Call it another instance where e-businesses suddenly realize something long known to traditional merchandisers. In this case, it’s that presentation matters. Although e-tailers can’t match the pick-it-up-and-hold-it-in-your-hand appeal of brick-and-mortar stores, savvy Web retailers are finding that the online world offers plenty of opportunities to improve product presentation and to ease customer frustration with sites that are difficult to navigate.
Indeed, some surveys show that as many as three-quarters of all Internet shoppers abandon their shopping “trip” long before purchasing anything, leaving half-full cyber shopping carts strewn about the virtual aisles of Internet stores and flummoxing e-tailers.
For help, online retailers could look to their offline counterparts for the best ways to guide customers through the shopping experience. At any good brick-and-mortar store, for example, product departments are clearly marked; shoppers know where to find checkout stands; and when questions arise, there’s usually someone at hand ready to offer assistance.
These basic elements are missing in the online world. Why? Most analysts suggest that e-tailers have been distracted by the idea that Internet business is inherently cool and have ignored many of the time-tested rules of retail. “Online stores fail to translate into successful online shopping experiences the lessons learned from centuries of land-based retailing and merchandising,” says Shelley Taylor, whose firm, Shelley Taylor & Associates, released a report last May critical of many e-tailing practices. “Technology has changed. The way people process purchasing decisions has remained the same.”
In particular, Taylor says, e-tail sites need to recognize how little the online shopping experience currently resembles shopping in the physical world. “In land-based shopping, there is a clerk or somebody to guide you and signage to help you find things – the pants are in the pants aisle,” says Taylor. “But online sites offer little of that pre-sale assistance.”
Customers, she says, often are left to drift through a site without basic information, such as how to use a site or how to use a virtual shopping cart. The reason? “Sites are being designed by technology people who don’t understand shopping,” she says. “And retailers who understand shopping don’t understand the Web.” Taylor believes it wouldn’t take much to bridge the gap. Greet online customers effectively, guide them through the site, and help them complete their purchases, she says. Still, few e-tail stores can pull it off.