The biggest ecommerce lies and how to avoid them

I am amazed at some of the advice I read about building successful ecommerce sites. I seriously wonder who writes this stuff! In this post I debunk 5 common myths.

Of all the sites I am involved in at Headscape it is the ecommerce sites that excite me the most.

How can you not get excited about working on a website where the fruits of your labour are so visible and direct? Do a good job and the website makes more money, screw up and profits decline. There is something wonderfully black and white about it.

With such a measurable and obvious success criteria, you would have thought best practice would be well established and generally accepted. Bad advice would be quickly exposed for what it is and successful techniques would rise to the top.

However, it would appear that is not the case. I am amazed at how bad some of the advice is and how much bad practice exists.

In this post I want to focus on five of the worst offenders, beginning with the belief that you can never give users too much information.

1. You can never give the user too much [Wrong!]

Only recently I was reading an article about ecommerce that actively argued for providing users with as much information as possible.

On the face of it, this sounds like a good idea. The more information you provide, the better informed their decision becomes. However, in reality too much information can be overwhelming and lead to choice paralysis.

Compare for example the experience of buying a computer. For you and me this is a purchasing decision we are very comfortable with. However, for the majority of consumers it can be an intimidating experience. It is a minefield because there are too many choices and options.

Recently I bought a Dell netbook. Even as an experienced computer users this was a harrowing decision. I knew I wanted a low end, cheap netbook, so immediately ignored the plethora of laptops and desktops that could have confused my purchasing decision. However, that didn’t make the purchasing process easier. I still had to choice between the Dell Mini 9, 10 and 10v. I had to wade through technical specs outlining the differences, most of which I found unintelligible.

Screen capture from Dell Website

Once I had made my choice, I was presented with even more details and options. I had to select colour, type of hard drive, size of hard drive, operating system and on and on and on. In fact it even made me approve options where I had no alternative choice!

When compared to the limited and clearly defined line up of Apple computers, the contrast could not be more apparent.

Screen capture from the Apple website

More is not always better. If you want to encourage users to buy, then you need to make their choice a simple one. Remove everything but the most important information and minimise the number of choices available. This is something that has been understood for some time in traditional retailing, but has not filtered through to the web.

One retail technique that has transferred to the web is up-selling. However, you should thing twice about how to implement this technique.

2. Never miss an opportunity to cross-sell [Wrong!]

We all know supermarkets do it. You are queuing at the checkout surrounded by chocolate, magazines and other extras. They hope we will be tempted to pick up something on the way out. You go in for a loaf of bread and come out with a basket full of chocolates and a magazine on interior design. Any marketeer will tell you how effective this technique is.

Photograph of a supermarket checkout

Many successful websites also use this approach very effectively. Amazon is always looking for opportunities to cross-sell, based on its extensive knowledge of your buying habits and those of other users. However, even though it is obvious we will buy items on the spur of the moment, Amazon does not always up-sell.

Amazon recognises that the web is not the same as the real world. Unlike supermarkets, Amazon will not up-sell once users reach the checkout. In fact they are careful to avoid any distractions.

Screen capture of Amazon checkout

When the competition is only a click away you do not have the luxury of asking users to stand in line at the checkout, while you present them with additional products. Unlike the supermarket checkout there is no person to guide you through the process. It is user driven and so has to be as easy, focused and fast as possible.

Yes, it is important to up-sell. However, do it before the checkout process begins. Once the user makes a decision to buy, you need to ensure nothing gets in the way of that transaction. Some opportunities to cross-sell are worth missing.

Of course, there is no reason you cannot encourage users to buy again after the transaction is complete. That is where we need to look beyond the website.

3. Its all about your site [Wrong!]

Web designers want to sell you web site design services. It is therefore unsurprising that they concentrate their attention and advice on the website. However, the website is only one small part of a successful ecommerce business. The heart of successful ecommerce lies in service, not the website.

Don’t become so fixated on tweaking and improving your website that you neglect other areas of the user experience. Good customer service extends well beyond the users interactions with the website. It also includes vital components such as:

  • Email notifications – Do you keep the customer informed about the progress of their order?
  • Telephone support – Do you allow customers to speak to you directly?
  • Returns policy – How easy is it for customers to return an item if they do not like it?
  • Fulfilment – Are you in a position where you can fulfil orders quickly and dispatch them immediately?
  • Complaints handling – How well do you handle customer complaints? Do you go the extra mile?
  • Ongoing communication – Do you regularly keep in touch with customers? Do you offer them special deals and discounts? Is it easy for customers to opt out of these communications?

Customers who receive superb service are considerably more likely to make a second purchase and even more likely to recommend you to friends and family.

Screenshot from Customer Service Matters

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It is even possible to substantially reduce your marketing spend if you make customer service a priority. Instead your reputation will spread through word of mouth.

Do not misunderstand, I still believe that getting your website right is extremely important. Small things can make a big difference in the eyes of your users. Take for example security.

4. Users care about security… badges [Wrong!]

There is no doubt that users care about online security. In fact there is still a large proportion of people who are unwilling to buy online for fear of credit card fraud. The media has done an excellent job at ensuring the public are suspicious of online transactions, even though they are willing to hand over their credit card in a restaurant.

Whether the users concerns are justified or not, we need to take them seriously if we want people to buy.

Many ecommerce businesses spend a lot of money ensuring their sites are secure. How then do they choose to communicate this massive investment to their users in order to reassure them? – They slap a badge on their website!

Adding a small Verisign or Mcafee badge to your checkout page is not enough to alleviate users fears. At best they are free advertising for the companies involved. At worst they are entirely ignored because they look like banners.

A screen capture of a website with no security information except a Verisign logo

A better approach is to tackle the problem head on. Add copy to your website addressing this issue and the steps you have taken to ensure the customers security. Do not rely on a single graphic to say all that needs to be said.

5. Amazon is the template we should all follow [Wrong!]

This final lie is probably the most widely held of all. There is a belief that because Amazon is so successful, all ecommerce websites should follow their example.

There is however a number of flaws in this argument:

  • They don’t get everything right (nobody can).
  • They are partially successful because they were one of the first ecommerce websites to market.
  • Their reputation and brand recognition allows them to get away with a lot.
  • Users are familiar with their site and its eccentricities.

In short, what works for them will not necessarily work for you. Too many website owners blindly copy Amazon because they are seen as the leader in ecommerce. Not only is that flawed for the reasons I gave above, it also removes the possibility of you ever being better than Amazon or innovating in anyway.

Amazon Homepage

Don’t get me wrong – I believe there is a lot that can be learnt from Amazon. However, I do not believe it is in anybodies interest to blindly follow their lead.

Bonus lie: Ecommerce is easy

Probably the biggest lie of all is that ecommerce is easy. Admittedly off the shelf solutions such as Shopify make it extremely easy to build ecommerce websites. However, building the site is only the beginning. The real challenge comes in:

  • focusing your site,
  • deciding on when to up-sell,
  • providing great customer service,
  • communicating clearly
  • and learning from others.

Creating a successful ecommerce business is a long term commitment and you will need to continually evolve both your website and strategy.

So, what about you? What ecommerce lies have you heard? What great advice would you like to pass on? Post in the comments below.

  • Not sure if I agree Paul.
    1) Don’t remove information, shrink it or hide it. You still can’t give users too much information. You just have to design it correctly. Use “teasers” so that visitors can find the information if they’re looking for it. Make it an obvious step.

    2) Even if you don’t have a badge – you still need to say what you are doing that makes your site secure and the work you do to keep your customers safe. Just not saying this is a bad idea. This information should be in a findable location, preferably alongside things like a cast iron returns & refunds policy. Sometimes our designers can be so “design-ey” they don’t consider things like messaging to reassure customers, so it’s added at the last minute , and all you can do with the space provided is put a badge in…..
    If I can do anyone that removes a scrap of insecurity from a new user, and increases my conversion rate half a percentage, frankly, I’m going to do it.

    The only point I really agree on is the bonus lie :-)

    • Oh what a surprise, you don’t agree with me :-)

      I do actually agree with you about shrinking and hiding content (after all it was me who introduced you to the concept). However, where the differences between products is so small it is often better to limit the choice. That is not the case with WFF.

      In regards to security, again i think we are actually agreeing. My point is a badge is not enough. That you need to do a lot more to reassure users. I don’t think you should settle for a badge.

      And as for your final remark, you are a big fat liar! I know damn well you recognise the value of great customer service. WFF is built on your drivers and the service they provide :-p

  • Ian Gray

    Great article, Paul- thanks.

    I personally would find it frustrating if my choice was limited though. I’m not a Dell fan, but I would find it frustrating if I could only choose from 3 choices. What if I want a bigger hard drive or more memory on laptop B? I think in that situation it would be better to have a clickable button if I wanted to customise it. Then you reduce the clutter but give the user the option for more.

    • 3 maybe a little extreme but limiting choice does increase sales. Whether you like it or not is another thing :-)

  • I think it’s important to distinguish choice paralysis from information overload. And to distinguish data from information. The Apple website is full of detailed information about each of their products. But their product line up is distinct and they present their information reasonably clearly. I’ve just had a look at the Dell site and there really isn’t an abundance of information there. It just feels like too much information because they haven’t taken enough care to present it properly.

    On the subject of Amazon, Jared Spool did a wonderful presentation covering why copying their model blindly doesn’t work. Very much worth spending the time to listen:

    • You make an excellent point Alan. I should have been clearer in the way I explained myself.

      Thanks too for the Jared Spool post. I will check it out.

  • Great point on #1. As I’ve been shopping for a new computer recently, and shopping both mac and pc, I’ve noticed what an extreme difference the buying experience is. It’s not just a case of “more information” either, and the problem isn’t limited to Dell.

    Take a look at HP’s website for desktops:

    First, you need to select are you looking for “everday”, “slim and sleek” or “performance”. What the hell is slim and sleek? Should I assume that’s not everyday? And not performance? What is it then?

    Ok, start with everyday I suppose…you’re now presented with a page of what looks like the same exact computer, 4 times:

    The only difference is that it seems to be different configurations. Why not just list this once, and then let the user configure? Even once you select one, you STILL need to configure it.

    Apple might not have as many options, but they’ve definitely got the buying experience right.

  • As always, you make excellent points. Just to amplify your points 1, 2, and 5, these appear to mostly be about focus which is perhaps the most important element of a site? Focus in content, process, functionality, etc to drive toward the goals of your site (in the e-commerce case, the goal being to sell product).

  • Nice article Paul. There seem to be lots articles on “common e-commerce mistakes” and “x ways to improve your conversions” doing the rounds recently – which is great as I’m in the middle of building an e-commerce website for a client.

    I agree with you regarding giving the user too much – you need just enough to engauge them and satisfy their needs.

    One of the best bits of advice I’ve found so far is not having call-to-actions on product or checkout pages. If a customer has chosen to look at a specific product or decided to spend their money with you, why lead them to away to something else?

  • I think the example you gave is cross-selling not up-selling.

    Cross-selling: “…that of selling an additional product or service to an existing customer”

    Up-selling: “…have the customer purchase more expensive items, upgrades, or other add-ons in an attempt to make a more profitable sale”

    Great tips, nonetheless.

    • You are absolutely right. What a blindingly obvious mistake. I have now corrected. Thanks.

  • Great article! About the first point: you need to investigate the people you want to target. Without that it is just hopeless to give them the right kind of information.

    For the second point I’ve created a small theorie myself when I was writing an article about how to use the confirmation email as a marketing tool. I talked about putting some useful information into the mail, such as the latest blogposts or related products (pushing the info, much like the up-sell theorie) but I realised Amazon didn’t do this. Their mail consists of the addresss, bought products and price, nothing more, nothing less. As you stated in point 5, amazon can make mistakes as well but I don’t think this is one of them. In this I can follow your opinion that up-sell is not always necessary because it can also scare people away.

  • Great article! About the first point: you need to investigate the people you want to target. Without that it is just hopeless to give them the right kind of information.

    For the second point I’ve created a small theorie myself when I was writing an article about how to use the confirmation email as a marketing tool. I talked about putting some useful information into the mail, such as the latest blogposts or related products (pushing the info, much like the up-sell theorie) but I realised Amazon didn’t do this. Their mail consists of the addresss, bought products and price, nothing more, nothing less. As you stated in point 5, amazon can make mistakes as well but I don’t think this is one of them. In this I can follow your opinion that up-sell is not always necessary because it can also scare people away.

  • Great article! About the first point: you need to investigate the people you want to target. Without that it is just hopeless to give them the right kind of information.

    For the second point I’ve created a small theorie myself when I was writing an article about how to use the confirmation email as a marketing tool. I talked about putting some useful information into the mail, such as the latest blogposts or related products (pushing the info, much like the up-sell theorie) but I realised Amazon didn’t do this. Their mail consists of the addresss, bought products and price, nothing more, nothing less. As you stated in point 5, amazon can make mistakes as well but I don’t think this is one of them. In this I can follow your opinion that up-sell is not always necessary because it can also scare people away.

  • Great article. And the Bonus point so very true! I’ve had people ask me to build an e-commerce site and then wonder why it can’t be done in an hour. If it’s not properly planned it won’t sell.

  • I definitely agree with your “Bonus Lie”. I currently own 2 ecommerce sites and It’s an ongoing struggle to keep things afloat. From customer service to ranking well in the search engines. It’s not easy at all. When I had started 2 years ago I had the mentality of “If you build it they will come”. I quickly learned that wasn’t the case.

  • Leo Allen

    I know you’re looking at this from a web design perspective, and from that perspective I would certainly agree that Dell is nothing to write home about, yet I feel that maybe this highlights a problem with web design. I’ve actually read a book recently looking at the web from an entirely marketing perspective that sings the highest praises about Dell and the way their site is designed for ecommerce. Though I would intuitively say that Dell’s design is worse than Apple’s, that is maybe because Apple appeal to people like us. The goal of ecommerce is to appeal to everyone else, and Dell must surely be doing that successfully since they make almost all their sales online. They have almost certainly found that people who buy Dells prefer all the options or not doubt they would have changed it.

    Not to say they can’t improve on these things, but taking away the large amount of customisation options on the site would probably (and I can’t believe Dell wouldn’t have tested this) remove the USP of Dell.

    The point is, when it comes to ecommerce, it should be marketing first and web design (unfortunately) second. The fact that someone in the comments says it “feels” wrong is exactly what’s wrong with the web design approach. It has to be tested, and whatever sells the most is the way you go with. As a web designer I hate myself for saying it, but I believe it is true for ecommerce

  • Jeff

    I see where you are coming from but you are way on on your presentation. You should have written about these specific examples instead you blanket the entire web with your eCommerce “lies” and are completely wrong on most of your comments.

    1. is true! You can NEVER give the user too much info. How you present that info is the problem.

    2. Never miss an upsell: Also wrong. Your example of not trying to upsell at checkout is valid, but if I buy an iPod and there is a sale on isolating earbuds if I buy the iPod if I see that at checkout, not only may I potentially buy it, but I see it as this site is also looking out for the customer.

    3. Agreed

    4. User care about security badges: Not true? We all know people don’t read. In fact there’s so much data that argues to the opposite we have made our security badges even MORE prominent than before. Again this point should have been about the placement of said badges. And banner ads (whether you think so or not) attract attention and are NOT ignored unless the site is littered with them, then it may get overlooked.

    5. Agreed on all parts. We can learn ALOT from amazon, but the experience is daunting and should cherry picked for features.

    That said, you have a lot of valid points, but be very careful when “debunking myths” that you don’t send the wrong message.

  • I recorded an audioboo addressing some of the points you guys have raised.

    Listen here

  • Hi,

    Nice article that, I enjoyed reading it. I’d agree with everything you say, except maybe the too much information point.

    The website does actually provide a serious amount of information for their products. E.g. for a macbook. The only difference is that they do it in a very subtle way – instead of putting all this information for each product on the detail page, they have a sort of gateway page with the bulk of detail for the product category, with links to specific models in that category on this page.

    In essence, they are providing a lot of information, juts in a very subtle and clever way.


  • I really appreciate this post, but I do take exception to #4, downplaying the importance of badges.

    When we were running Offermatica (now Adobe Test and Target), badges were in the top three items most likely to give a lift in conversion rate to a landing page. I do not recall a single instance where a test which included Verisign or Hackersafe logos did not achieve lift. Some were very high impact.

    This is real data from real sites using randomized testing.

    Even more interestingly, the logos had a positive effect even when the logos were below the fold. I always found that odd.

    I am not associated with any badge vendor.

  • Gordon Hulley

    A short Email I’ve just sent sums things up from my point of view:


    My username is GordonHulley and… not remembering my existing password I followed some links and attempted to change it but the page repeatedly failed to work.
    Hence, the more ‘manual’ request. Please remove me from the mailing list.
    This is not an implicit criticism of your website or your products. I am not a dissatisfied customer. I’m simply uninterested in advertisement Emails. In spite of current marketing orthodoxy, if I want something, I search for it then buy it. End of story.



  • I think the badges are used these days mainly for conversion increases.

    As for the content, i do agree that all the product information should be there in some tangible form, whether its hidden etc.

    And another issue is when site owners/designers put too much description/images I’ve come across the user missing the checkout button all together.
    It also happens quite alot also with sites using lots of thumbnails/flash galleries 3d rotators etc. The user become overblown with information.

  • Hey Paul,

    I think you are correct about providing no too many choices. There is, however, one exception to that rule.

    For example: I like to build my own computers. So when I want a new computer I browse the web for differentes parts. I check reviews and forums. I want a great array of choices in this case.

    Another example: some people love wine. They also love sampling it. They want a broad array of choices because they enjoy making this choice!

    In short, my point is: limit choices, unless your audience is passionate about your product and actually wants to spend a lot of time on buying or selecting it.

  • Hi , nice post , thanks , I’ve translate this post in persian into my weblog & linked into this post, of course if you don’t mind.

  • Excellent point, however, it really depends on the buying behavior of the majority. Like me for example, I want to buy online with security badge on it, minimizes my fear of having my credit card hacked. I also prefer those a site who do not give out too much information on the product but provides exactly what I need in simple direct approach, specially if I am buying electronic gadget, I want to know exactly the benefits–not too much on the technical terms. Anyway, everyone has it’s opinion but I do agree on the last part. Thanks for the post.

  • sarah

    Good article, but, you used the wrong example with the computer choice. Dell does it the right way. If you don’t know about computers, you need to go into the store and have a sales person help you. But, if you know what you want and don’t want a cookie cutter computer, then, Dell is doing it right. I shop from Dell and I enjoy the option of getting exactly what I want. BTW, Dell does offer a fast track option for those who “just want a computer”. (and, they don’t cost $2000)

  • LOL @ bonus lie

  • I think point 1 has a flip-side, and it very much depends on the type of customer. In this specific case, I would be gone in a heartbeat if all I got was the info provided in the Apple sample. However I agree the Dell experience can be overwhelming even for a propeller head like me.

    I guess my point is that yes at the onset provide a simple, concise view of the products. But if you hide details – especially on a product as complicated as a computer purchase – a large segment of your customer base will simply disappear. These details need to be easily accessible ( and in a perfect world comparable between products ), but they shouldn’t clobber the browsing / shopping experience. NewEgg has some great features in this regard, to give a 3rd example in computer purchasing.

  • 1 to add to the list. I hear this all the time. Force the customer to register when they want to add to the cart, so that you can build up your database. That is just insane.

    It would be great to see a similar list just related to the check out process. Please can I help make it, would be great therapy.

  • What a great site to pick up great information for a newbie as me. There are so many people making points on what is right or what is wrong but what I find great is the comments to this post where I get to see and follow others opinions because I think it is all a matter on what you want with your potential customers but I might be wrong. Building a list just to build a list I find insane but if building a list for the matter of selling your site it might be the way – not an option for me. Keep up with the great writing.

  • Les

    Brilliant advice.

    As a developer myself I have certainly learnt a lot over the years and it is a -beep- pain to hear a client complain “your” solution ain’t reaching expected sales.

    I’ve lost count number of times a site has to be revised after launch as the client learns more about their market and customers… more often than not it is not the site that is failing but the copy (content) drives potential customers away.

    Good work and lets have some more :)

  • I have definitely found that an online business is a LOT of work! Especially if you didn’t come from a web design/developer background… It has been a learning experience from top to bottom for me on all accounts.

    The biggest piece of information I would pass along to someone starting an online store would be to ensure an appropriate profit margin on the products being sold. Expecting high volumes of orders early on to cover costs and support the cause is not the way to go. Pick a product you can promote with viral potential and niched enough to stand alone in a crowd…

    That being said, definitely get SOMETHING up! Worst case scenario, you pick up the cost of an extra phone bill for the potential to make an entire extra salary on the side… Or better yet, full time :).


    Patrick Hitches