After reading the article this morning in The New York Times about The Gap's take-down-the-Web-site experiment, I thought I'd give it a shot -- and finally got in after several tries. (There appears to be some sort of random throttling mechanism. At first I got a "you're one of a select few" to see this site popup; then I couldn't get in the next two times; then I got in again without the popup.)
While the Times article describes the behavior of the Web site correctly, "the mouse-overs and pop-up windows eliminated the need to bounce the shopper off her browsing path each time she needed information," it doesn't quite impart the visceral reaction that you get as a user -- that the site is bringing the information to you. It's an interesting feeling, and quite distinctive.
While shutting the site down for several weeks to rearchitect the site may seem a bit drastic, it's clear it has some compensations -- after all, it rated an article in The New York Times, and here I am blogging about it. Online retailers rejigger their Web sites all the time and no one talks about it.
This revamp features Gap.com-designed software, rather than commercially-available software, which The Times raised its eyebrows at. In fact, it quotes Carrie Johnson, a Forrester analyst, who said, "All the companies that have home-grown systems are doing everything they can to ditch them." While I think that's a correct observation in general, it doesn't apply to leading edge online companies. Amazon.com runs almost exclusively on home grown software, and no one's raising their eyebrows on that one.
For companies with a vision and a willingness to invest, I think well-designed in-house software gives them a lead which they can't get any other way. I remember having a conversation with Bill Bass several years back, when he ran LandsEnd.com. He pointed out that Lands' End often had to build its own software because vendor software wasn't cutting edge enough for their tastes. That said, Bill also would do a rolling phase out of in-house software -- when commercial software came along that duplicated something Lands' End had built several years ago, the company would yank out the homegrown stuff to decrease its maintenance burden.
In the end, I'm not sure how much more revenue this site revamp will bring The Gap. For example, I'm more of an L.L. Bean, Lands End kinda guy. The Gap's increased usability isn't going to make me buy clothes from www.gap.com. Nevertheless, I think Gap customers will become more loyal. And if Gap customers buy more items and more frequently due to the redesign, that's still not a bad gain.