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What makes a website a winner?

By Retail Technology | Wednesday October 23 2013

Following the Ask The Expert homepage poll, multichannel consultant expert Martin Newman highlights findings from a new retail website usability report

Apple’s instore experience is often held up as an example of great retailing, and yet online it’s a different story, according to Practicology

“It came bottom of the ranking of 25 retail websites in our latest annual Usability Report,” said Martin Newman, managing director of the multichannel consultancy.

However, there were few raised eyebrows over the top three in the ranking: House of Fraser, ASOS and Littlewoods. So Newman explained how the consultancy came up with this ranking.

“The basic premise of the piece of research is very similar to the process we follow when we evaluate a website for a client – essentially we are asking: ‘How easy do you make it for a customer to buy from you?’ In answering this we consider a wide variety of factors both to do with the usability of the website, and also how attractive aspects of the proposition are such as delivery and click & collect services.”

Clear route to purchase

How easy retailers make it for consumers to find certain products on their site is crucial, whether they want to use the navigation menus or the search box. “We take for granted now that navigation will allow consumers to refine their selections, but there has been progress made with the intelligence of in-site search,” Newman said.

“For example, Currys’ search box brings up relevant products with offers as well as relevant search terms as soon as you start typing in the box,” he continued. “This intelligence mirrors the type of experience consumers have come to expect from Google.

“Another interesting trend we have noticed is for a variety of retailers to offer pre-order functionality on the sites. Once the preserve of retailers selling entertainment or electronics, fashion retailers such as River Island are now adopting the practice as consumers have much greater awareness of new ranges before they are available to buy.”

Once consumers have landed on a product page, Newman said we are always looking for enough information for them to be able to make a purchase decision. This can include appropriate product information, photos and dimensions or size guides.

Intelligent product merchandising

“If additional items are required for a product to work properly – batteries, software – or if a product can be bought as part of a bundled deal, it is helpful if these complementary items are also merchandised on the same product page in a way that the consumer can easily add them to basket too,” he advised. “Some retailers are far more sophisticated when it comes to product suggestions, cross-sell and up-sell merchandising. Again, the best sites deliver this throughout the journey.

“Ideally retailers should display product suggestions on the homepage, through type-ahead site search as well as on individual product pages. And there is really little excuse with the merchandising technology available if suggestions aren’t really relevant.

“We liked that Boots’ site showed products customers also viewed and products customers went on to buy on the product page. The suggestions were all highly relevant to the original product we viewed. In comparison, Homebase’s product page merchandising consisted of a ‘Our Favourite Products’ box containing three items that had no relevance to the product we were viewing.”

Fulfilment information and checkout

Newman continued: “We are also looking for customers to easily answer: ‘How much will it cost me in total to get this product, and how quickly can I get it?’”

He also said the best sites link to delivery and returns information on every page of the site, and also provide specific delivery information and costs on product pages, in the basket as well as at checkout. “This means there are no nasty surprises for customers at the last moment as they make the final decision to complete the transaction.

“House of Fraser’s site shows delivery options on the product page, lets customers choose a delivery option in the bag (and see the total cost) and then choose whether to sign-in or checkout as a guest,” he added.

“We’ve found that to maximise conversion it helps to have a guest checkout, or at least allow customers to complete their order before requiring them to register. Trying to collect too much information at registration can be unwelcome, particularly if you are making them register before they can see the total cost of their purchase.”

Winning online combination

With all this in mind, the top three sites – House of Fraser, ASOS and Littlewoods – all scored highly across the board, reassuring customers with good levels of information and inspiration throughout, and providing a selection of delivery options, which are well communicated. 

Newman concluded: “Apple was marked down for a lack of mobile site, poor delivery options, not offering a click &collect service from Apple stores and delivery charges not being explained in the shopping bag, among other things.”

Practicology’s free Website Usability Report 2013 is available to download here.

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