Those Who Live by the Site Die by the Site

Alexis Gutzman

Updated · Dec 21, 2000

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