Battle of the Online Stores: Apple vs. Dell

When it comes to selling computers to consumers online, the easier, the better.

“If manufacturers are going to sell online, the first priority needs to be making information complete and easy to navigate,” Jed Kolko, a senior analyst who focuses on consumer demand for technology at Forrester Research, told the E-Commerce Times.

Dell and Apple are two companies that take this adage to heart. Whether the mantra is “easy to use, easy to buy” at The Apple Store or “Easy as Dell” at Dell.com, each company hopes that meeting customers’ needs and making it easy for them to conduct business online will fatten the bottom line.

Different Business Models

However, Dell has the luxury of optimizing its site for direct sales, while Apple must also consider the needs of its retail outlets and resellers, not to mention the corporate branding required to convince PC users to switch to the Mac platform. These considerations inform and influence Web design, site navigation and, ultimately, store performance.

“Everything we do is driven by the feedback we get from our customers,” Sam Decker, senior manager of consumer e-business at Dell, told the E-Commerce Times. Primary sources of feedback are verbatim comments made in e-mails and phone calls, he said. Dell’s online team also relies heavily on site and phone metrics, as well as focus groups, usability studies and online surveys.

Apple executives were unable or unwilling to comment, despite repeated calls.

Configuring Machines

Online configurators that allow shoppers to customize their computer systems are now standard fare across the Web. “One of the most important factors for online stores selling personal computers is the ability for customers to see options for configuring their machine and then see a clear side-by-side comparison of different models,” Kolko said.

“The configurator is the heart of online shopping at Dell,” Decker noted. “It is what people come to Dell for.”

In fact, Apple and Dell have similar product configuration pages, with options for various components clearly presented and explained. However, only Dell offers a feature comparison chart that summarizes the functions that different models are best suited for.

Customer-Centric Shopping

Dell also offers shoppers several ways to find a computer to buy. In addition to browsing by customer segment or product category, shoppers can use Dell’s Find a Computer feature, which allows them to view a list of available computers based on system type, price range, processor type and speed, memory or hard drive capacity.

In addition, a purchase assistance menu, which includes payment options, plus information on tax and shipping, returns, privacy and online security, appears on the left side of the page throughout the Dell shopping process. The company’s help page offers a collection of account, product, shopping, order and technical support information, in addition to a list of the top FAQs (frequently asked questions).

Apple’s online support seems weak by comparison. The site’s help section is basically limited to FAQ pages organized by function, with an e-mail address listed at the end of individual pages in case a shopper’s question is not answered by the document.

Moreover, Dell’s toll-free number for telephone orders persistently and prominently appears at the top of every page. Apple’s toll-free order number, by contrast, is relegated to the page footer in small font or is tucked away in the FAQ documents.

Quick Apple

In Apple’s favor, the Apple.com site allows shoppers to select and begin customizing their computer in fewer clicks than the Dell site.

Apple also has fewer barriers to setting up an account, a free service offered by both sites to help streamline and personalize the online shopping experience. Apple requires visitors to complete four fields on its account form, compared with the 11 fields required at Dell.

Both sites could improve their search capabilities. The Apple Store provides a better product search engine, including large product illustrations with its results. Yet, Dell’s search engine outperforms Apple’s when it comes to functionality and queries seeking service-related information.

Both Could Learn

While it is easier to access and begin customizing specific computer models on Apple’s site, there are no buying guides and little other purchase support to help customers assess the different features and options available. The Apple Store’s FAQ page merely refers shoppers who want to learn more about Apple products to Apple.com. Dell, on the other hand, provides paths and tools for customers who are not sure what to buy even after they select a particular computer line — a sure way to reduce shopping cart abandonment and close sales.

Although Dell currently seems to hold the lead on the online store front, it is clear that neither site has a lock on the best of everything in e-commerce. Apple could benefit by taking a page from Dell, and Dell could stand to take a bite out of Apple’s playbook.

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