Shopping in a Maze: Do Your Online Customers Trust You?

Imagine strolling through the front door of your favorite department store, but instead of finding yourself amid a comforting cacophony of display counters, merchandise, and bustling people, you’re instead all alone in a strangely geometric room featuring a series of doors labeled “Women,” “Men,” “Kids,” “Casual Wear,” “Formal Wear,” and “Cosmetics.”

Walking through one of these doors brings you to a nearly identical room with more doors, this time labeled “Tops,” “Dresses,” “Suits” and “Outerwear.” Through these are yet more rooms and doors, but if you persevere long enough you eventually find a room with a dozen or so products hung in a grid on one wall. If you don’t see what you want, you can go back and try door number two. But don’t worry — if you feel frustrated or perhaps a bit claustrophobic, every room has a prominent door conveniently marked with an “X” which lets you back out to the street in one effortless step.

While the above may sound like a bizarre and dissatisfying experience that practically pushes you out the exit before completing any kind of purchase, it is exactly what we force our online shoppers to deal with every single day. The fact of the matter is that the online retail experience is a far cry from what ought to be possible in today’s modern computing world. Today’s shopper has an Internet connection ten times faster than a decade ago, wired to a computer with graphics, audio, and video powers that were almost unimaginable at the dawn of the Internet age. Yet the typical online shopping experience is still mired in the Web’s original page-by-page (or room-by-room) paradigm that hearkens back to the debut of Windows 95.

Trust = Experience

The “big picture” issue at stake here covers much more than cart abandonment and conversion statistics. The fundamental issue is trust. Recent shopping behavior studies indicate an overwhelming majority of shoppers use the Internet to research products but still go to the physical store to complete the purchase. Why don’t your customers simply click the buy button and finish the transaction? Simply put, because your customers don’t trust in your online experience enough to believe they will end up with a satisfactory result.

Trust is an oddly intangible and emotional substance composed of a multitude of contributing experiences and impressions, and in e-commerce, trust is so much more than the obvious issues of credit card fraud and identity theft. Do your customers trust your browsing experience enough to believe they will find what they want without feeling like a mouse in a maze? Do they trust that the product detail is rich enough so there will be no unpleasant surprises when they open the box? Do they trust that checkout will be smooth, quick, and error-free? Do they trust that their package will actually arrive as, and when, expected without dreaded back-orders? Do they trust that they can return an unwanted product with a minimum of fuss and frustration?

Experience = Brand

When you think about all the ways that trust can be eroded through a poor online experience, and also consider that simply closing the browser window and getting back to one’s busy life is a constant and convenient option, it’s something of a wonder that people purchase anything online at all. Your customers come to your online store because they know and trust your brand. They fail to buy online because along the way that trust was betrayed. Hopefully they still get in their cars and purchase items from your physical store (if you have one), but an unlimited number of things can happen in the meantime — most of which are bad.

Over time the erosion of online trust cannot help but erode your most valuable asset: your retail brand. But, as more and more customer interaction occurs online, the online customer experience is becoming the dominant expression of your brand. Clearly the Internet is the last place you should ever be jeopardizing your customers’ trust.

The good news is that at least some customers do manage to clear the hurdles of today’s sub-optimal online storefronts. The great news is that the combination of broadband and new Web application technologies are finally making it possible to dramatically improve customer experience and with it, enhanced trust and brand equity.

AJAX and RIA: A Better Customer Experience

If trust is the accumulation of experience, then it only stands to reason that significant enhancements in the online experience must yield corresponding enhancements in trust. We are now on the verge of a gigantic shift in the fundamental way in which users interact with the Web; a shift driven entirely around improving customer experience.

Perhaps the simplest and most elegant example of the next generation of Web applications can be seen in Google Maps which takes the standard online mapping tool that operates page-by-page from a decade ago and transforms it into a fluid, exploratory, pageless application. The best feature of Google Maps is so surprisingly un-Web like that it’s easy to miss; when moving around the map you can simply grab the map with your mouse and drag it around to see more of it. Try it!

Google Maps is an example of an “AJAX RIA” (Asynchronous Javascript And XML Rich Internet Application) which delivers its magic by running part of the application directly within your Web browser as opposed to a traditional Web application in which all computation is taking place, mainframe style, on a distant server. RIAs are inherently more responsive and interactive because they don’t have to wait for a server on the other side of the world to build the next page.

RIAs are beginning to pop up all over the e-commerce world, with some notable examples being Gap, Nike, and L.L. Bean. So far the use of AJAX and RIA in online retail tends to be limited to marketing “microsites,” usually built in Macromedia Flash, which enable customers to explore a new product but not purchase it; and also for “guided selling” applications that provide some extra help in choosing the right product. But as the technologies have been maturing, a new generation of software vendors have emerged that specialize in building “Rich Internet Commerce” applications — RIA and AJAX applications specifically for the e-commerce world — which are beginning to paint a picture of what the future pageless Web may look like.

Beyond the early custom (read: costly) development efforts that served to demonstrate RIAs’ business value, “packaged” shopping cart and checkout applications are already available today from Allurent, a company focused on developing Rich Internet Commerce (RIC) applications that focus on the full cycle of online shopping.

Simultaneously, software developers such as Scene7, RichFX, and My Virtual Model are developing RIAs that help customers visualize and “touch” the products, taking advantage of the rich media afforded by RIA and broadband. These products all have the same ultimate aim: to push more power into the hands of shoppers by placing the interaction computing where it belongs — directly under their fingertips.

Looking Ahead

This next generation of Web applications will eliminate the notion of a Web site as static chunks of text and images served up a page at a time. Instead of the maze of rooms and doors, shoppers will explore a fluid, open, and animated virtual space vibrantly filled with artful and enticing displays of merchandise. Online storefronts will also someday be filled with the most shockingly missing element from today’s experience, namely the presence of the other shoppers themselves. Just as you would surely find your favorite department store a cold and forbidding place if the other customers and salespeople were mysteriously absent, surely online shopping will be infinitely more exciting and entertaining when your friends are with you too.

Ultimately, the transformation from mazes of pages to pageless Rich Internet Commerce applications will allow each link in the customer experience chain to deliver a superior and satisfying result. These experiences will work together to redefine our expectations of online shopping, drive an entirely new level of trust, and create a quantum leap in successful transactions.

Joe Chung is co-founder and CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Allurent. For more information on Rich Internet Applications for commerce, visit Allurent’s Web site.

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