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Not a big ecommerce fan myself, the only things I’ve ever bought online are flight tickets, books from Amazon, train tickets, a carpet, a phone case and that’s about it!

You must be wondering what’s wrong with me? But I’m just not a big fan of seeing something on the screen and hoping it meets my expectations when it arrives in the post.

I like to look at what I buy before I purchase goods. It would be a real pain if I bought something and needed to return it, as it didn’t meet my expectations (or size for clothes/shoes). It would bug me even more if my item doesn’t arrive or arrives in bad condition and I have to deal with the paperwork after that.

Having said that, I have to admit that this habit is changing slowly with the way ecommerce sites and services are being designed these days. I am actually very impressed by the effort that major retail sites have put in to make online shopping a more engaging experience. A few fashion websites even convinced me to buy their items online.

I’m sure most people think that being able to purchase products or services online is a brilliant invention. Who can argue that it doesn’t save us time, money and offer us more choices than offline opportunities (too much that sometimes we end up getting nothing). Being able to compare prices and information of products/services further gives us the power as consumers to make better decisions (both online and offline).

Geared with this new perspective towards ecommerce, I hunted around for the latest trends in ecommerce land and these are what I found:

  1. Multichannel presences: There’s a growth of multichannel retailers as traditional high street brands expand their presences online.
  2. The rise of mobile-commerce: Following the increased usage of smartphones, major retailers are  launching mobile sites and smartphone applications to encourage their customers to make purchases using their smartphones.
  3. The use of online payment services: There’ll be an increase in the usage of online payment services such as PayPal and Google Checkout as people want to make faster, easier, and more secure purchases over the Internet.
  4. Engaging customers online: Businesses are putting more effort into the design of their websites to ensure they provide their customers with an engaging online experience.
  5. The social element: Social networking options continue to expand onto ecommerce sites where site visitors can share their opinions about products on Facebook and Twitter.

Let me know what you think!

Photo credit: danielbroche via Flickr/Creative Commons

When creating a new ecommerce website, one of the key issues that is likely to come up is ‘How to create a successful user interface?’ An easy answer could be ‘Do it like Amazon’ and besides, nobody can deny it, Amazon is one of the most successful ecommerce stores worldwide.

Amazon’s facts speak for themselves:

  • Listed at 17th position within the 1000 most visited sites for June 2010
  • Approximately 81,000,000 unique visitors per month
  • Around 3,600,000,000 page visits per month.
  • Market capitalization of over $50 billion

Sometimes it’s good to copy the big guys. But copying a successful design does not mean that the company’s success will be copied with it!

So, ‘If it works for Amazon, why wouldn’t it work for your site?’

Reason #1 – Amazon’s low prices offsets its imperfect user experience

Amazon definitely doesn’t have a sparkling interface design. So what is it about it that makes it so successful?

Amazon can afford to sell at cost or below cost prices, offer free delivery and still have profit! It relies on its large number of customers and its fast selling pace, which can provide cash before the payment of the goods, is due to their original supplier.

Question #1: Is this type of marketing included in your business plan?

Reason #2: Amazon’s existing customers are more important than new ones

If you’ve used Amazon before then it’s more than likely that you will easily find what you are looking for.  Firstly, because you know that in order to find the product that best suits you, you have to follow the process of:

  • Searching by a product by name
  • Choosing only one category of goods
  • Then have the sorting and filtering options enabled

Secondly, if you’re an existing user then Amazon already knows your purchasing patterns. This boosts up your chances to experience serendipity by receiving more personalised product recommendations.

Amazon has a lot of existing customers who are used to its product search process. Thus, making major changes to it involves the risk of dissatisfying its 81m+ registered customers. But what happens if you’re a new user and there’s no purchasing patterns log for you?

You’re most likely to get odd or not useful recommendations and struggle to search efficiently for the desired product. Therefore, unless you have plenty of time, patience or luck, it’s unlikely that you’ll reach a product’s best matches to your requirements.

Question #2: Can you afford transacting only with your existing customers?

Reason #3:  Amazon is continuously testing

Have you ever noticed frequent change of features in the layout of Facebook e.g. the Newsfeed?

Of course, if you are Facebook  (the website with the most traffic for June 2010) or Amazon, then you can afford to test some new designs and features directly on your users. Besides, losing some of them may not even be noticeable!

The problem with copying Amazon is that you can’t know what’s there to stay and what’s to be removed after a while. You can’t know which features have a positive and which ones have a negative return. Copying Amazon involves a high risk of copying features which are temporarily placed on the site just for experimental purposes.

Question #3: Can your ecommerce site afford having features that are possibly not usable?

Reason #4: Amazon has good customer reviews

Sometimes, people hesitate to purchase goods through ecommerce sites because they’re unable to physically see the item they’re planning to buy. Reading reviews of recent buyers of a product can provide future buyers with a clearer idea about what to expect from the purchase. It’s hard to get people to post feedback on a product. Statistically, 1 in 3000 of buyers are likely to leave a review for an item. Considering Amazon’s traffic, this still gives it enough reviews per product.

Many people choose to buy from Amazon not necessarily because of its good prices or interface but because of the trustworthy community and the content it holds.

Question #4: Is the size of your customer community analogous to the Amazon one?

Reason #5: Amazon’s famous name is enough for making its users feel secure

Have you ever noticed that Amazon does not have an EV SSL certificate? This certificate indicates when it’s safe to transact by changing the URL initials from http to https and turning the URL address bar green.

The use of this certificate is critical for making customers feel safe and confident to purchase goods using their credit card over the Internet.  But, if you’re as popular as Amazon, then there is no trustworthiness issue.  In fact, people may not even check to see if you’re using an SSL certificate.

Question #5: Is your  company as famous as Amazon?

In summary…

If your answers aren’t ‘Yes’ for the questions #1-5, then perhaps you should rethink before copying Amazon.

To sum up, just because the system is working for Amazon, it doesn’t mean it will work as efficiently for you. Each design is created to match a certain type of business model. If the business model of Amazon doesn’t match yours, then perhaps copying the design of Amazon to your site could be a bad idea.

The UK affiliate market broke the £4bn sales barrier in 2009, with over £240m paid out in affiliate commissions (more stats available from the Econsultancy Internet Statistics Compendium 2010). Behind these numbers lays an important human factor; 34% of UK affiliates work full-time running websites as commercial enterprises; only 20% are hobbyists. As a merchant, it’s important to walk a mile in their shoes and understand what would motivate them to give your brand preferential exposure.

Individual affiliates are under pressure. Putting the economic downturn to one side, the rise of voucher sites and super-affiliates (the likes of Quidco) is putting greater pressure on web owners to invest in their websites to acquire and retain visitors. Indeed, 43% of affiliates cite voucher code websites as a direct threat to their business.

At the same time, the affiliate population is ageing slightly. The proportion of affiliates under 30 has dropped from over 30% to nearer 25%. So, affiliates are under economic and competitive pressure and at the same time they are getting older; this means they have more experience. The net result is that the affiliate market is maturing and the business model must be in-tune. For many years merchants have relied on the pull of their brand to make affiliates take the burden of effort.

However, enlightened digital marketers have embraced a new model for many years, though not all merchants have cottoned on. The new model bases affiliate marketing on strategic partnership, building direct relationships with top affiliates.

It makes sense. Behind the websites are people. These people need to make a living. They will work better with merchants who take them seriously and work in partnership for mutual benefit.

Affiliate marketing has to be a two way street if you are to optimise investment and drive sustainable growth. The more effort you put into strategic partnerships, the more effort you will get back from affiliates and this will help you drive brand exposure and traffic from your affiliate channel.

The Webcredible article on affiliate marketing takes a closer look at the value of partnership. Please take a read and share your comments.

A lack of transparency and the request for upfront details when purchasing on line is the biggest cause of drop offs according to our recent ecommerce poll.

The research polled over 1,200 online users, asking why they would abandon an order when shopping online. The results were:

  • Having to register before buying – 29%
  • Hidden charges at the checkout – 41%
  • Lengthy checkout process – 10%
  • Not clear delivery details – 11%
  • Phone number not provided on website – 8%

Is that really that surprising? Taking the traditional experience of shopping, consumers do not expect a list of additional charges at the checkout and would, I expect get very upset at the prospect. Nor, would the shopper in the traditional retail environment expect to register their details before paying for the goods in their basket.

As one respondent commented ‘If the checkout process is too much of a hassle, or becomes too involved, I am apt to go somewhere else”.

As with all online experiences, the web is meant to make things easier and quicker not more time consuming and taxing in transactions.

Retailers need to focus on the consumer needs online just like they do in the traditional environment and by implementing basic usability guidelines the poll results would be radically different.

Yesterday we released the findings of this year’s ecommerce accessibility report and found that, unlike in usability, not much had changed when it comes to website accessibility among the top high street retailers.

Whereas the average score in usability has been increasing year-on-year, the average accessibility score actually went down slightly this year (although that may be partly because Woolworths was included again this year and only scored 38 per cent, but this time last year it wasn’t around to assess).

There were obvious exceptions to this lack of improvement however. B&Q was the outstanding mover and has clearly invested in its website since last year. It achieved a score of 84 per cent to top the table, up 16 per cent from last year. Other big improvements were seen with H.Samuel climbing from 8th place to 3rd, improving its score from 65 to 75, and Next which climbed from 18th to 11th with an improvement of 9% to 60.

In contrast, Marks & Spencer’s website, newly launched in October 2009, only managed to increase its accessibility score by 1 per cent to 59 per cent, even though it now leads the way in usability.

So, what’s the reason for the general lack of improvement in accessibility considering there’s continual investment in these ecommerce websites? Well this could be down to advances in web technologies making it more difficult for ecommerce sites to maintain levels of accessibility as they provide richer interactions.

It used to be the case that, if you did your usability and SEO work right, you’d be 80% there with accessibility due to the interlinked nature of the disciplines. However, AJAX and Web 2.0 present new challenges from an accessibility point of view and this is no longer the case.

However, some of these mistakes are so easy to rectify it’s amazing that so many sites fail every year. For example, the guideline that gets the lowest average every year is providing focus states for links to make them accessible for keyboard-only users. This can be done through one simple line of code, yet only B&Q, John Lewis, Argos and HMV do this to a reasonable level and the majority of sites don’t even attempt it.

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