While there are many excellent e-commerce sites around, many online retailers are still making some schoolboy errors on their websites which can have a negative effect on sales and customer satisfaction levels.

Customers want a smooth experience when visiting a website, and if they encounter errors, or are frustrated by usability problems, then many will abandon their purchases and shop elsewhere.

What then, are the common mistakes made by e-commerce companies?

1. Poor search/filtering options

Customers, whether they are looking for a particular item, or merely browsing, will need some help to narrow their options.

Ideally, customers shouldn’t have too many products to trawl through, so allow them to filter their searches and remove irrelevant products.

Next provides an example of this problem – if I want to buy a pair of trousers from the site, I can select ‘menswear’, then ‘trousers’, and this is as far as I can refine my search. I’m then left with six pages of trousers to trawl through…

Next trousers

2. Hidden checkouts

This is something I noticed on the Waterstones website recently – after you have added a book to your basket, the checkout is frustratingly hard to find, and can only be accessed by moving your mouse to the top right of the screen, when a drop down menu appears.

This makes it difficult for customers to complete their purchases, when it really shouldn’t be. Ideally, a checkout button should be visible on every page.

3. Asking for unnecessary information

While there is a temptation to get some extra customer details for marketing purposes while they are registering, customers resent having to answer irrelevant questions, and some may abandon the whole process.

Better to stick to just the details that are necessary to complete the purchase, delivery address, contact number, and card details are all you need. Capture data in ‘drips’ – take your time and keep the customer engaged, rather than forcing a prospective customer to fill out complex forms.

4. Poor customer service / contact options

Ideally, online retailers should make it easy as possible for customers to get in touch with any product / delivery queries. But all too often it takes minutes, rather than seconds, to figure out how to get in touch with an e-commerce company.

A decent FAQs section may deal with many queries, but it is also essential to include a phone number. Giving customers the option of calling with any questions could be the difference between making and losing the sale.

River Island, while it provides an address and an option to contact by email, has failed to provide any phone number, which for a retailer of its calibre is highly unsatisfactory:

Providing a contact address and phone number also helps to increase trust. According to a recent survey, 50% of customers would not buy from a site that didn’t provide contact details.

5. Making delivery charges / returns policies hard to find

River Island is guilty again here – after selecting a pair of jeans I have to proceed to the checkout to see delivery charges, but I actually have to leave the checkout process to find any information about the site’s returns policy, which is buried in the help section in the footer. They Made Me Abandon The Checkout!

It is far better to display any relevant information like this on the product page – this saves customers from having to hunt around the site, and keeps them in the purchase process.

6. Compulsory registration

Our friends over at FutureNow recently discovered that 50% of ‘top’ online retailers require registration before the checkout. This is placing unnecessary obstacles in front of the customer, and will cause many prospects to abandon their purchase.

The Cotswold Company’s revamped website provides an example of best practice – customers have the option of logging in, registering, or proceeding straight to the checkout:

Cotswold Company checkout

7. Poor search engine visibility

There is little point in building a great e-commerce site unless customers can actually find it. As well as not selling online in the UK (a big mistake for a well known brand), Gap has made its site hard to find for anything other than a search for the brand name.

We have written about this before, and things don’t seem to have improved too much in the last ten months. Key search terms, such as ‘men’s clothes’ return no results (organic or paid search) for Gap in the first six pages of Google, and I stopped looking after that, as most customers would do. Poor.

8. Pop-ups SUCK

Gap.com is again guilty on this charge. Unless you have a pop-up blocker, then a vist to Gap’s homepage will load this beautiful, unobstrusive, and highly sexy pop-up ad:

Gap pop-ups

Ok, I lied. It is intrusive, it looks ugly and it is about as sexy as the smell of a dead reindeer. It SUCKS. Not only does it slow down the page load time, but it also obscures a fair portion of the homepage. Why, once Gap has attracted a visitor from the search engines, does it immediately invite you to hit the Back button and visit a competitor?

9. Use of Flash

Flash has its uses, and can be a good way of displaying product photos for instance, but too much Flash can be harmful for the user experience (and Google’s robots aren’t fans of Flash either, so think about that too).

Several fashion websites use Flash a little too much, River Island being one of the more recent examples of (bizarrely) adopting the technology across its entire website. This means it cannot be viewed by many disabled users, something that the company has apologised for

As well as the regrettable acessibility issues, Flash can make websites slow to load, and may force users to download the latest version of Flash Player before being able to view it. Not cool. 

10. Displaying out of stock products
If an item is out of stock, then do not let customers begin to purchase it, a mistake made here by Laura Ashley:

It is essential that etailers remove unavailable items from product searches, or prevent users adding these items to their baskets. Otherwise you simply annoy these prospective customers once they reach the checkout to be told ‘Product Not In Stock’. Tell them on the product page. Manage expectations.  

Related stories:

Majority of online shoppers experience transaction problems

Related research:

Online Retail 2007: Checkout Special

Web Design Best Practice Guide  

Related links:

Video: Dr Dave Chaffey on Web Design