Researchers at e-retail firm E-consultancy have noted what they call "schoolboy mistakes" in the design and layout of some of the biggest e-commerce web sites, having the potential to damage not only sales but also brands and customer satisfaction levels.
The company's research report, entitled Online Retail User Experience Benchmarks 2006, investigated the state of online retailers from the consumer's perspective, and concluded that there are still lessons to be learned about customer viewpoints by even the biggest online retailers.
According to E-consultancy editor Chris Lake, most consumers encounter several problems when they try to find and purchase goods online. During its research the company examined the web sites of major retail brands. But while each web site was found to have a variety of fundamental problems, all could be easily fixed, the report found. These problems stem from a number of trends observed among e-retailers.
Online retail trends identified by the report include:
- Society has gone broadband
Broadband users visit online stores more often and are more likely to purchase products (compared with dial-up internet users).
- Customers don't just want the lowest price.
Online retail isn't simply about finding the lowest price, but about ease of use. This means helping customers make up their minds. Product comparison, not price comparison, is the key to a successful e-commerce operation, the report says.
- Poor websites leave a bad impression
Research has shown that the average shopping session encounters six problem areas. Problems come in a variety of shapes and sizes, but one thing is clear: they are always damaging to the brand.
- Search is a last resort
Although half of all purchases start from a search engine, consumers prefer to browse once they arrive at an online store. Search requires cognitive effort, which everybody tries to avoid. However, prompted search will combine the best of both worlds (for example, try a product search at become.com to see prompted search in action).
- Lack of standardisation is causing confusion
Retailers are not always speaking in the same language as consumers. Their websites use different layouts and categorisation, forcing customers to think harder about every visit. In one example the company tried to find a toaster on 11 top retail web sites, and every site listed toasters in different positions or categories.
Among the report's many worthwhile recommendations for e-tailers:
- Use highly visible and persuasive content
Key information should be positioned at the very top of each web page, so that consumers do not need to scroll to find it. This should always include price, availability, delivery times and charges, and of course the 'add to basket' option.
- Minimise distractions
Avoid positioning distractions in the top part of the page (such as promotions, tell-a-friend, and so on), to help keep customers focused.
- Upsells are good, downsells are disastrous
Some retail web sites actively try to sell lower-priced products when the customer is already considering buying a more expensive item. Ask any salesperson: this is sheer madness. And it certainly won't help to increase average basket sizes.
- Don't mislead customers
Broken promises and misleading statements damage credibility and trust. Consumers hate buying something only to find that the product is not in stock. If products are unavailable then make this clear from the start - along with how long it really will take before they are despatched.
- Increase feature-filtering options
Consumers are typically on one of two types of purchase journey: "help me buy" or "help me choose". In the case of the latter they want to see solid feature-filtering and product comparison tools. The Wise Marketer's own experience tells us to make sure the comparisons are always 'like for like', too: don't compare kilograms to pounds, or inches to centimetres.
Written by online retail expert Dr Mike Baxter, the company's 83-page report on the problems and solutions of e-retail can be downloaded by E-consultancy subscribers.