What is an on-line retail store? Silly question. It’s a place where people can buy things on the Internet, you say. But what is it? A deliberately created environment which causes a customer to want to purchase. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Tenth Edition) defines environment as “the complex of physical, chemical, and biotic factors that act upon an organism or an ecological community and ultimately determine its form and survival.” Shopping, too, is complex, and relates a great deal to environment, and the intricate experience of desiring, deciding, and taking action. Think of shopping as a customer experience rather than a transaction and you begin get the picture.
When I walk into a local store what do I see? What do I feel? What do I touch? What do I hear? The cushiness of the carpet has something to do with my perception of quality and value. The way aisles are arranged, the lighting, the gentle music, the friendly clerk who asks if I need some help. It all flows together to create an impression, and a desire to either linger and look, or to leave as fast as possible.
Both Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores have designed their environments to make browsing enjoyable. Chairs and tables make you want to sit down. The rich aroma of fresh-brewed coffee adds to the moment. Come, stay, browse, enjoy, are the messages all this communicates. Compare that to the tiny, cluttered store where you stop to pick up the paper. They have lots of stuff, but the general disarray doesn’t make you want tostay. You get what you need and leave.
On the Internet, Web pages are the store, the entire interface between customer and shopowner. Do the graphics make you feel good about being there or jumpy? Does the balance of color and photos, text and white space look clean and inviting, like a floor that is mopped and buffed every night, and shelves which are dusted and restocked after hours? Does the interface invite you to explore, or are you mystified to the point you don’t have a clue where to go? Can you click on a Real AudioTMicon and hear music or a word from the storeowner? What is the whole effect? How does it make you feel? If you’ve ever studied the psychology of advertising and purchasing, you know that feelings have a great deal to do with the whole process.
Do you hear a cheery on-line, “May I help you?” I hope not! But you should provide multiple ways for your customers to see what you have to offer. Wal-Mart Online invites you to: (1) browse departments using a series of hierarchical menus, (2) search for a product using a whole-site search engine, (3) glance at “What’s New” in the store, and (4) review “What’s Hot,” the store’s weekly specials. How can you make product suggestions to your Web shoppers like a helpful retail clerk might do? Study how they do this at Amazon Books: when you search for a particular title, they suggest other categories you might like to peruse as well. If people can find their way around your store easily, they’ll wantto purchase there — and return to shop again.
Your customers can’t ask a clerk questions about using the product — not in real-time, at least — but they can find lots of applications information posted in your Webstore which gives them confidence to buy from you rather than from the corresponding “real” store in their city, where they are used to asking for an explanation before purchasing.
How about end-caps, those retail display marvels that help move products arrayed there? On-line you can include small rotating banner ads that attract people to your specials — that’s how Wal-Mart does it.
A feeling of safety and confidence is important, too. That’s one of the reasons you include an “About Our Company” Web page that tells about your business, your experience in the field, your membership in various organizations, and perhaps a photo or two. Part of feeling secure is feeling like you know the people with whom you are doing business. A physical shop might display a Chamber of Commerce plaque or a symbol of the Better Business Bureau. Your Webstore shows the logo of organizations you belong to for the same reason — to inspire the trust and confidence so essential to wantingto purchase in your store.
Make sure you talk about security in ordering. People are still worried about hackers stealing their credit card numbers (like a man was arrested for doing this month). Explain how safe your SSL Secure Server really is, and assure customers that their order will be encrypted all the way to you. (Of course, you have the integrity to encrypt not only the customer-to-Webstore transaction, but also the Webstore-to-desktop order delivery!) When people feel safe and confident they will wantto purchase — so long as it is convenient — which brings me to gas stations.
Rather than carry a lot of cash, I like to purchase gas with a credit card. The local convenience store where I bought gas had a system where I could buy a card which would give me two or three fill-ups without having to go back into the store. It was handy and saved time. I was in and out in a few minutes.
Then the store changed hands and now I had to go inside the convenience store and stand in an inconvenient line each time to pay for my gas, and a second time to sign my charge slip. What a pain! Why shop there now? For price perhaps, but not for convenience. I certainly haven’t been as loyal. Then last week they said that soon I could insert my credit card at the pump without having to go inside the store at all. I can hardly wait.
What do talking pumps have to do with Web sales? Exactly this: you need to make purchasing at your Web store more convenient than anywhere else, on or off the Web. Last night I visited a Website and when I called the phone number to order, all I got was an answering service since it was after hours in that time zone. Most home shoppers can’tjust pick up the phone and call you, since they are likely to have just a single phone line. They have to get off the Internet first, and by that time they may have been distracted. It’s also easier to fill out an on-line form, rather than print out a paper form, fill it out, and then fax it. Allow people to pay on-line with a credit card. It’s fast and convenient.
Convenience and selection are the main reasons people have entered your store, after all. Use the Web technology of shopping cart ordering and sales systems to make your site ultra convenient for your customers. The software notes their selections, collects shipping and credit information, calculates tax and shipping, issues a receipt, and is fast. Sure, it costs something, but you’d need a cash register if you set up shop in the local strip mall, wouldn’t you? While Web stores are probably closer to catalog shopping than physical storeshopping, they can be more convenient than either– if you plan it that way.
There’s much more to say, but you get the picture. To have a successful retail Webstore you need to do more than slap together a couple of photos, some text, and an order form. Your store is a purchasing environment, and shopping there is an experience. It needs thought and careful design, a pleasing graphical and textual ambience, and convenience in finding products and finally ordering them. Your customers must want to buy from you. It’s your job to see that your Webstore creates that desire.