite, Enterprise Vault, and Veritas, Symantec has an operational income of over $1 billion and 20,000 employees.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Emphasis on segmenting by country and including valuable content on how businesses and homes could protect themselves.
  • Implemented segmentation for different types of shoppers (businesses vs homes).
  • Implemented a branded ThreatCon educating customers about threat levels
  • Tested fear-based headlines such as “A virus can destroy your business in minutes”.

#1 Crate & Barrel

The Segals opened the first Crate & Barrel store on December 7, 1962. With over 170 locations and record breaking sales of $1 billion+, C&B constantly tested and made their e-commerce store into a world class experience for its users.

Some key takeaways from the last decade:

  • Switched their checkout to the standard top header after having it in the left rail for 4 years.
  • Constantly iterating the 800 customer service number on the header.
  • Always testing their cart button on the header (drop down vs icon showing # of products).
  • The checkout CTA has been through constant change with different backgrounds.

Takeaways for All 30 Stores 

Looking at the evolution of the top 30 e-commerce stores, we see that successful companies must test and iterate constantly to provide great experiences for buyers. As online shopping became more popular over time, the behavior of users dictated how these companies addressed their concerns.

For example, shoppers were concerned with expensive shipping, a fear to commit to purchases, and hassles finding products. This led to e-commerce trends that quickly became best practices — the use of free shipping incentives, urgent deals, and the emphasis of the search bar. Different types of stores learned from customers in specific ways.

  • Clothing retailers engage with shoppers more quickly by immediately segmenting gender and testing imagery with different models.
  • Department stores, like Sears and Target, will continue to use localization for store locators and test navigation methods to help shoppers find what they need.
  • Specialty stores that sell items such as jewelry and musical instruments will invest more in testing educational content so that users don’t leave their site for research.
  • Health-related stores, like 1-800-Contacts, will also provide more educational content with the purpose to establish more trust.
  • Home furnishing stores continue to test ways to show how products will look in the home by using style galleries, videos, and other media.

Successful e-commerce changes to keep up with shoppers’ behavior and will guide the future of these top stores. There are always more effective ways to ease buyer friction as users interact with sites differently. New technologies, such as devices, internet speed, and site functions will create new opportunities for companies to test their way to improvements. For example, mobile devices in recent years have driven sites to evolve navigation and faster internet has pushed the use of images and video. The history of e-commerce shows the importance of learning about your customers’ interactions through iteration. Just like these stores, always be testing and improving your own e-commerce to keep your store relevant and your customers buying.