September 28, 2005, 12:00 AM

How small misses can add up to big sales losses

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Content that distracts. "Don’t distract your customers with stuff for stuff’s sake," says Bridget Fahrland, executive creative director of Fry Inc.’s new San Francisco office. L.L. Bean’s web site, for example, sells outdoors-focused clothing and gear. It also offers information on national parks, but not in a way that is tightly integrated with what it’s selling. Shoppers who are serious about planning a trip would research National Parks on other sites where deeper information is provided. Rather than tertiary information that relates to a lifestyle a site advocates, experts say, it’s better to put time and resources toward buffing up site basics.

Spending on the wrong site features. Adding features such as gift reminders or community-based features such as message boards are among the ways retailers who’ve had success online are looking for more, either by expanding merchandising or attempting to drive more frequent visits to a site. But other site investments may actually provide a better payoff for site operators, say web design and usability experts.

"If I had a set amount of money to put in my site before the holidays, I’d put it into product descriptions and product photography," Fahrland says. "You hear some retailers bemoan that they don’t have the photography or the right descriptions as they are putting money into other features, but that is where you are really going to get more bang for your buck," she says.

Dana Hawes-Davis, Fry’s director of user experience, adds that a fair number of retailers still don’t provide online the level of product information they should. "Whereas a retailer like Blue Nile does a really good job of providing details such as how a clasp on a bracelet might work, other retailers just say a product is cotton, for example, but don’t provide any washing or care instructions," she says. Spending more time on providing product details, and clearly exposing return and privacy policies and other site features don’t necessarily require expensive implementations, but they can produce results because they build customer trust, according to Hawes-Davis.

Site security that doesn’t convince shoppers. One of the biggest areas in which some merchants aren’t doing as well as they could is in their failure to effectively position or promote site security, says MarketLive’s Sullivan. Though other features such as the positioning of the site’s privacy policy and customer service contacts also help build shoppers’ trust of a site, the displayed guarantee of online transaction security is one of the elements most immediately visible. In fact, data gathered by online security auditing provider ScanAlert Inc. across more than 130 online companies that ran A/B tests comparing conversion rates showed that shoppers who saw a ScanAlert Hacker Safe certification mark on a site had a conversion rate averaging 14% higher than those on the same site who weren’t shown the mark. "Especially as the web audience becomes more mainstream, these are the things that make shoppers feel comfortable and safe with a purchase," says Sullivan.

Making customers jump through hoops. Some sites offer returning customers the option of logging into their account to make a purchase, but they can choose to simply provide shipping and billing information and check out without logging in-so can new customers. But and others require customers to either log in or, if they are new customers, create an account at checkout before they can complete a purchase.

That creates a usability issue, says Hawes-Davis. "In the late ‘90s sites were making people log in to do different things. Some sites are going back to that; for instance, requiring people to sign up for e-mail marketing before they can check out," she says. And forcing online shoppers to work harder to make a purchase can result in lost sales. Hawes-Davis described but didn’t disclose one Fry client that was forcing a log-in at checkout. When the client removed that barrier, it experienced a 50% increase in conversions within the week.

"People who were happy with their online revenue now want more," adds Fahrland. "They want to keep reaching out to customers, get them back to the site more and get them to buy more often. The number one priority on the site has to be selling, and gathering e-mail addressees is not more important than that, but businesses lose sight of that in an effort to get repeat business."

Most reasons web sites lose sales fall under the two main categories of usability and trust, and those elements are linked together, Sullivan says. Beyond the visible assurances of security posted on sites by online retailers, the perceived quality of the site-clear navigation, strong feature functionality, complete product descriptions and enhanced visual imagery-also plays into how much trust online shoppers will place in it. "A large percentage of shoppers will determine their trust in a web site just by what the design elements are and how professional the site looks," Sullivan says.

The Don’ts of online retail

If there are mistakes and goofs consistently made by online retailers that result in lost sales, chances are Fry Inc. has encountered them. Fry’s consulting experience with clients and prospects yields the following list of what retail site operators should avoid in site design.

- Don’t assume customers want to spend the rest of their life on your site.

- Don’t force customers with elements like log-in or e-mail address before checkout.

- Don’t use your business’s language-use consumer language.

- Don’t let technology drive your business–let your customers drive it.

- Don’t overbuild; think about what customers really want.

- Don’t let engineers write your error messages. ("Please enter your password; must be at least 8 characters" vs. "This string is shorter than the minimum allowed length")

- Don’t stock customers’ in-boxes.

- Don’t lie to customers about shipping costs, shipping duration, merchandise availability, steps in a process.

l Don’t use "Click here" as a link or button label. Use the action or destination that it will trigger. ("Edit shipping address" vs. "To edit your shipping address, click here")

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