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How brands can optimise the online shopping experience

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/Maxx-Studio)

In today’s ecommerce market, simply having a website isn’t enough. A retailer can be selling the best product in the world, but if the website built to sell it is not properly optimised, sales figures will suffer as a result.   

In fact, one in three consumers report that they have turned their back on an online retailer in the past and taken their business to a competitor to make their purchase following a disappointing e-commerce experience. 

Store renovations are not solely for brick-and-mortar retailers – E-commerce brands who focus on improving the customer experience will see increased profits and lower rates of shopping cart abandonment, which currently sits around an eye-watering 74%

E-commerce retailers improving the experience they offer to their customers also makes sense from a commercial standpoint. Recent research from Barclays found that making online shopping more convenient for consumers could boost retail profits by £10.5 billion over the next five years. 

Here, we’ll look at the key areas where online retailers can optimise the online shopping solution they offer their customers. 

Optimising the online checkout process  

A major contributor to shopping cart abandonment is a poorly thought out checkout process.    

Online retailers tend to put a great deal of thought, effort and investment into funnelling customers towards the checkout screen, but can then be let down at the final hurdle by an overly long-winded payment process which asks too much of the prospective customer.    

Never make it compulsory for customers to create an account before they are allowed to pay, as this added inconvenience can drive away first-time and impulse buyers. To optimise this process, retailers could instead simply ask the customer (once they have finished shopping) if they would like the information they have just entered to be saved for future purchases.    

With GDPR regulations coming in to effect in 2018, customers will gain a lot more power over their personal data, and retailers will therefore need to give their customers an incentive to share this data with them. This can be achieved by including a “quick buy” option on the site, so that customers who do opt to share their data are getting something in return – in this case a speedy and convenient payment journey on all future purchases they make with that retailer.  

Another source of frustration for customers is getting all the way to the end of the checkout process, only to be suddenly hit with additional costs. Therefore, businesses should include information on any hidden charges (e.g shipping/delivery costs) at the beginning of the checkout process so that your customers see the final price early and can make an informed decision about whether to continue.   

The importance of optimising for mobile devices 

It’s incredibly important for online retailers to consider how their site translates across multiple screens – particularly mobile phones and tablets. The rise of the smartphone, and subsequently mobile apps, has led to more and more people using their mobile devices to shop whilst they’re out and about, as well as using mobile to research and compare prices for later purchases.   

This trend is predicted to grow even further in the coming years, with a report from Google and PayPal predicting that by 2020, some 80% of all online retail would involve a smartphone at some stage in the purchase journey. 

However, despite m-commerce being one of the fastest-growing areas in retail, only 16% of retailers currently plan to make mobile sales a top priority in the year ahead. 

Ensuring your site is responsive and mobile-accessible is imperative for retailers who want to keep up in a crowded marketplace. Sites which are not optimised for smartphones can be an absolute nightmare to navigate, particularly considering the smartphone’s small screen size. This makes product details difficult to read and payment information frustrating to enter, creating extra work and frustration for your potential customers which in turn contributes to shopping cart abandonment. 

Mobile Site Speed  

Mobile site speed is also a vital aspect to consider. Mobile users may do a lot of their shopping “on the go” which, while convenient, can put them at the mercy of erratic Wi-Fi or mobile internet connections. This creates complications because if the site is not optimised to load quickly – 3 seconds or less tends to be the industry standard – customers are likely to click away out of frustration. In fact, research from performance measurement agency Dynatrace suggests that improving page load times by just half a second could increase online sales by 10%. 

In terms of designing for this, retailers need to find the perfect balance between speed and functionality. What we often see online retailers trying to do is cram too many elements onto the page such as virtual dressing rooms, 360 videos and social buttons. While the intent here is of course to engage the consumer, this should never come at the expense of speed.   

To solve this, I would recommend giving each page on the site a “performance budget” of three seconds. If a retailers site is taking longer than that to load, I advise looking at removing unnecessary elements, which are slowing that page down.   

Of course, this doesn’t just apply to retailers, but rather to businesses from all sectors. An optimised, well designed website can be the difference between a prospective client picking up the phone to you, or clicking away in favour of your competition. 

E-commerce retailers should also look at the images they’re using. While high-quality imagery adds a tremendous amount of value to an e-commerce site, and they certainly shouldn’t be discounted entirely, brands also need to consider that images tend to take up the most resources on a page, accounting for around 63% of overall page weight on average. 

An easily-actionable solution here is to have the most important, “hero” images saved as PNG’s, and then any non-essential images can be saved as JPEG’s – which take up half the storage space (16kb for a JPEG image, as opposed to 32kb for a PNG).   

Where does online retail go from here?   

In terms of where online retail is set to go in 2017 and beyond, industry experts believe that the future is in mobile, with mobile revenues forecasted to increase by at least 50% by the end of the year, according to Think Tank Gartner. 

Rather than simply retrofitting their e-commerce site to mobile devices, retailers must adopt a mobile-first mentality, designing for mobile devices from the ground up in order to provide the best possible user experience.  

Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) are also providing ways for e-commerce brands to engage with their customer base online. Chatbots and virtual assistants are making it possible for retailers to predict and pre-empt consumer decisions and enquiries by learning about their previous shopping history and making suggestions.   

Speaking of emerging technology, augmented reality (AR), which overlays 3D models of products into real world settings, can help improve the online shopping experience by enabling customers to overcome the “imagination gap”, which is where shoppers choose not to buy a product after being unable to imagine how it will look – a huge problem in online retail seeing as customers cannot try products out before purchasing. This innovative technology, set to transform the retail experience, helps consumers to visualise the product before they buy, so they are more likely to make a considered purchase. 

Overall, it is an incredibly exciting time for online retail, with more opportunities for online retailers to engage with and attract customers than ever before. However, this also means that it is more important than ever to ensure that the online shopping solution retailers offer is properly optimised, with the customer’s needs and expectations always at front of mind.   

Actions such as streamlining the buying journey, prioritising mobile-first retail and making effective use of emerging technology will ensure that brands are best placed to take full advantage of the ever-growing online retail sector.

Gavin Lowther, Head of CRO at Visualsoft 

Image Credit: Maxx-Studio / Shutterstock

Gavin Lowther
Gavin Lowther is head of conversion rate optimisation (CRO) at award-winning e-commerce digital marketing agency Visualsoft, having worked at the company for more than 7 years.