The Cardinal Sins of Online Retail

By Will Gillingham

Enough of the optimisation chatter. Enough of the nuanced best-practice techniques, the streamlining stratagems, and the conversion catalysts. There are plenty of them around, after all, and they’ll still be there when we get back. Just for a moment, let’s consider the other end of the scale; a look into retail’s Room 101, if you were.

In this article, we’re going to explore those cardinal sins of online retail which are committed all too often. Treat the piece as an anti-checklist – and if you make it through without seeing an all-too-familiar website feature, it’s time to take your user experience team out for a round of drinks.

To get a rounded perspective of what may comprise retail’s sinbin, we approached experts in our community for their learned insight. Here’s what they flagged as those common website features to be avoided at all costs.

1. Pop-ups

The first item to be hauled into the box marked ‘do not open’ is the merchandise pop-up (not to be confused with pop-ups which serve a potentially more useful purpose such as ‘last day for delivery before Christmas’). As tempting as it is to thrust marketing at shoppers in the knowledge that they will definitely see the promotion, its effect is likely to be the opposite of what was hoped for: it has the capacity to derail the shopper’s purchase journey and may even cause an instant departure from the retail site.

As Tobias Buxhoidt, Founder and CEO of parcelLab, explains, it’s like someone turning up on your doorstep unannounced: ‘Although it might seem like a good idea to promote products to customers when you have their attention, this can be extremely distracting if you’re searching for something. And the worst possible way to do this is using a pop-up window. It’s like being doorstepped, and no one likes that. If you’re going to suggest other items, make sure they are complementary to what the customer is purchasing, as this can actually be helpful. The friendliest and least obtrusive way of doing this is during delivery status emails.’

Shayne Burgess of AsiaPay is in full agreement: ‘One feature that is an obvious turn off to most site visitors is pop-up ads. Pop-up ads are a simple way for a company to profit from advertisements, but they often detract from a user’s experience and are an utter disturbance when shopping online. To find a healthy middle ground in a world where many companies need the revenue from pop-up ads, it is advised to keep them inserted to banners or sidebars.’

Finally, Scott Lindsay, Head of Marketing, EMEA, eShopWorld, repeats the notion, but pays closer attention to the way pop-ups can affect a mobile site: Having too many pop-ups, especially on mobile, is a major mistake. This is especially true if the pop-ups are not optimised for mobile – for example, the X button to close them is not visible and therefore the pop-up can’t be closed. This will make shoppers abandon the experience almost instantly through frustration.’

However, it’s not only pop-ups that lands a reference to mobile commerce on this list: indeed, ignoring mobile altogether is a cardinal sin in and of itself.

Looking at phone

2. Ignoring mobile

Earlier this year, smartphone overtook desktop to become the most-used device for shopping. And yet, unfathomably, websites still exist that aren’t designed with smartphones in mind. That’s why second on the list of red-flag features is a website that doesn’t take mobile into account – the sales channel which is not only dominant but continues to further dominate.

It’s for this reason that Daniel Jones, Conversion Optimisation Manager at Search Laboratory, has named it as the top of the list of retail sins. He says, ‘At the top of the list is a website which is difficult to use on mobile devices; according to Statista, over half of all website traffic worldwide came through a mobile phone in 2018, and this is only increasing. Ensuring your site is mobile responsive is crucial to ensure any site visitor, whether they’re on desktop, mobile or tablet, will be able to navigate through the site.’

Benoit Soucaret, Creative Director, LiveArea EMEA, is similarly minded, naming the current state of retail as mobile-first.

Soucaret: ‘We still see brands not thinking mobile-first. This is a mobile generation, not desktop or even tablet anymore. But many brands are still thinking back-to-front when it comes to their eCommerce sites – often built for desktop, then squeezed into mobile versions using responsive design. That’s not going to win, when you can be sure your competitor is thinking mobile-first.

Brands should be thinking about developing mobile versions first. Designs and layouts are focused on delivering optimal mobile UX: fast load times, rich media and content, easy touchscreen navigation and one-tap buy buttons. Sure, this can be adapted to tablet and desktop. But it is fundamentally mobile-first.

And there’s one aspect of mobile dis-optimisation which actually falls under the third cardinal sin of retail: clutter.


3. Clutter

Some retail pages are cluttered. And not cluttered in a renaissance art I-can’t-comprehend-what-I’m-looking-at-but-I-love-it kind of way, but rather in the cupboard-I-haven’t-opened-for-five-years-and-now-refuse-to fashion.

One of the breeding grounds for this kind of clutter is the navigation bar. With the option to list subsectors upon subsectors, this simple search mechanism can quickly morph into what Attraqt refer to as the ‘mega-nav’.

Laurel Harrison, Experience Optimisation Consultant, Attraqt: Brands often make navigational menus a minefield by populating them with too many clickable options for a shopper to contend with. The mega-nav is not the place to include every product sub-category or brand on your website as this can overwhelm shoppers by presenting them with a paradox of choice. Similarly, filtering their journey into sub-categories can prematurely narrow their options – reducing the visibility of styles which they don’t even realise they might want.

‘On mobile, complex navigation menus can also lead to increased bounce rates when menu options are irritatingly time-intensive if faced with long scrolling lists rather than simple click-through functionality. If brands fail to tailor and personalise navigation according to device type, this can have a detrimental effect on the ability of shoppers to discover products quickly and easily.’

Outside of the navigation bar, the easiest way to clutter a retail website is through listing too many products, or listing them in a disparate manner. This is highlighted by Shayne Burgess of AsiaPay.

Burgess: ‘One of the first features to point out would be an infinite-scrolling home page. A website should be properly curated and easy to navigate. Products should be organised and categorised properly, as to not confuse the customer. If a site is too cluttered, the customer can become easily distracted. Products should be separated into pages based on the product of their kind and make them easily accessible. Another avoidable feature that adheres the topic of organisation and simplicity is when companies offer too many product choices.

‘Studies have shown that offering multiple options can improve site activity, but companies that offer fewer or more organised products have a higher turnover. Small tweaks to a website can go a long way, through improving brand perception and encouraging more business will lead your brand to success.’

In terms of confusing the purchasing journey, it’s not only overcrowding which retailers need to worry about: it’s congesting the process. And nowhere is congestion more detrimental than at the checkout.


4. Congesting the checkout

Once a customer has reached the checkout, you’d have grounds to argue that that customer is psychologically attuned to buying whatever is in their basket. What doesn’t need to happen at this stage, then, is for that shopper to be distracted by an appealing advert which ushers them out of the final stage of the website, or for the checkout process to take too long. Indeed, you could even say that a checkout which encompasses either of these things is a cardinal sin of retail.

Laurel Harrison of Attraqt certainly thinks so. She says, Brands should avoid distracting their shoppers at this late stage of the shopping funnel by removing excessive clickable menus and focusing on the delivery of clear and coherent transaction menus and simple checkout / delivery options. Avoid populating the checkout page with unnecessary complications like banner ads, graphics, navigational menus and up-sell promotions or recommendations – these are much better placed elsewhere in the browsing journey, either to encourage further exploration and engagement prior to purchase or afterwards. Checkout pages should therefore only be designed to get the shopper to checkout, and not get distracted by going down a different path.’

One specific way in which a shopper can be slowed down during the checkout is if its required for them to log in, or, if they’re a new buyer, register with the brand.

Kris Taylor, Head of EMEA Customer Success at Magento, an Adobe Company, expresses his thoughts on the final stage of the customer journey: ‘Vendors should avoid friction in the final stages of the online journey at all costs. A single shipping option is unlikely to satisfy all customers, and those who find it unsuitable will go to a competitor. Additionally, a complex and lengthy checkout process where an account setup is required is a known conversion barrier. Instead, retailers should implement guest checkout so as not to turn away new customers who are testing the brand or making a one-off purchase.’

Scott Lindsay of eShopWorld agrees, expressing how congestion can be quantified by clicks: The last thing you want is for your shopper to abandon their cart at the last moment - but that often happens, especially when customers are required to fill in information that’s not necessary to their purchase. Customers don’t need to fill in their title for example (an extra two clicks) or need their date of birth captured at that point (an extra six clicks). If you want the date of birth it should be captured when/if a customer sets up an account.’

Tobias Buxhoidt of parcelLab is particularly adamant in this regard, referring to the need to register details as ‘seriously short-sighted’.

Buxhoidt: When a customer has reached the checkout, they simply want to pay as quickly as possible and go. Yes, it’s great if they register their details, as they are then captured on your database, but pursuing this to the detriment of the customer journey is seriously short-sighted. I’d advise that you never make this obligatory before a customer can check out. Always offer a ‘guest’ option for those customers in a hurry, or the chances of blowing a sale will be significant.’

Beyond this contrived slowing-down of the purchase process lies the fifth cardinal sin: the literal slow loading of the website itself.


5. Pages which are slow to load

Internet speed has come on leaps and bounds since the whirring and stuttering of the dial-up tone, and, as a result, internet users expect a certain standard of page loading speed. And that standard is fairly fast.

Slow-loading pages can cause a bad user experience before the shopper even sees the homepage, and that reason alone lands a slow website on the list of retail’s cardinal sins.

Daniel Jones of Search Laboratory elaborates: Users are more likely to abandon a site with slow loading speed, so ensuring that all pages on your site load within one to three seconds is crucial. By improving site speed, you will reduce abandonment and increase revenue – Think With Google is a free test that evaluates the impact a faster site can have on your business.’

Kris Taylor of Magento, an Adobe company, also condemns slow loading pages: ‘Obsolete sites with errors and slow-loading pages simply don’t cut it anymore. Retailers who want to appeal to the connected customer must invest in smooth navigation. The same can be said for mobile – if a shopper browses a site for the first time while on the go, a clunky mobile site could put them off.’

The connected customer is also looking to hear from other connected customers. And if user-generated content such as reviews aren’t easily discoverable on the ecommerce website, another sin has been committed.

Checking time

6. Not featuring reviews

Shoppers trust shoppers. A verified purchase review with no agenda is likely to be trusted more than a product description from the brand, and so by not featuring reviews, retailers are missing out on a core aspect of loyalty-generation.

Daniel Jones of Search Laboratory explains: ‘Failing to put social proof, such as awards and positive reviews, onsite is another mistake businesses make. These accolades make your website and brand seem more trustworthy and can encourage new visitors to purchase, so it is essential any social proof is clearly displayed throughout the site.’

Flora Frichou, Senior Content Strategist at Trustpilot, agrees: ‘In today’s competitive environment, purchasers are empowered like never before, consumer expectations are higher, and word-of-mouth travels faster. So, keep it simple, make sure your design is consistent and coherent, and add trust symbols like customer reviews on all your key pages. This will boost trust and customer confidence as they navigate your website.’

And there’s one last sin which is dedicated to those international retailers: refraining from localising the content based on territory.

Happy shopper

7. Not localising

Localisation is the difference between familiarity and ostracization for international retailers. Shoppers want to see descriptions in their own language, reviews from their peers, and pricing in their currency. Although appearing at the close of the list, not implementing this facility could be seen as the greatest sin for an international brand.

Scott Lindsay of eShopWorld elaborates: Localisation is essential when operating in global markets – in anything from pricing to sizes to offers.  A US customer will often not be familiar UK sizing and if they even complete their purchase, this could lead to more returns if they accidentally pick the wrong size based on not knowing quite what they were getting. Similarly, if the prices aren’t localised it could put shoppers off their journey from the very beginning, and of course, nobody wants to go to the trouble of getting all the way to check out only to find that the retailer doesn’t deliver to their country.’

And there we have it: perhaps not the seven deadly sins of retail, but certainly seven particularly pertinent website mistakes to avoid at all costs.


In Summary

The retail landscape is pockmarked with pitfalls. But fortunately, they’re rather easy to avoid, so long as you take the time to identify them and seal them off with red tape.

Really, avoiding retail sins takes committing an act so profoundly interwoven with retail that it’s almost become something of a sin in itself: admitting that we’re all customers. Look at your website as a customer. Progress through it. Are you enjoying yourself? If yes, then congratulations: your website is ticking the boxes it needs to be ticking.

Retail starts and ends with the customer. So long as they’re happy, the business survives. And if any of the above features exists as part of your brand, then there’s a chance the happiness may be being hampered – and perhaps it’s time to re-strategise.

Will Gillingham, Content Manager, IMRG

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