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In previous articles I have discussed my admiration for the online experiences offered by the likes of ASOSBooking.com and (yes, honestly) Lingscars.com.

Now it is time to add another online experience to the pantheon of greats; the phenomenal ecommerce experience that is AO.com (formerly Appliances Online).

My opinion is that AO.com is among the most customer-centric retailers I have had the pleasure of knowing in more than 15 years working in the ecommerce industry.

Background

I first became aware of AO.com back in 2008, when Matthew Lawson contacted PRWD concerning the process behind becoming a customer-centric business.

Without going in to all the details, the most influential and transformational activity we undertook was a mass (over 150 sessions) remote user research project, where every key stakeholder and decision maker throughout the business was tasked with watching a collection of videos and “identifying where we can make our ecommerce experience better for our customers”.

Matthew Lawson has since gone on to describe this unique approach as using “shock tactics” to get the decision makers to realise how crucial understanding the user experience was to their business.

Nicole Prior, who had recently joined Appliances Online and project managed this (more on Nicole later), has since gone on to say, “I’m glad I wasn’t the one who had to watch all 150 videos!”

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

Since this transformational activity, I have truly admired the way AO.com has embraced the concept of a customer-centric business.

In this article, I'll highlight four of the strongest, most unique areas of AO.com's ecommerce experience and business strategy, along with tips for you to consider testing within your ecommerce or lead generation online experience.

1. Knowing and communicating their unique value proposition

Unlike many businesses out in the world today, AO.com knows the crucial importance of not just having a unique value proposition but of the necessity to communicate it effectively throughout the entire user experience. 

Here are just some of the ways the business delivers so well in this area:

Universal header, directly after the logo

AO.com is as good an example as there is in ecommerce when it comes to delivering unique value and service proposition messages site-wide. This is because they:

  • Are located directly next to the large brand logo
  • Use icons to provide recognisable, simple and bold differentiation between the messages
  • Speak directly to the visitor ('We’ll recycle your old', 'We’ll connect your new')
  • Tackle the most important decision making areas (price, delivery, payment, returns)
  • Provide transparency of when customer service is open (simple to do, so often missed by retailers)
  • Pack six messages into quite a confined space, when most retailers struggle to fit in and effectively communicate three messages across the full width of their website 

On all primary landing and decision making pages, under primary navigation

We all know about the fact that people need to see things a number of times before it typically “sinks in”. Never has this been more important for retailers than with your unique value and service proposition messages.

Not content with having site-wide value proposition messages, AO.com also uses a more commonly applied approach of having a “USP bar” under the primary navigation menu.

Again, here is why this is so effective:

  • There is effective white space above and below the messages to ensure they don’t get missed by visitors
  • They use iconography to provide recognisable and distinctiveness differentiation between the three key messages
  • They repeat (but most interestingly reword) key messages featured in the site-wide header – ‘Price match promise’ becomes ‘Everyday low prices – we beat or match all other retailers’. ‘Free delivery’ becomes ‘Free delivery – 7 days a week, even on Sundays!’
  • Not for this to get overlooked, did I mention delivery on Sunday?! An exceptional customer service proposition
  • They promote the company's award for best retailer 2015, including reference to two huge, influential retail brands in Apple and John Lewis
  • The icons use two different colours to provide even greater differentiation and visibility of the messages 

On all product pages, below the primary call-to-action area

Not only is AO.com providing excellent transparency of its delivery options on product pages, but in the same area it is also repeating and re-enforcing core elements of the unique service proposition communicated in the areas detailed above. This includes:

  • Consistency of icons for familiarity
  • Specific examples of how they are beating competitor pricing
  • Clarity of what payments visitors can expect if they take out finance
  • Payment clarity includes a link to AO.com's simple payment calculator – leaving visitors guessing is simply not in the vocabulary of the company's user experience
  • Cost of disposal is made clear – again simple but crucial transparency, particularly when it comes to additional costs visitors could choose to incur
  • Crucially, when more information is necessary or available (like for AO aftercare) this content opens in a light box to keep visitors focused on the product page they are currently viewing 

2) Being truly, passionately customer centric

Being customer centric isn’t anything new. In fact, most businesses would probably say something along the lines of they are customer centric/customer driven/the customer is king/customer experience is central to their strategy.

Unfortunately, saying you are customer centric and actually being customer centric are two very different things.

Ever since the “shock tactics” of watching people use (or try and use) their ecommerce website, AO.com has truly embraced a customer centric ethos. Here are just some of the many ways the business is being truly customer centric:

Providing customer journeys that match different types of buyer behaviour

To summarise, different visitors have different preferences for browsing and making purchase decisions at different stages of the desire, awareness, consideration and decision making process.

AO.com delivers a variety of pathways to cater for these variances and below are just some examples of this: 

  • Big, prominent, simple, intelligent suggestive search (including photos and promotion badges on the product suggestions)
  • Simple, focused primary navigation providing visitors with immediate routes in to the most popular and in-demand product areas
  • Within the navigation fly-out menu, AO.com uses product images to provide immediate visual recognition of the different product areas
  • Also within the navigation fly-out menu, the site provides sub-category links along with access to “Best Buys” and “Premium Best Buys” – once again two slightly different types of visitor that might have different budgets

Replicating the offline shopping experience

This is a huge one that very few retailers really understand, appreciate and subsequently act on. Being a pure online retailer, AO.com is competing with the biggest multichannel retailers in the UK/world, including John Lewis and Apple.

Here are just some of the many ways the company get visitors as close to the experience of being in a store environment:

  • ‘Help me choose’ – this is the equivalent of going in-store and speaking to a shopping assistant. Go to washing machines and you can choose options for the drum capacity (including additional content on the suitability, i.e. 8kg+ for families of four or more), quick-wash option, price bracket (including another mention of their price match promise) and colour
  • ‘We recommend and most popular’ – as you start to browse what are typically huge ranges of the same product type, AO.com provides prominent product promotions for both its recommendations and which products are most popular
  • On product listing pages visitors are able to pretty much make a purchase decision based on the quality and relevancy of the information shown. The “Search faster” filter title is also a neat touch – simply rewording what would typically say “Filter products” to “Search faster” implies that the search function is simple and easy to use, not overly complicated

  • The filtering system is one area that excels above and beyond any offline shopping experience. The sheer amount of filter options is exceptional, while key best practice techniques include:
    • Leading with the most valuable and relevant filters
    • Using white space to avoid overwhelming visitors
    • Not showing all the attributes straight away. For example, showing brands first but allowing visitors to view more if they wish
    • Showing the number of products available per attribute
    • Providing a text description of each colour
    • Providing filters for both product attributes (energy rating, spin speed, etc), social proof (customer ratings), service proposition (promotions, warranty, delivery options) and decision making content (has a video review)
  • Beautiful and engaging images and videos – images and thumbnails are big, bold, inviting (just look at those big left and right arrows) and videos are exceptionally customer centric – it’s like you are in the store with the lady (or man for some products)
  • Q&As on product pages – they do exactly what they are there to do
  • Detailed specifications – not just comprehensive range of specifications, but a useful explanation of various specs which you may not understand or appreciate

Exceptional, context driven multi-device experience

Cross-device user experience research and consideration has clearly been one of the big areas of focus for AO.com. It is one of the few retailers I have known over the last five years that has created teams of specialists within the business that are tasked with improving device-specific expectations, behaviour, context and overall user experience.

This topic requires its own article, so for now I will leave you to explore the multi-device experience for yourself.

Customer service proposition is second to none

Not content with providing an exceptional browsing and shopping experience, what underpins the AO.com value proposition is the relentless focus on its service proposition.

I remember thinking how ambitious and courageous the company was years ago when it actually purchased a logistics company. In no way did it want the final stage of the customer experience to be let down by a third-party courier company.

Here are some of the key highlights of the service proposition which are fantastically customer centric:

  • Delivery seven days a week
  • Same day delivery
  • Economy delivery
  • Delivery up until 10pm
  • Delivery timeslots – morning, afternoon, evening
  • Detailed order tracking
  • Disconnection and recycling of your old product
  • Hassle free expert connection and installation
  • AO aftercare
  • Flexible finance options

3. Harnessing social proof to make this central to the purchase decision

It goes without saying that social proof is vital to the success of any online business. In this part I will highlight some of the most important and integral ways in which AO.com harnesses the psychological influence of customer ratings, review and stories to a level I have hardly ever seen.

Customer satisfaction is the first thing new visitors are presented with

Visit AO.com as a new customer (remove your cookies if you’ve been before) and you are presented with a bold, simplified homepage thatfocuses on social proof. Highlights include: 

  • The primary headline is “We have millions of happy customers” – these six words communicate the sheer volume of the brand's satisfied customer base
  • “Search 1000’s of products, instantly!” – in five more words, you get a sense of the scale of the company's product set
  • Genuine, happy customers – this provides a unique, visually engaging background to these powerful messages and a clear primary call to action
  • “Find your perfect product” – as used throughout the AO.com experience, speaking directly to the visitor. Simple but important
  • One action and one action only – start browsing for suitable products. This design is a true representation on designing for the desired visitor (and business) action

Phenomenal social proof through social networks – well Facebook specifically

Go back to the homepage following the first unique experience and one of the key promotion blocks delivered under the primary carousel (quick tip, if you are going to stick with your carousel, please make it clear that visitor can control this through big and simple left and right arrows) is that you can join over 1.7m other people who recommend AO.com on Facebook.

Customer star ratings jump off product page

Not content with having THE largest “Place Order Securely” button or largest padlock icon on the planet, AO.com isn't shy about bumping up the size of the star ratings on product pages.

You simply can’t help but notice these when you land on a product page.

Visually strong display of the summary of customer satisfaction

Focusing on the product page, as you start to scan over the content (which can typically be quite boring information: number of reviews, percentage of people who would recommend this) you are given simple but clever graphical treatment to ensure that along with the star ratings, the customer satisfaction summary section also stands out among the rest of the content.

Detailed, intelligent, informative, relevant customer reviews

As you move down to the reviews (courtesy of either scrolling or clicking one of the intelligently positioned links to “Read reviews”) you are then presented with excellently detailed information, using a range of data points to create more relevancy and association for visitors.

There are even icons to represent the different family size of the person reviewing.

4. Embracing the full spectrum of testing & optimisation

Very few businesses embrace the full spectrum of opportunities on offer from A/B, multivariate and personalisation testing. Typically testing is quick and simple and focused on the low hanging fruit.

The biggest business growth opportunity many businesses are missing out on is the impact and growth that truly innovative and radical testing can deliver for their business.

In the introduction, I mentioned Nicole Prior. Nicole worked alongside Matthew Lawson to develop the true test and learn culture that runs through AO.com today.

Thankfully for me and the rest of our team, Nicole chose to approach us in 2014 to continue her career. What she has brought to our business are the learnings and insights of what it means to be a huge business that 100% embraces the full spectrum of testing and optimisation. Radical, innovative testing has become second nature to AO.com and their continually evolving online experience is testament to this.

I encourage everyone reading this to explore much more about how you can explore the full spectrum of testing on this presentation that I delivered at Elite Camp in June 2015.

Conclusion

For all the reasons listed (and many more), I put AO.com in the elite class of businesses who are delivering an exceptional, persuasive, emotive, customer driven ecommerce experience.

I’d love you to share in the comments below what you feel are other exceptional ecommerce experiences.

Paul Rouke

Published 31 August, 2015 by Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke is Founder & CEO at PRWD, author and a contributor to Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up with him on LinkedIn.

39 more posts from this author

Comments (6)

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Chris Wilson

Chris Wilson, Managing Director at Earnest

Great article. As a very recent AO.com customer I can agree with all of this. Particularly the 'search faster' side bar which is truly epic: choice architecture is usually royally screwed up by online retailers (which accounts for huge abandonment rates) so they've really nailed this. An additional offline service piece of genius is the fact the site tells you that you'll get a text on the day 6.30am-7.30am telling you of your 4 hour delivery slot, even when you've just opted for the 'anytime' delivery.

over 1 year ago

Matt Gottschalk

Matt Gottschalk, UX designer at AXA

Hi Paul,

Great article!

After checking out the site I stumbled across a great persuasive tactic which I've never seen before.

If you go to any product page and try to copy the product title you are presented with a small popup window which states - "We price match - Give our sales team a call on......"

This is very clever. They know that majority of customers will always try to find the same product elsewhere online for a cheaper price. Just at the moment the user is about to perform this task they present them with the with this information.

If they know a large % of users will copy the product name to perform this task their is no need to clutter their clean templates with this information.

Matt

over 1 year ago

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Gareth Luck, Online Merchandiser at Travis Perkins Group PLCEnterprise

Great review. I would love for someone to review Betterbathrooms.com, a business within my industry. They're thought to be market leading so interested to know your thoughts?

over 1 year ago

Matthew Lawson

Matthew Lawson, eCommerce Director at loveholidays.com

Great article Paul.

Always ask yourself, if you are not building it for the customer, then who are you building it for?!

over 1 year ago

Paul Rouke

Paul Rouke, Founder & CEO at PRWDSmall Business Multi-user

Thanks for your comments.

@chris - thanks for the additional insights, more great work on the service proposition!

@mattg - this was something I remember seeing Matthew Lawson share during a presentation around 3 years ago. A superb touch which I haven't seen replicated by other retailers.

@gareth - ask Graham Charlton if he's interested, he does quite a few :-)

@matthew - simplicity personified! Shame too few brands think like this currently

over 1 year ago

David Iwanow

David Iwanow, SEO Product Manager at Marktplaats.nl

Ah brilliant article, would love to see more sites emulate even half this stuff! One online retailer that I've fallen in love with is http://www.coolblue.nl/ based purely on their amazing customer service no matter what the day or time they are always positive, helpful and super accommodating. The customer reviews is the biggest advantage any online platform can leverage.

They also do a wonderful job of outlining their unique selling proposition on their homepage and every other page!
1) Order before 23:59pm and arrives next day
2) Delivers 7 days a week
3) Free Shipping & Returns
4) 14 day cooling off period (wonderful returns policy)
5) They also have 5 physical stores you can visit

The only thing Coolblue could do is leverage external sources more as often more niche or new products have little or no reviews which is a shame. They could also do some work around aggregating existing reviews on one product to similar products where suitable.

Upside when it comes to filters they have done an amazing job down to a subcategory level... an example is for ski socks in their thermal clothing section they have 9 specific sock filters: achilles protection, ankle protection, calf protection, toe & heel protector.... etc

over 1 year ago

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