Andi Best Freelance Designer

Three Things Online Retailers Need To Stop Doing - A Customer Writes...

  • Published 23-08-2021
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Three Things Online Retailers Need To Stop Doing - A Customer Writes...
I'm a fervent online shopper whose disposable income (when available) is largely distributed to independent businesses, musicians, designers, illustrators and artists.
Over the years I've moved through every white-label and marketplace commerce flow you can think of - WooCommerce, Squarespace, Wix, Shopify, Big Cartel, Etsy, Magento, Open Cart to name but a few. Do this enough and you get a feel for which platform is which just from the template layouts and design decisions in the UI. I've also begun to notice the similarities too - the patterns each adopt from the other in a bid to level up functionality, bring competitive value to their user base and maximise data/monetary acquisition for themselves.

Three particular patterns that leave me with immeasurable ire each and every time I encounter them have found their way to high prevalence across internet shopping experiences. They are:
1. SALES requiring discount codes at checkout.

Which is it? Are you having a SALE or are you issuing discount codes?
I'm sure you've seen calls to action like this a thousand times: "10% off when you use SAVE10 at checkout". This is fine, generally, until it's mislabelled as a SALE. The imprudent mislabelling of SALEs is so commonplace that genuine SALEs or items on sale require qualifiers to allay confusion - how often have you seen "discount will automatically apply at checkout" to help you understand the difference. And even then, applying a discount so late in the purchase funnel is akin to voucher code entry rather than a bona fide SALE where the purchase price of goods has actually been reduced. A shop can't in all good conscience claim to be having a SALE if it's still possible to buy the same goods at full price by omitting a discount code during the checkout process.
Can you imagine the equivalent of this happening in a real-world bricks and mortar store? Customers presenting their baskets to the checkout operator, loaded with items marked with red stickers denoting savings, but each scanning through at full price. Customers would rightly contest the miscalculation and would expect the corrections be punched into the till, not for the operator to lean forward and discreetly whisper "what's the password?"
Why do we see this?
A code can easily be forgotten or missed, so utilising one is either an intentional, deceptive praxis to convolute the purchasing process, or, more likely, it's an act of indolent product management with a cumbersome e-commerce system. In many cases it may simply be easier in the back-end to generate a catch-all voucher code than it is to define conditional rules, price reduction segmentation and every other step involved in configuring a proper online SALE. This, as I say, is either an administrative user issue or a system complexity issue.
What's the fix?
I've criticised shop management for being lazy above, yet equally lazy are customers like me who don't want the hassle of typing semi-comprehensible jargon into yet more checkout fields. Granted the system needs to deduce to whom the "SALE" does and does not apply if management fail to configure that internally, but shirking that burden to the customer is the wrong move. If you will insist on having discount codes masquerading as a SALE have them bound to a session cookie, set by referral source, so the user is in "SALE mode" the moment they first arrive on your site through to successful checkout.
2. Displaying sold out items.

As a user browses your products, either in a defined category, a dedicated search, or the full gamut, they'll be served a mixture of items that are both in and out of stock.
Why do we see this?
I get it, your range looks less impressive if you only display items with available inventory. You can boost your session duration metrics if you trap users on product pages they ultimately can't engage with. And SEO becomes a more intensive process to manage if pages are constantly changing publication status.
I get all of that. But please consider what a disheartening user experience this makes for.
When I tap a thumbnail of a product that intrigues me, land on its dedicated page to read more about it, perhaps choose some variant options if applicable, and then find instead of a prominently located purchase button there's only the (harder to spot) static messaging "out of stock", my response is not to bookmark the page and periodically check back to assess if stock levels are healthier, it's to exclaim "for fuck's sake" and quit from the website immediately.
What's the fix?
Ideally, sold out items would be omitted from all views across a site, but as stated above this is unfavourable for retailers who prefer to game their customers and search engines. The preferable alternative would be to confine your Sold Out items to the very back of every list view, including search results, disregarding any filtering applied governing sort order.
Occasionally websites forgo the disappointing static text on sold out product pages and introduce "email me when back in stock" functionality instead. I've mixed feelings about this. On the one hand it doesn't leave consumers as high and dry, keeping not only hope alive but also users engaged with the brand despite not transacting; a functional but also unorthodox touchpoint to potentially capitalise on for up-selling other (in stock) items in future.
On the other hand, this practise can ultimately exacerbate displeasure. I've engaged with two separate 'Email Me' flows in recent months; the first periodically sent me updates to say stock was still not replenished and would I still be interested in receiving such updates (linking me to resubmit the very same form), and the second proclaimed my item of interest was back in stock, only for the product page to contrarily defer me to the same 'Email me when back in stock' flow.
Unless follow-through on this journey tangent is proactively maintained from the admin side and resolved positively for the customer, it's liable to do more harm than good.
3. Calculating shipping way too late

Here we have the compounded problem of international - heck, even national - postage pricing being a giant conundrum, and the infallible logic that a customer must not reveal anything about themselves until their basket is ready to be processed (ironic, given the layers of algorithmic data scrutiny that likely led the customer to your shop in the first place).
"Shipping will be calculated at checkout" is a message only mildly less infuriating than "item out of stock".
The theory goes that online shoppers are skittish and faint-hearted, dissolving to dust at the merest of complications arising during conversion. The aim is to optimise the journey to payment with so little friction that you could throw a dolphin at it and it'd glide through to the other side without becoming beached, shopping bags (canvas, not plastic) clenched in its teeth.
Gaming/gambling/adrenaline/dopamine fun first, data forms and transaction commitment after - that's the formula.
The whole shipping calculation hangs on the supplied delivery address and if to get to that point a user has had to not only engage with the full flow but also enter all their identity credentials before learning what the additional charge will be, you can stop asking yourself where your abandoned basket metric is coming from. Regardless of what the delivery charge ultimately is, its unveiling this far into the funnel causes irritation.
Shoppers are calculating people. They curate the contents of their basket meticulously; researching competitive pricing, swapping items in and out, and optimising loopholes to hit discount quotas. Slapping on a surprise delivery tax demeans all that hard work and sours the relationship with the customer.
Why are we seeing this?
It's likely the array of global couriers charging against a breadth of varying parameters (weight, size, volume, distance, inflation etc.) makes for a pretty turbulent equation. It's far too dicey for a shop owner to want to grapple with manually so is typically left for the e-commerce platform to handle via fixed templates that usually reserve the shipping calculation until the end.
What's the fix?
Again, it's bizarre that with the wealth of accumulated data that browser cookies and social/selling platforms hold, a shopper's precise location isn't available to the shop throughout the journey. If the delivery charge can't be an unconditional flat rate, the optimum solution - only adding a touch of dolphin-hindering friction - would be to present a drop-down list asking for delivery region at the point of adding the first item to basket, store it to session, then display the relevant, even if approximate, shipping cost on each subsequent product page visited and tally it in the basket along with the itemised total.
Obviously this isn't an out-of-the-box solution but it does help alleviate an out-of-the-box problem.
BONUS: 4. Pop-ups offering a discount upon newsletter subscription (or similar action).

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this type of incentive. It's terrific in fact; the store gets a chance to remarket to the user at some point in the future and the user is incentivised to make their first purchase at a cheaper rate. Indeed, the user may even use a burner email or immediately unsubscribe - the ball is in their court. However, the issue comes from the recurrent mechanic of throwing the offer in my face literally seconds after I arrive on your website.
Get 10% off what? What do you sell? I can't see - your pop up is in the way, and I've never been here before. But I'm afraid to dismiss it because I like discounts and what if I can't find it again?
Why are we seeing this?
Incentivising a user to buy via any means available is certainly to be exploited, but a pop-up is so intrusive that it contradicts everything said above in the shipping chapter about mitigating disrupting a smooth conversion flow. Imagine investing time and money into streamlining your site to the hilt for optimum conversion only to bolt a blackout screen to the very first page.
Most E-commerce platforms will likely have a simple checkbox toggle for "popup". That's it. Who could resist the call to flick that on and blitz a key message to every site visitor? It's easy, lazy, and poorly integrated.
What's the fix?
The fix for this is so obvious that it pains me to have to outline it. Delay the popup. A few seconds, a few clicks, a few pages, I don't care. Let users browse a little before bombarding them with irritation.
And if you really want to push the boat out, consider more sympathetic methods to bringing these discounts to the fore. Design your popup so that it creeps in subtly from an edge, sized to not obstruct use of the website. Have it embedded as part of the page content so that users are free to scroll past (and return to) it of their own accord.
Investing in the development cost to irradiate these three most deflating user experiences from your pre-fab e-commerce platform is totally justifiable, even if your attention is on getting ahead in the capitalism stakes. Fine tuning the very atoms of your shop to shave off milliseconds in load time is all well and good to get your site ranked higher than your competitors, but all the JavaScript link mimicry and lazily-loaded images are fruitless if you fail to convert the leads that stop by, by ensuring they never stop by again.
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