Online purchasing by consumers grew an estimated 10% in 2016, compared with a much more modest 1% growth in retail. While 2017 year-end results are not yet fully available, indications are that the increased share and fast growth in online spending continued in 2017. Specifically, full year 2017 US ecommerce sales are estimated to have grown 15.8%, with holiday ecommerce growth estimated at 10.4% vs. brick and mortar at 4.0%. The rhetoric around the “death of retailing” and the demise of stores, particularly department stores, has been so widely touted that traditional store retailers and shopping mall owners are starting to advertise the amount of purchasing that takes place in bricks and mortar.
For the online consumer, some improvements in recent years are evident, for example, the speed of fulfillment. With Amazon Prime, it makes sense for consumers to purchase many items online. Features likes customer ratings have enhanced shopping (although the ubiquity of top rating scores may well work to undermine rating’s value in the long term).
But They Really Haven’t
Looking back on work we did in the early 2000s for Judy Harrison, former CEO of leading online toy retailer ZanyBrainy.com, we see how enduring consumer needs are and how many unmet needs remain.
Judy Harrison, now CEO of Waypoint Partners says,
“It’s remarkable to see how the areas of improvement that our management team identified for ZanyBrainy.com are still opportunities in online retailing today. We believed that providing a positive and distinctive online customer experience was one of the most important determinants of our success. Therefore, making it easy for the customer to acquire personally relevant information–content and products–and identifying web site enhancements to improve the quality of the user experience were especially critical.
Two of the specifics that stand out to me from the study for enhancing customer usability and differentiating ZanyBrainy.com from the other competitors were improving the search/find functionality and improvement in the shopping cart/purchase functionality. As a retailing expert, I am surprised that retailers lag in adopting technology that permits them to deliver a more personalized and relevant customer experience.”
The findings came from usability research conducted on four leading sites: (Toys R Us, Zany Brainy, Smarter Toys and eToys). Included were:
- Objective measures for time, errors and failure to buy
- Subjective rankings for functionality and aesthetics
1. Improvement in the search/find function
- Respondents could not find the items they needed to find. For instance “if the user does not find the target item on the first try, all sites leave the user without any indication of what to do as an alternate search strategy. Thus users enter into a random walk search strategy which is error prone and time consuming.”
- Sites have unclear data rules, encouraging users to enter data in an unstructured manner. For example, “use of brand name results in confusing results and use of product category results in confusing results.”
- Flat out wrong “Initial results often return data that is totally incorrect.”
On sites our team has shopped and purchased from, we’ve certainly seen these same issues today. Even king retailer Amazon had difficulty limiting toy search results for brand-specific queries such as “Hasbro Star Wars Galactic Heroes.” For the same query, Walmart intermixed their standard available stock with third-party reseller collectible or rare products. The experience left the consumer confused, “Is $50 the going rate for this AT-AT?”
2. Improvement opportunity in the shopping cart/purchase function
At the time of the online toy retailer study, most consumers were not able to conclude the purchase. “All sites were basically dysfunctional in the area of purchase interface and consumers had ‘at best’ a very difficult time completing purchases.” While things have come a long way with One Click, on other sites it’s still fairly common to be in a “form doom loop,” repeatedly retyping the same information, and then having it wiped out by an error. Not to mention strong-arm efforts to get the purchaser to create an account before purchasing whether or not they want to.
The recommendations at the time still merit consideration:
- Redesign and re-engineer the search functionality to reflect cognitive search profiles
- Create a new interface for the site that optimizes the purchase sequence based on known cognitive preferences of the toy purchasing public
The explosion in popularity of online retail has happened without categorical improvements to the customer experience—our research from the early 2000s shows that incremental changes have been made, but sea change has not occurred. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same.