Web Informant ##170, 4 October 1999:
Attention loyal shoppers


With eChristmas just around the corner - and with various predictions of record high spending online this holiday season - it pays to starting planning for the rush. More importantly, it pays to think about how you can make the purchase process as painless as possible for your customers.

Because despite the optimistic projections, some eShoppers look but don't buy. Worse, many actually abandon their shopping carts after selecting one or more items. According to a 1998 study by Forrester Research based on interviews with 41 leading Internet retailers, 66 percent of shoppers did exactly that. Why? Because they found the shipping forms too complex or the shipping fees and taxes too high, among other reasons.

Another market research firm, Jupiter Communications, uncovered a similar pattern. Roughly 27 percent of the online shoppers they interviewed also abandoned their shopping cart at least once within the last twelve months, because they did not want to fill out the billing and shipping forms.

To prevent this from happening on your site, pay attention to what shoppers are doing at your store and track the number of carts abandoned. You can do this with most any traffic analysis product, such as WebTrends, and by comparing the numbers. Even if you don't know why shoppers abandoned a purchase at the tail end of the process (that is, at the crucial moment they were ready to pay), a high percentage is a serious indication that something in your storefront needs fixing. And that is the single most important thing you can do as you prepare for the holiday shopping season.

That said, here are a few simple "best practices" that you can implement on your site:

  1. Thrice is nice. There should be three screens, tops, between the time someone selects merchandize and when they leave your store. Any more and you risk frustrating impatient shoppers who are trying to save time by shopping on the web in the first place.
  2. Be honest. Let customers review their order and see all the fees - shipping and handling, and taxes -- before they actually enter their credit card number. Most web storefront owners are woefully negligent here. Thatís risky. If you reveal high shipping costs too late in the game, shoppers arenít likely to return. To boost sales, some retailers have even starting offering free shipping and handling.
  3. Kill the clutter. Make the checkout screens easy to navigate. Creative Good, a web usability consulting firm whose best practices appear on Zdnet, stresses the importance of intuitive checkout practices with obvious navigation aids.
  4. Instant confirmation. Itís critical that you immediately send shoppers an email saying youíve received their order. Also include a confirmation number they can use to check on the order status. Plenty of stores run batch jobs overnight, but the better ones get out this confirming email quickly (within 15 minutes after the purchase), assuring shoppers that all that computing gear is working and that their order is being processed. You should also send a second email when the goods are shipped and the funds change hands, too.
  5. Moment of truth. My final rule is to make it crystal clear to customers when a purchase/sale is about to be committed. The wrong way to do this is by inserting an extra screen saying "Are you really sure you want to checkout?" The right way is to keep things simple, set expectations appropriately with some explanatory text, and how long things will take. If you are doing a real-time authorization, make it clear that this will take a minute and that the shopper will have to wait.

Simple rules, right? Amazing how many storefronts don't follow them. Maybe thatís why so many web shoppers literally check out before they checkout.

Self-promotions dep't

I've begun an experiment with the folks at ePinions.com, posting some of my Web Informant commentaries on their site. They are attempting to provide a web of trust on opinions on all sorts of things, from consumer electronics to vacation destinations. You can check out my thoughts on their site here.

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David Strom
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