Best Practices Can Improve E-Commerce Experience

It’s that time of year again. Shoppers go into a frenzy trying to juggle all the other chores in their life and yet get gifts for everyone on their list — especially that last minute gift for Aunt Tilly! But years after its inception, online shopping remains a challenge for retailers and Web users alike.

Web retailers want to produce a shopping experience that will increase sales and maximize the likelihood that shoppers will return. Web users, on the other hand, are still searching for sites where the shopping process is easy and intuitive.

So how can retailers close the gap between their business goals and the realities of the current online shopping experience? Keynote Systems studied common obstacles confronting online shoppers, and how Web retailers can address these problems to create a more seamless and successful shopping experience.

Keynote has run hundreds of evaluations of online retailers, including the Keynote Customer Experience rankings (formerly the Vividence CE Rankings) of the top 20 online retailers. The Keynote CE Rankings tracked 2,000 consumers as they interacted with retail sites, capturing their attitudes, behaviors and qualitative comments as they shopped.

Ease of use was the most common reason cited for choosing an online shopping site, with 59 percent of the 2,000 participants rating this reason as important. This becomes more striking in contrast to only 32 percent who named low prices as the reason for selecting an online shopping site. No wonder — across the 20 retail studies, a consumer ran across an average of 6.1 problems or frustrations during a single shopping experience.

The Online Purchase Experience: an Uphill Climb

Of course, these facts generate additional questions:

  • What kinds of problems are users encountering?
  • Which aspects of the customer experience exert the greatest impact on their satisfaction?

Objective metrics, particularly page views and surf time, provide some clues. On average, site visitors who successfully negotiate the shopping process in our evaluation spend more than eight minutes and 18 page views to achieve their goals. Even simple tasks, such as whether a gift certificate is still valid, take some effort, on average taking visitors two minutes and five page views.

While it might seem this transaction meets one of the criteria that customers cite most often for shopping online — “save me time” — indeed, they often feel the amount of effort, coupled with frustrations, is far from convenient. Clearly, shopping online is not yet a streamlined process — it requires substantial effort, even for shoppers who successfully complete their transactions.

The effort visitors to a Web site expend to shop online does not go unnoticed. Although it is not true of all online activities, customer satisfaction for online shoppers tends to decrease as the number of page views increases. For sites wishing to reduce the effort, it is important to understand what kinds of difficulties make online shopping so inefficient, and what can be done about them.

Improving Online Shopping

Most published “best practices” for making improvements in the online shopping experience stress the importance of the checkout process. Some of these suggestions are indeed valuable, but most of them are limited to design hints regarding the placement, layout and functionality of virtual shopping carts.

Unfortunately for Web retailers, these recommendations ignore an important fact — namely, that the most frequent and significant problems that online shoppers encounter occur prior to checkout.

As such, adopting these strategies is not likely to generate substantial improvements in the online shopping experience of most customers. Instead, Web retailers need to recognize that problems with shopping carts and checkout are not the primary obstacle encountered by online shoppers. They must concentrate on helping shoppers shop for the items they want and on providing enough information about products, including prices and shipping costs, before the checkout process.

Improving Search, Navigation

A review of our data reveals that the majority of problems confronting online shoppers involve locating goods and services. Across retail sites, the most prevalent and significant obstacles to online purchases are search and navigation issues — if you can’t find the items you want, you can’t buy the items you want.

Of course, problems locating goods and services also tend to make shopping less pleasant. Not only are these problems among the most frequently encountered by shoppers, they also share a strong negative relationship with user satisfaction. Those businesses that make their goods and services easy to find not only encourage purchases, but also make online shoppers happy.

The Shopping Cart, Total Cost

Of course, this is not to imply that all is well once items are found. Examining the purchase process of e-retail, we made another basic discovery: some users have difficulty locating the shopping cart. An equal proportion report difficulties adding items to their shopping cart. These problems, like difficulties finding items of interest, can serve to make purchases difficult or, worse, impossible.

Once online shoppers have found items and have successfully added them to their cart, their most common complaints: delays in receiving information about total cost. In fact, one of the most common uses of shopping carts is not purchase-oriented. On most retail sites, entering the checkout process is the only way to receive accurate pricing information, including tax, shipping and other charges. Online shoppers routinely use the checkout process to evaluate pricing.

More often than not, online shoppers are forced to wait until late in the checkout process to receive this information. Worse, visitors are often forced to register or volunteer personal information to receive price totals.

Many Web retailers are concerned about shopping cart abandonment, and with good reason. High levels of abandonment means losses in potential revenues. However, it is difficult to accurately assess these losses without removing contributions to “abandonment” that are unrelated to actual purchase intentions, in this case, using the checkout process to obtain pricing information that is unavailable to them otherwise.

For these reasons, Keynote recommends that Web sites provide an estimate of the total cost of items (using the most common shipping method elected) as early in the shopping process as possible. Online shoppers are largely cost conscious and are not enthusiastic about being forced to wait for accurate pricing information.

Barriers to Great Customer Experience

First, there is good news: Online shopping is still one of the most popular activities online, shopper concerns about security have eased over time, and more and more consumers are making the leap to purchase online. However, our findings make it clear that some important issues remain to be addressed.

Improving the Customer Experience

While adding features and improving the checkout process are worthwhile goals, our findings indicate that Web businesses need to concentrate first on making shopping easier — in particular, removing some basic barriers that derail intended purchases.

You can’t buy what you can’t find. Making it easy for shoppers to locate items of interest eliminates the biggest obstacle faced by online shoppers. Web retailers need to understand what their customers want (via sales info, traffic within their site, and by tracking search terms) and make these items easy to find.

Don’t put the “cart” before the horse. Most shopping problems boil down to basic problems with Web site hierarchy, navigation and search — not the shopping cart. The shopping cart interface is important, but intuitive site organization is what brings shoppers and products together.

No information means no sale. Shopping carts and checkout processes aren’t about delivering customers to Web businesses, they’re about delivering information to customers. When customers can’t find the information they want (particularly pricing information, including accurate subtotal and shipping costs), they become uncomfortable. The deeper into the checkout process customers have to go, the more likely they are to leave.

Shorten the wait. As page views and loading times increase, satisfaction among online shoppers decreases. Fast loading pages, effective search features and an intuitive site hierarchy enable shoppers to complete their purchases efficiently and happily.

Three Simple Rules

Based on our findings, Keynote recommends that Web retailers keep the following best practices in mind in formulating an online shopping experience:

  • Site performance is always the Web site’s responsibility. Visitors frequently blame themselves for difficulties they experience online, and might sometimes give Web businesses the benefit of the doubt as a result, but do not count on it. Errors, on the other hand, are always the site’s fault — little surprise, then, that experiencing performance problems is strongly associated with dissatisfaction.
  • Follow the leader. Many Web consumer retail sites are currently providing a good overall shopping experience. All retailer sites would do well to study those Web sites that consumers identify in studies like Keynote’s as the best of the best, and improve site organization and model their purchase process on that of the leaders in customer satisfaction.
  • Get customer feedback. In order to ensure a good customer experience, companies must evaluate the experience of real live customers shopping on their Web site, capturing the customers’ behavior and feedback along the way. Armed with customer insights, companies can put their efforts into improving what matters most.

Dr. Bonny Brown is director of research and public services for Keynote Systems, Inc.

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