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M&S launched a 'one day spectacular' sale today, in an effort to attract more shoppers in the run-up to Christmas, offering 20% off just about everything.

Rival high street retailer Debenhams also has a sale on at the moment, offering 25% discounts, so how are these offers communicated to customers and handled online? 

Homepages

Both homepages trumpet the discounts on display, so visitors can be in no doubt, though M&S makes the offer clearer by listing the departments / categories that the 20% applies to:

M&S Xmas sale

On the Debenhams homepage, the offer seems clear, but the 25% off doesn't actually apply to everything, something which only becomes clear when you start shopping.

Debenhams Xmas sale

M&S does provide a clear link to the terms of the sale, making it clear which product categories are discounted (Technology items are excluded for instance), and that the discount applies along with existing deals.

Debenhams doesn't do this, so some shoppers may be frustrated to find that discounts are less generous in some departments.

Load times

Both offers, clear or not, are pretty generous, and will presumably attract larger than normal web traffic, so can their servers handle the load? Have the two retailers planned for the extra demand?

In the case of M&S, there is no problem at all; the homepage loads quickly, and I had no delay at all when browsing through the site and adding items to my shopping basket.

The same cannot be said for Debenhams though, and its website seems to be creaking under the strain. The homepage took at least five seconds to load, while other pages within the site were even slower.

I even encountered this page a few times, which is not good:

Debenhams error

OK, Debenhams' website may have higher than normal traffic ( I presume this is the reason), but this is something they should have been able to predict and plan for.

Slow load times are virtually guaranteed to deter web shoppers, who are by now used to much faster websites. Anything more than a second will potentially have people hitting the back button and seeking out a competitor.  

Product / price details

While the clarity of the M&S offer is fine on the homepage, and the site can handle the strain of the extra demand, it gets confusing elsewhere on the site.

The terms of the offer state that '20% of the price you see will be deducted at checkout, so a £25.00 item will actually cost you £20.00!'

This could be confusing, as shoppers have to mentally deduct 20% from the price they see on product pages - why not show the discounted price alongside the original instead of making customers work it out for themselves? 

Debenhams scores points for this at least, its product and search results pages show the prices with the discounts applied, as well as the original price to show the kind of deal they are getting:

Debenhams sale

On the M&S website, this suit jacket is shown at the normal price, with no discount information:

M&S product page

There is a link in the box below about the sale, but it just tells you to check out the sale terms and conditions on the homepage, which is not much use at this stage. If M&S can add this to the product page, why not just put the discounted price? 

Still, having read the terms, I know that discounts will be applied once I get to the checkout. On the shopping basket page, the discount still isn't reflected in the price:  

M&S shopping basket

I went through the checkout process to the point of adding card details, and the price displayed still failed to reflect the 20% discount. I tried several items from different departments, and this was the case with all of them.

Perhaps discounts are finally applied before the payment is confirmed but shoppers may be reluctanct to proceed beyond this stage without an assurance that they will get their discount.

With this confusing offer, it would be interesting to see Marks and Spencer's checkout abandonment rate for today...

Graham Charlton is a researcher at E-consultancy. Find him on Twitter here .

Related articles:
10 things M&S can do better online

Graham Charlton

Published 20 November, 2008 by Graham Charlton

Graham Charlton is the former Editor-in-Chief at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter or connect via Linkedin or Google+

2565 more posts from this author

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