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Marks & Spencer has reported a 22.7% increase in online sales in the three months to the end of December, though it wasn’t enough to prevent an overall decline in sales.
Like-for-like sales fell by 2.1%, though there was a small improvement over the last eight weeks of the year during which M&S launched a sale, with general merchandise sales up 0.5%.
M&S’s disappointing results come after Next achieved impressive sales figures over the festive season, with the latter reporting that in-store and online sales increased by 12% in the period November 1 to December 24.
John Lewis also had a record breaking end to 2013, reporting that online sales for the five weeks to 28 December were 22.6% up on last year with johnlewis.com accounting for 31.8% of the total John Lewis business during this period.
Having previously examined the reasons behind John Lewis’ continued success in ecommerce, I thought I’d compare Next and M&S’s approaches to online retail.
Obviously it would be disingenuous to claim that web design is the sole factor influencing a brand’s online sales, and that’s not what I’m suggesting.
Instead this blog is intended to be a simple comparison of the two retailers to see if there are any major differences in their approach to ecommerce.
Here’s what I found...
Both sites opt for a standard homepage layout with the product categories displayed in the top navigation bar.
It’s good to see that neither has opted for the dreaded carousel, but instead display a fixed promotion that encourages shoppers to update their wardrobe for spring.
Search tools are an important homepage feature and I feel that Next has slightly pipped M&S in terms of UX. M&S’s search bar is quite faint and difficult to spot, though the call-to-action is specific and effective: “Enter keyword or product code”.
In contrast, Next’s white search box stands out against the black background and has a clear but concise CTA.
One other thing worth noting is the way in which these retailers display the delivery information on their homepages, as both offer free next day delivery in-store.
M&S has opted to display this information in a banner at the top of the page, which makes it clear and obvious. However I think that ‘12pm’ could be confusing for some shoppers and personally I would opt for ‘midday’ instead.
In comparison, Next has included its delivery information as part of the main homepage promotion. This dilutes the impact, even though the big ‘10pm’ is quite striking.
Next takes a unique approach to ecommerce as much of the site navigation is designed to replicate the experience of browsing a magazine. Personally I’m not a fan of that tactic, however its product pages are well designed and include a number of useful features.
For example, there are a selection of images for each item, zoom function, reviews and product videos. I also like the fact that you can purchase several items from the same product page, as it’s a great way of upselling relevant products.
On the downside, you can barely notice the link to the product video, the description is far too brief and there is no indication of shipping costs.
However the worst aspect of this page is the price, as it says the dress costs £70 - £75 but I’ve no idea why.
M&S has also created a decent product page that could easily be improved with a few UX tweaks.
On the positive side it includes a prominent product video, reviews, zoom function, product recommendations and delivery information.
Also, though the product description is too brief the shopper can access further information by click the ‘More product info’ link, which then displays a pop up including care and size details.
However, on the downside there is only one image, a fairly weak call-to-action, and a ‘View all product promotions’ link that doesn’t actually do anything.
Overall, both product pages contain fairly obvious design flaws that could be improved, as the lack of images or size information could be enough to deter shoppers from making a purchase.
M&S could really do with redesigning its shopping basket. The upselling is heavy-handed, there’s no mention of delivery costs, and there are three identical CTAs, two of which do the same thing.
The worst aspect is the ‘Continue shopping in’ tab. No shopper is going to bother reading through all those confusing breadcrumbs.
M&S also commits the cardinal sin of checkout design and asks all new customers to create an account. This is a common cause of checkout abandonment and it’s surprising that M&S doesn’t offer a guest checkout option.
Furthermore, new customers have to re-enter duplicate information while registering and it’s not until the fourth screen that you’re given any confirmation of the delivery cost.
Hiding shipping fees until late in the payment process is another leading cause of purchase abandonment so M&S shouldn’t be making this mistake, particularly as it charges £3.50 for standard delivery.
It’s not until this late stage that M&S mentions that it offers free returns and secure payment. Other retailers flag this up throughout the entire checkout process as it can reassure customers and increase the likelihood of a conversion.
On the plus side, M&S does quarantine the checkout and offers a postcode lookup tool. But in truth that’s rather clutching at straws.
In contrast, Next offers a much cleaner shopping basket but does make the mistake of forcing new shoppers to register. The retailer is also a bit aggressive about trying to force shoppers to sign up to its newsletter and take delivery of a catalogue.
However Next redeems itself by giving real-time instructions on how to complete the forms and displaying an ever-present security logo. It also offers a range of delivery options, however the cheapest one is £3.99.
Unfortunately Next baffled me at the following stage. Rather than going straight to the payment screen, it tries to trick you into creating an account by immediately dispatching the item and offering to invoice you at a later date.
It does a good job of selling the benefits of an account, such as free returns and exclusive access to sales, but it’s quite off-putting for the casual shopper.
Both sites suffer from UX issues, but M&S has an out-dated website that is in dire need of an upgrade.
The product pages are just about tolerable, but the shopping basket and checkout offer a very poor UX and are likely to cause some shoppers to drop out.
Forcing people to register, requiring duplicate information and hiding the delivery costs are basic errors that M&S shouldn’t be committing.
In comparison, Next offers a clean, user-friendly checkout, though it does also force new shoppers to register and account.
Furthermore, though I was confused when Next tried to get me to create an account with monthly invoicing, it’s actually an excellent business model as it develops customer loyalty and encourages people to buy more as they don’t have to pay upfront.
This is probably the key to Next’s success online, far beyond the usability of its website. However I do think that the flaws present in M&S’s UX will be detrimental to its conversion rates.