The standards of some of the UK’s biggest retailers are slipping when it comes to the usability of their websites, according to Webcredible’s latest benchmark report.

Half of the sites studied by the firm offered a lower level of online service compared to last year, with the culprits including Marks & Spencer and John Lewis.

Released yesterday, the report found basic rules of good usability were often being ignored, including “hidden delivery costs, confusing check-out procedures and repeated error pages”.

The faux pas also involved product descriptions, ‘add to basket’ buttons and sorting and filtering tools.

Webcredible’s Trenton Moss said:

“High street retail sales growth is at its slowest rate since 1947, however, demand for internet shopping is at an all time high.

“You’d think that retailers would be investing in developing and improving the customer experience that they offer online, however a surprising trend this year shows that the quality of user experience is significantly down among last year’s high fliers.”

The study analysed the websites of 20 of the UK’s leading high street retailers in October, marking each out of five in 20 pre-defined categories. Webcredible looked at the same sample of firms in October 2006.

Among the fallers were Marks and Spencer, whose score dropped from 81 last year to just 55, and John Lewis, which fell by nine points from 71 to 62. HMV topped the rankings this year with 70, while Game rose from 18th to 2nd.

Although the winning score was lower this year, the lowest points total increased from 25 to 47.

But Trenton added:

“The real leaders from last year, like Marks and Spencer and Boots, have dropped drastically in terms of scores and rankings.

“Many of the retailers have undergone big redesign projects this year and these report findings indicate that they have focused more on the front end design rather than the customer experience.”

Related research:

Travel Website Benchmarks 2007

Usability and Accessibility Buyer’s Guide 2007