The biggest ecommerce lies and how to avoid them

Paul Boag

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.