How to improve the online shopping experience

by Foolproof

I’ve engaged in conversations with numerous retail customers to understand what they want, need and expect from the online retail experience, and what the barriers to purchase are.

So, I set myself the challenge of writing my top five functions a retail website needs to perform to satisfy users.

1. Help users see and try before they buy

Shopping in store allows customers to pick up an item, view it from all angles, touch and feel it, or try it on. Replicating this experience online is challenging, but can be achieved by offering a range of features:

  • High-quality product images – Show your product from a variety of different angles and in different contexts, e.g. a photo of a woman wearing a skirt helps answer customers’ questions about its length or fit
  • Give a clear and brief description – This should include sensory words. Retail psychology argues that touching and feeling an item creates an emotional connection with it, which increases customers’ likelihood of purchase. Expressions such as ‘soft and supple leather’ can help your customers imagine how a pair of boots will feel
  • Use video – Although video can be quite expensive, it will bring your product to life (especially if it is an item of clothing) and help customers to make their decision

Who does this well?

Attempts have been made to allow online customers to try products before purchase, but few have succeeded. Vision Express allows customers to upload a photo of their face and try glasses on. Customers can also play with a number of filters (such as gender, type of glasses, brand and price) and find out what style suits them best. Another notable example comes from Apple’s App Store which offers a ‘lite’ pared-down version of a number of apps in its ‘Try before you buy’ section.

2. Tell them what others think

Customers value word-of-mouth and look for customer reviews and ratings before making a purchase. They are also interested in knowing what other people have bought. The widespread use of social media presents an opportunity for retailers to include this functionality and persuade customers to complete the purchase. Also, social media can encourage engagement with the brand beyond the shopping experience.

  • Provide high-quality content – Keep your site up-to-date with high-quality, relevant content generated by your company but also expert customers. This can help build authority and trust in your brand
  • Help customers share experiences – Providing a space for customers to share their experiences with others can foster advocacy and, ultimately, improve customer retention

Who does this well?

Amazon provides customer ratings and reviews for each of their products to empower customers to make a decision. They also provide a list of items that others have bought after viewing an item.

Topshop has a very strong social media presence: their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube pages are frequently updated with content from internal staff, designers, as well as customers. Style tips, exclusive offers and campaigns encourage customers to follow the brand.

3. Provide clear delivery and returns policy

Customers want to know about delivery and returns before committing to purchase so make it clear and easy to find.

  • Provide information at key shopping journey points – E.g. homepage and product pages
  • Make returns easy – Allow customers to return unwanted items without much hassle and, ideally, for free. Communicate this in your website to encourage purchase

Who does this well?

The online fashion store ASOS provides a clear message just below the navigation and more detailed information within their product pages, where customers most need to know about delivery and returns.

4. Help customers move across channels

Customers shop in different ways. Some may browse online but prefer to buy in store, where they can try an item on. Others cannot find the right size of a product in store and go online to buy it.

  • Provide reservation functionality – Make it easy for users to reserve online and then collect in their local store. If clothing, allow them to reserve more than one size. Make sure that their details can be easily and quickly retrieved in store
  • Provide stock availability information – Allow customers to easily check if an item is in or out of stock

Who does this well?

M&S ‘Shop Your Way’ allow customers to initiate their experience on one channel (store, online, mobile web or phone) and seamlessly move to another one when they want. Importantly, M&S also makes sure to remember their customers and retrieve their details, whichever channel they are using.

5. Give them a reason to choose you

If you’re a multi-brand shop, customers want a reason for choosing you over another (online or offline) retailer. While price certainly influences their decision, it’s certainly not the only factor.

  • Offer an incentive – Incentives can give you the competitive advantage you want. For example, you could leverage customers’ impatience and offer a ‘same day delivery’ service or encourage customers to shop now by offering ‘free delivery’ service for orders over a certain spend
  • Make it easy to complete the purchase – Don’t force registration, allow to edit the basket easily, give answers to all relevant questions, provide an easy to use form, a clear confirmation page and contact details

Who does this well?

Amazon offers ‘evening delivery’ and even a paid-for premium service for fast deliveries on all purchases. They also provide a ‘one-click’ functionality that speeds up the check-out process.

John Lewis allows customers to register after purchase and only asks for minimum information. It also provides the option to move to another channel to ask questions.

What do you think?