In the world of online retail, competition is growing and now you can often find the item you are looking for on multiple websites with similar price points.  

For this reason, it is important for retailers to improve aspects of their website in order to generate more sales.

We can also draw some comparisons if we look at the offline world. On the high street it is possible to find an item in a range of different shops; supermarkets start selling electronics, clothes shops start selling gifts and book stores sell DVDs.  

In order to survive, the top retailers will try to convince you to buy from them rather than their competitors.  Shop windows become more and more attractive, with the more expensive stores like Harvey Nicholls creating new elaborate and artistic window displays every three months.

Weatherspoons chooses appealing buildings to entice you to eat and drink at their establishments. Argos invests heavily in creating the easiest buying experience possible, with automated pay points and a fast collection service.

Why? It improves their conversion rates. For every visitor who enters its stores, they have found the best setup and business model to make people buy, and keep coming back to buy again.

The online world is similar in many ways to the high street - you attract visitors through search marketing, and you build your shop through web development. The missing piece is to find the best setup to make your visitors want to buy.

That is where online retail has a significant advantage. In the real world, you cannot test multiple versions of your shop to see which format is best, but online you can.

Just for fun, here are some interesting comparisons between the high street and online:

 1. Shop front = website design

Harvey Nichols High StreetHarvey Nichols website

The look of your high street store is very important for building trust with your customers. A store that looks unprofessional will immediately lead to visitors making assumptions about the quality of service and goods they should expect.  

They may question whether the store will offer a fair returns policy, or have competitive prices and many more things.

Similarly, when arriving at a website, visitors will make all the same assumptions based on the look of the site. This is a crucial moment at which a certain amount of trust can be lost or won. 

2. Customer service = usability

Customer Service

Image via

It doesn’t matter how great your store is, if customer service is lacking. If you make it difficult for your visitors to find prices & pay points then they won’t buy. If you aren’t able to answer questions or let visitors examine the products, then you are in danger of them going elsewhere. 

The same is true online. You should aim to showcase your products and answer questions about them. It is essential to make the customer journey swift and easy.

3. Line of sight = above the fold

Line of sight

Stores purposely place items they want you to buy in your eye-line. They have banners high up to help you find your way around supermarkets.  You are shown offers in relevant places, and clearly in view. Cash desks are given bright lights or big signs to help you find them easily.

Online, this is the equivalent to placing products above the fold, and highlighting certain key elements such as prices, offers and purchase options.

4. Changing rooms & display items = images and descriptions

Changing rooms on high streetChanging rooms online

In stores, you are able to get involved with products, which ultimately helps you to decide whether to buy or not.  You are able to try on clothes and examine display items.  In examining, you can evaluate the cost versus the benefit of the product.

Online, this is much more difficult, and so it becomes important to help visitors to understand products in any way you can.  High quality images, videos, descriptions, testimonials, ratings, comparison’s – these are all ways in which we can help a visitor become involved with a product.  

The visitor must be able to gauge the benefit in order to buy, and if you fail to help them do this, you will not sell.

5. Clubcards & points = remarketing

Tesco clubcardNectar card

Lifetime value is important to many high street businesses.  You want customer loyalty to keep your business turning over revenue each month, and an easy way to do this is through loyalty schemes.  

Why not offer discounts to regular customers? Why would they change supermarkets if they are saving points?

Online, you can send emails to your existing customer base displaying offers and reminding them they haven’t bought any beans in a while. You can display adverts to previous visitors offering cross sell items, or giving discounts if they choose to return.

6. Salesmen = behavioural targeting

Behavioural targeting

Salesmen are able to offer a more personal service on the high street. They know the products on offer and their individual merits. By finding out a little about you, a salesman can offer you a small selection of options that will match your needs.  

It is much more likely you will find and buy a product when there is someone there to guide you, answer your questions and resolve any fears.

Online, this has been the most difficult piece of the puzzle for years, but we are able to serve unique content to visitors based on previous site and search behaviour, which means we can show products that have been viewed or searched for previously.  

This reduces the effort required by the visitor to locate items they have researched previously.

Many websites are offering product suggestions now, based on what other visitors bought or viewed after viewing the product you have selected. Instant chat options also breach the gap between online and offline, giving you access to a salesman.


Published 27 May, 2011 by Chris Rowett

Chris Rowett is Head of PPC and WebConverter at Epiphany Solutions and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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Comments (7)

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Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

To pick up on your very first line, Chris, it's actually possible to create your own 'row of shops' across multiple tabs in a browser, just like the high street.

Online shoppers often view the same product on 2, 3 or more different websites and if one site falls short in a particular area - poor images, not enough product information, or inadequate delivery options, for example, then they'll quite likely jump to another tab.

Interestingly, has anyone ever been asked for their name and address at the till in a high street store? Or been asked for an email address or to create a password?

I do think more websites should be more like the high street in that regard, and not insist that people register, especially when it's well documented there's a drop-off.

about 7 years ago



I don't like having to register for things when purchasing items online. I guess it is a neccessary evil though. The information provided is too valuable to companies to pass up!

about 7 years ago


Chris Rowett, Head of PPC and WebConverter at Epiphany

@Mark I like the comparison you draw with the row of shops being the tabs - perhaps it is a reflection of buying habits that has produced the popular tab system.

Obviously asking for name and address is a difference born out of the need to send purchased items, but the need to register is a topic of debate.

@Mehdi I would question how many companies have actually tested the difference in profit levels of asking visitors to register compared to allowing them to checkout without registering.

The actual difference between a standard checkout and a registration is usually very little, just a few more details. However, there is a huge difference to the customer. It is their intention to get the item, and when you allow them to simply purchase you are aligning the process with the customer's desire. When asking them to register, you are aligning the process with your own desire and not the customer's.

Usually, the outcome of asking a visitor to register is that you attract fewer customers, but each has a higher lifetime value - but which is most profitable?

about 7 years ago


Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

Hi Chris, I think the notion of asking a customer to register before buying in a shop is indeed completely ridiculous and would, therefore, never ever happen.
Same goes for online, IMHO, and I really don't feel that forcing someone to register somehow makes it more likely that person will come back again - it certainly doesn't work that way with me.

I'm not familiar with research to substantiate your final assertion - could you point me...?


about 7 years ago


Chris Rowett, Head of PPC and WebConverter at Epiphany

@Mark you are right that asking someone to register is an online concept to speed up the checkout process, but there are similar concepts instore such as giving 10% off if you sign up for a store card, or introducing a loyalty scheme, all designed to increase lifetime value.

Perhaps there is an argument that customers should be allowed to checkout without registering, but incentivised to register. Again though, the impact on profit should be tested.

My final assertion is based on experience with clients who test this type of thing, and does vary from one to another. You can never assume that this will always be the case - that's why testing is so important.

about 7 years ago


Mark Bolitho, New Business Director - Ecommerce at more2

We've been banging the testing drum for years Chris, but our philosophy is 'concentrate on getting the first order'. We've never done it any other way, and we never will - it's the one thing we won't compromise on.

I'm not going to go all salesy, but all our clients, without exception, have benefitted from this approach as opposed to the 'risk losing the first order' approach.
Analytics bears this out across the board.

Interestingly, given the option to create a password after the checkout is completed, only around 50% choose to.

Choosing not to register doesn't preclude them from coming back again and redeeming points or incentive vouchers, indeed qualitative research has indicated ease of purchase is a key reason to return.

Anyway, nice little post Chris, thanks.

about 7 years ago


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6 months ago

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