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Those Who Live by the Site Die by the Site

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Posted December 21, 2000 By Alexis Gutzman     Feedback

A recent Forrester report says web retailers are falling down on the job. Some "best practices" are recommended.

According to a Forrester Research report from October, The Best of Retail Site Design, online retailers are falling down on the job of making shopping and buying easy for their customers. The crux of the research is that sites need to identify best practices -- and they're out there -- for each of the three or four parts (depending on how you define them) of the shopping and buying process.

This report cited both Forrester's own research and that of User Interface Engineering (UIE). The four parts of the buying process it identified are: finding the product, comparing products, getting adequate product details, and making the purchase. UIE offered 12 consumers $50 to $150 to try to spend at 36 well-known sites; alternatively, they could keep the money to spend offline, if they preferred. UIE observed the shoppers to see what kinds of obstacles they faced. Two thirds of the time, the shoppers did not complete the purchases.

What kinds of obstacles did shoppers confront? In the process of locating products, there were 60 different obstacles ranging from search tools that couldn't handle near misspellings to home pages that showed the wrong categories of products for that particular shopper. While trying to narrow down the selection and compare products, 66 different obstacles were identified, including the inability to compare apples to apples on a site without clicking through to the product description pages of every product, and sites that didn't make clear whether products were available until somewhere in the checkout process.

In the category of getting enough information about a product to make the purchase, obstacles included not showing shipping costs until somewhere in the checkout process to not explaining technical terms such as 56K and v.90. Another 51 obstacles were found while watching customers try to find adequate information about products. Finally, in the process of checking out, another 42 obstacles were uncovered. These ranged from requiring registration as a separate process to not showing order total until after the credit card information is requested.

Forrester did its own investigation of online sites, using ten criteria for each of three different parts of the shopping process: finding the product, getting enough information to make the purchase, and checking out. Its own research backed up what UIE had found. On average, the thirty sites (all of which had appeared in Forrester's Power Rankings) it evaluated were average. Several had a single outstanding feature, such as Amazon's product description pages, which include shopper reviews, and CDNow's full text search that handles common misspellings. Unsurprisingly to frequent Web shoppers, Amazon scored the highest of any online merchant reviewed, including having the highest score for both making a purchase decision and placing an order.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the report is the pertinent observation that sites that fall down on the job of letting customers shop and buy easily will bleed from both sides, by seeing a lower look-to-buy ratio -- as if the industry average of 2% isn't abysmal enough -- and seeing higher customer service costs as the most tenacious shoppers pick up the phone to complete the purchase.

If merchants don't take the sound advice of this report -- design the site around shopping scenarios that end with a purchase -- then merchants will need to implement a host of new technologies. Even to meet the requirements of permitting customers easily to find products will take a new technology or two. There are probably a dozen technologies that merchants need to prevail in the battle for customer dollars and customer loyalty.

The good news from this report is that there are best practices that merchants can f

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