If you were looking for examples of retailers that have really nailed online shopping, you wouldn’t expect to have to look much further than goliaths John Lewis and Debenhams. 

But what is the secret of a fabulous online shopping experience, is it about mimicking the in-store experience? Or about offering facilities that shops can’t provide? 

We ran a comparison of the online Christmas shopping experience at two age-old adversaries, John Lewis and Debenhams, using the WhatUsersDo platform.

Five users shopped for Christmas gifts on each website and talked us through their experiences, using screen capture and voice recordings.

The stakes are high: Christmas 2013 saw Debenhams trailing John Lewis and House of Fraser in Christmas sales. Online sales played a part, and Debenhams have some work to do if they want to match John Lewis’s online performance in 2014.

How do you re-create the ‘in-store’ experience online?

It’s hard for an old Scrooge like me to understand, but some people genuinely love Christmas shopping.

Debenhams evidently have these customers in their sights, with their festive colour scheme, splash promos promising big discounts and well placed links such as ‘Stocking fillers under £20’.

The Debenhams colourful festive homepage

Do users act on these promos? In our test, none of our users clicked on any of the Debenhams homepage splash promos, although a couple made favourable remarks. Focussed on the task in hand, they all used the menus or ‘search’ to find gifts. 

Nevertheless, a Christmassy look and feel undoubtably influences some shoppers positively. See what one shopper says of the John Lewis site, which has paid lip service to Christmas in terms of visual design:

“I want to feel the weight”

Unquestionably there’s more to getting the Christmas shopping experience right than tasteful swirls of red ribbon on homepage promos. The challenge facing online retailers is giving users enough information to make a choice, given that goods can’t be picked up and handled. 

As you would expect, both sites handle product information, particularly images, very well. Users liked the image zoom facility and alternative product views. Seeing inside a handbag or jewellery box, seeing clothes both on and off the model; all helped shoppers make decisions.

Fragrance is a particularly tricky product to sell online, for obvious reasons. One Debenhams shopper laments not being able to smell a fragrance as you would in store …

… but completely overlooks Debenhams’ inspired ‘Try something new guarantee’ (nestling in the side menu – blink and you’ll miss it) …

Nice idea Debenhams, but you’ll need to make this more prominent if you want shoppers to take advantage.

The personal touch: reviews and online shop assistants

Customer reviews give customers insights that they can’t get in-store, and help to make online shopping a more personal experience. Debenhams need to do more to get shoppers to review their products: all too often reviews are absent.  

One of our users demonstrated their power by picking out the only scarf of 14 listed that had reviews. 

What else would help to give online shopping the personal touch? One of our shoppers suggested an online chat facility with virtual store assistants to point him in the right direction, just as they would in store. Clearly cost is an issue, but this would certainly give retailers a competitive edge and improve conversion rates. 

It’s easier to find things online. Or is it?

How can online retailers help customers through their Christmas buying dilemmas? It ought to be easier to find suitable gifts online: quite aside from not having to elbow your way through the crowds, websites offer many ways to help you find what you want that stores cannot. 

One key benefit of online is that products can appear in more than one place. You can shop ‘by recipient’, ‘by gift type’, ‘by brand’ and so on. Stores can do this to some degree but are limited by precious in-store real estate.

The John Lewis site really gets this right, with a judiciously placed ‘Christmas’ sub-menu, which most of our shoppers found and used, as well as a ‘gifts’ sub-menu.

The John Lewis 'Christmas' sub-menu

Debenhams also provide ‘Gifts’ and ‘Christmas’ sub-menus, but hidden away to the right and missed by most of our shoppers (who plumped for the ‘women’ and ‘men’ submenus instead). And look what happens when a user tries and fails to find ‘perfume’ under ‘women’:

The power of suggestion(s)

So, Debenhams have some work to do on their menu structure. But they offer some tempting selections to help shoppers find gifts, such as ‘Gift Inspiration’ and ‘All Time Beauty and Fragrance Favourites’. Some users made good use of these when they were stuck for ideas.

John Lewis also provide ‘suggestions’, but with limited success and sometimes bizarre results. In ‘Gifts for £30 and under’ it’s hard to understand what criteria they have used for selecting products: filtering this list down to ‘socks’ results in only a single item!

An unexpected product listing at John Lewis

Sometimes product listings are simply disappointing. Surprisingly, given the size of their product range, this problem was encountered by users more frequently on the John Lewis site:

“I’m looking for a gift for a colleague … “

As for ‘Gifts by recipient’ (listed in the Gifts sub-menu on both sites), here’s an opportunity for a retailer to show some real flair and imagination. John Lewis make a good stab at this with ‘Gifts for teachers’ and ‘Gifts for Grandparents’ alongside more predictable suggestions. One user suggested adding ‘colleagues’ and ‘friends’ to this list.

Debenhams offer only four ‘Gift by Recipient’ options on their main site, but have created a brilliant ‘gift finder’  which does exactly what it says on the tin, at www.foundit.co.uk. Categories such as ‘Stylish little extras for her’ and ‘Great gifts for Gran’ offer inspiration for despairing shoppers.

It’s a pity that the link to the gift finder from the main site was overlooked by all our users so that, despite its name, none of our users actually ‘found it’.

If all else fails, use the search box

Most users navigated using the menus, but a couple used search instead. Neither John Lewis nor Debenhams offer users category specific search – a facility which Amazon offer as their principle (and devastatingly effective) means of navigating their vast product range. 

This is a missed opportunity; watch this user attempt to find a book on The Doors or Jim Morrison using site-wide search:

So which site offers the best online Christmas shopping experience?

I’d like to report that there is a clear winner, but the truth is that although both sites got the basics right most of the time, both have blind spots that will cost them customers. And there are some missed opportunities for gaining a competitive edge: online store assistants, more creative suggestions for ‘gifts by recipient’ and context sensitive search, to name a few.

Let’s hope that they are following e-commerce best practice by running their own user tests to capture insight to improve next year’s Christmas experience.

If I had to choose a winner, I would place John Lewis a nose ahead. But Debenhams are fighting back with some innovative ideas which just need to be a little more prominent. We’ll have to wait for the sales figures in January to find out who’s first past the post.