January 8, 2013, 4:19 PM

A more global outlook for U.S. e-retailers

The CEO of Postcode Anywhere says many Hot 100 retailers welcome international shoppers.

One thing I’ve noticed about the web is the tendency to order information far more than before. Comparisons are made that much easier with easy access to data and technology, allowing us to quickly filter and rank results. 

While this is very helpful in making decisions, there will always be an element of subjectivity in the results.

And so it was with interest that I read the latest edition of Internet Retailer, which was promoting the Hot 100 as “the world’s best retail web sites”. 

According to their editorial letter, each site goes through a rigorous selection process involving a 16-strong team of specialists instructed to look for e-commerce sites that “have broken new ground that other e-retailers can learn from”.

On the basis that address validation technology is now a standard feature for many U.K.-based e-commerce websites, helping to improve user experience and trust in the checkout process as well as to confirm shipping details, I decided to carry out my own research to see how many of the Hot 100 web sites used this type of service.

Personalising country web sites

One of the main trends that I’ve noticed in recent years is the shift in focus of U.S. retail web sites to take advantage of the opportunities to sell internationally. 

Not so long ago it was relatively common to find U.S. web sites with shipping address forms that included obligatory fields for U.S. states, making it impossible to enter a correct foreign address,  sending the signal to overseas buyers that the company wasn’t interested in their business. However, this is now changing.

To help personalize the information to overseas buyers more than 20% of the Hot 100 included IP location services to identify the origin of the incoming request and to show a relevant “country-specific” web site.  

A typical message on the Nordstrom website, for example, identified that my request was coming from the U.K., informed me about the shipping and charging methods, but also allowed me to change the origin country in case the U.K wasn’t correct.

Geolocation services were also used to provide a better delivery experience by allowing the customer to identify their nearest store based on ZIP code for either personal collection or for delivery from the store. Lowes.com, a building supplies company, provided a good example of this approach.

Validating shipping details

On the addressing side, many of the Hot 100 appeared to be sensitive to how shipping details are captured within their forms, although the extent to which these web sites helped in the process varied widely.

86% of the Hot 100 websites, for example, assisted their customers with their address entry, although for many this was just restricted to a simple U.S. state dropdown list, with over 69% of all listed web sites adopting this approach.

While this method enables the retailer to standardize their U.S. state data and to potentially confirm state tax rates at checkout, it is of relatively limited use to the consumer and does little to validate shipping details.  It also gives a messy feel for the web site.

A slightly more sophisticated approach, which a limited number of retailers have taken, is to use ZIP code validation to autopopulate both the city and state fields.  But this method again requires the customer to manually complete the rest of their address and doesn’t validate for shipping purposes.

37 of the Hot 100 websites included complete address validation, typically where the address entered by the customer was checked against the U.S. Postal Service or other reference address databases in the background.  Thirty-three of these retailers, or almost 90%, validated the address details in a “cleanse-type process” after the information had been manually entered, whilst only four had software which autocompleted the address and verified at the point of entry.

The method of validation in the cleanse-type process ranged from a simple message that informed the customer that there appeared to be a problem with the address details to a more sophisticated approach which suggested alternative valid addresses to choose.  Hayneedle.com uses the latter method and whilst also providing ZIP+4 validated addresses, still provides too many options to confuse or frustrate the customer, especially if their address isn’t listed.

Whilst I wasn’t aware of any of these validation processes halting the checkout, there seemed to be lots of potential for customer frustration and of course the possibility of a lost sale.

Interestingly, though many of these online retailers seemed to be sensitive to the amount of personal data that they were asking potential customers to enter, with almost half (48%) providing a more restricted “guest checkout” and, even more surprisingly, two of the Hot 100 websites provided Facebook-only login to their websites.

I personally doubt whether this is the sign of things to come, however, as it limits the potential market for the web site to Facebook users who are less sensitive to their personal information.

In my case I didn’t venture beyond their home page.

In summary, the points which stood out most for me in analyzing the Hot 100 list are that U.S. retailers are becoming far more internationally focused and that they are sensitive to the information that they capture on their customers. However, currently their main focus appears to be on validating address details to limit returns and customer service issues from poor shipping rather than providing a better, faster way for their customers to enter their address data.

On which note, I would be interested to hear from any retailers with views on either cart abandonment resulting from poor data capture processes or shipping returns arising from inaccurate customer addresses.     

Retailers can respond to these comments from Postcode Anywhere CEO Guy Mucklow by e-mailing Natalie Green at natalieg@postcodeanywhere.com.

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