Do you have an e-commerce operation? How neglected is your checkout? Is your online shop all wonderful and clever and cute and bang up to date, but with a shopping cart and checkout bolted on to it which looks like the snailmail order form off the back of a magazine - circa 1970?
I first wrote a similar piece more than ten years ago when I was working in e-commerce full-time and had become very frustrated by high-stress, user-unfriendly checkouts. Complacently I supposed everything had changed. For many it has: most e-commerce sites now have a respectable checkout. Most. But many - large businesses included - still have a 'nightmare' bolted onto the end of their attractive, slick and well-oiled shop.
How often do you test your checkout? How often do you survey your customers about its user-friendliness and lack of irritants? And if you do, do you act on the results?
There are some very useful guidelines for e-commerce site designers at the Ecommerce-guide.com. The article was first published in 2006, but is just as important in 2009. With their page about checkouts on half my screen I am going to pretend to run through the buying process of major British online retailer PCWorld.co.uk and see how they shape up. Now you may think it is a little unfair of me to do a hatchet job on just one site. But why not? Everything below exists - or doesn't exist - on their site. Also, space is limited and PCWorld.co.uk's checkout is a very good example of how not to do it... and you never know, this just might persuade them to have a rethink. Incidently, I say 'pretend' to go through the buying process because I know from experience that I can't actually buy anything from them even if I wanted too! (All will be revealed.)
So here we are with our chosen item in the PCWorld.co.uk shopping basket. It is our first time buying from them and we don't want anything else, so we can go straight to the checkout. But wait -
The Ecommerce-guide has the following paragraph in its advice about checkouts:
The Big Bugaboo: Having to Register
Everyone seems to know it - merchants included - but it still causes aggravation on countless checkout pages: When a shopper has to register on a site before buying, it hurts sales. "We know users hate that, and we know it's very error prone," Nielsen [Jakob Nielsen] says. "Requiring registration before or during a purchase drives away business."
Bearing that in mind, let's click on PCWorld.co.uk's checkout button. What do we get? This:
(Image capture courtesy of Snagit - one of our favs here at Glanton Solutions)
Oops. Ooh-dear! Clunk. Fallen at the first. OK, never mind, we really want to buy this thing, so we have to grudgingly click on the purple register button. (Before we move on, just note the perfectly normal selection of 'plastic' logos - implying that we can use any of those cards.) So what do we see first in the registration process? This:
(Another Snagit capture, with the 'title field' drop-down added)
Now the Ecommerce-guide doesn't say anything specifically on its checkout page about offending customers, but it is something of a no-brainer and very important nevertheless. Very important, but it should just happen naturally. It shouldn't need me, or anyone else, to bang on about it. Note that the 'title' field above is compulsory (viz asterisk).
The only version of a customer's name you actually need to make a sale is the version which appears on their 'plastic'. So give them one field and ask them to fill it in exactly like that. You don't actually need a 'title' field at all. You certainly don't need a compulsory one, and anyone who thinks adding 'Ms' to the bottom of a list of 'Mr', 'Mrs' and 'Miss' makes it inclusive and 'politically correct', is being very smug and needs to drag themselves into the 20th Century, let alone the 21st.
The only acceptable, non-irritating, inoffensive kind of 'title' field is a voluntary one. And blank to boot, so that any entry is user-defined. But it is still amazing just how many compulsory 'title' fields with just this absurdly limited anglo-saxon-centric selection are to be found around the web. Other than identifying gender by the back door - and maybe marital status if your victim is a woman - and getting up a lot of noses, it achieves nothing at all. Comic - if it wasn't tragic.
Now I can hear the customer-information harvesters in marketing departments tut-tutting and asking where are they going to get their info from if they can't force customers to hand it over. Well, we need to make them go and read the Ecommerce-guide and Jakob Nielsen again. If users have a good, hassle-free experience with your online shop they are much more likely to return, and much more likely to sign up to a voluntary registration scheme if they can see clear benefits for so doing. Your voluntary registration can include voluntary questions about gender and marital status if you really think it matters to your business.
Question: What do you want to do?
Answer: Make a sale, silly.
Question: Do you want to risk that sale by making customers give up personal information - information you certainly wouldn't get from a cash sale in a bricks & mortar shop?
(If yes, then you are in the wrong job.)
Back to our checkout adventure. In reality I might not actually be 'Mr' Thomas Muir, but for the sake of our investigation I will grit my teeth, and move on.
(So what's the score so far? "PCWorld.co.uk - nul points!")
Next up we get this form:
Humph. That's a bit odd. My billing address for Mastercard is in Greece (Link for the benefit of PCWorld execs), and I have a sneaky feeling that this postcode search isn't going to recognise my Greek one. OK let's see if we can enter my billing address by clicking that blue hyperlink about doing it manually. This is what we get -
Note the pre-set 'country' field. Huh? I already know that PCWorld.co.uk, for perfectly sound and comprehensible business reasons only deliver in the UK, but that's where I want the laptop I'm trying to buy to be delivered... Starting to get a bit hot and bothered now. Deep breath. Perhaps we can enter my UK address - which isn't a billing address anymore - and hope to be given the chance to change it at the 'order review' stage...
But it was no good.
Readers will have realised by now that this is a true story. The experience was in 2008, but I see that nothing has changed. I wanted to buy a new laptop and have it sent to a colleague at a UK address so he could bring it out to my Greek island when he visited the following month. I wanted to use my Mastercard which is issued in conjunction with my GBP international bank account based in Jersey. The billing address is in Greece, that being my primary residence. That's what credit cards are for, right? Right.
Instead of giving up, as many of their potential customers surely must, I emailed PCWorld's sales department, and asked them why they didn't want my custom.
On 22 September 2008 I got the following reply:
Dear Thomas Muir,
Thank you for your email dated 19th September 2008.
PC World only accepts registered credit cards and billing address from the UK. Please accept my apologies that I am unable to assist you on this occasion.
Great. I asked them again why they wouldn't accept a (presumably automatically nasty/untrustworthy?) 'foreign' billing address. This is what I got back on the 24th:
Thank you for your email dated 23rd September 2008.
As stated previously, it is PC Worlds (sic) online policy that we can only accept registered credit cards and billing address from the UK, due to the distance selling regulations. However, you could use your card personally instore.
Please accept my apologies for any difficulties you have experienced in this matter.
Distance Selling Regulations? Really...?
I wrote back pointing out - of course - that the Distance Selling Regulations had, and have, nothing to do with it. They are to protect me, the customer, not an excuse for retailers to introduce restrictions of their own. I got a reply from a different operative admitting that that was indeed a mistake, and apologising for it. But adding that PC World's parent company had developed this policy of UK delivery-UK billing address. End of conversation.
PC World lost their sale; I have a new laptop from a different source; PC World's checkout is still just as dire. The only possible explanation for the policy about billing addresses that I can come up with is that executives (or lawyers) at the parent company (DSG International) think that it is an added security measure. If that is indeed the case, then they are sadly lacking in adeptitude.
What completely baffles me about PC World's policy is why they should throw away a whole sector of potential sales. Now some may be thinking that if they only deliver in the UK, realistically how many attempted purchases are going to come from overseas credit cards anyway? No doubt PC World use this muddled thinking to comfort and reassure themselves about their peculiar policy. I say what about all the tens of thousands of people worldwide with relatives in the UK - grandchildren perhaps? Surely this is a classic e-commerce sale? (Think Amazon; think Interflora) The new laptop for Christmas perhaps - bought from India or Australia and delivered to the grandchild's door in Essex. Surely PC World can't have overlooked this, can they? Shouldn't they be actively encouraging it?
I don't know whether the credit card companies are aware of PC World's policy. If I was Mastercard, or any of the others, I wouldn't be very impressed when I found out that one of our merchants was excluding one - ahem, rather large - group of our card holders.
The deal is, if you see the sign, you can use the card...
If PC World insist on their odd policy, for reasons best known to themselves, then surely they should do their very best to make their shopping cart/checkout more user-friendly: put this in the bottom of the item template, so everybody sees it straight away:
"PCWorld.co.uk only accept orders for UK delivery, paid for from a UK billing address"
Stick it everywhere in fact. Right up front on the entry page for the online shop. All they've got is the credit and debit card logos, as noted above, which is just a little misleading. A search through 'Help & Support' to 'Terms & Conditions' at pcworld.co.uk only reveals which cards customers can use; not a mention of the company's strange restriction. They may have something about it somewhere on the site, but I can't find it in any of the obvious places.
OK, we've had a bit of a laugh (albeit strained) at the expense of PC World. But there is a very serious message here. PC World is one of the UK's biggest online retailers* and it's a sad day when they apparently think their online shopping experience is perfectly adequate. Other online shops might reasonably be expected to use PCWorld.co.uk as a role model. Heaven help them.
The message is clear: make sure your shopping cart and checkout are as simple and straightforward to use as possible. Don't irritate users by making them jump through all sorts of hoops. Don't subject them to compulsory info-harvesting. Don't tell them things at the end of the process which you should have told them at the start. There is a good adage which everyone connected with e-commerce (and indeed websites in general) should remember:
Don't do it just because you can; do it because you should.
*In November 2007 PC World was ranked 24 in a list of the UK's biggest online retailers by netimperative.com I couldn't find any more recent figures. However, they are not currently in the top ten. TM.
PS - Full email conversation with their sales department supplied to proven PC World executives on request. If they are interested. Full consultation with Glanton Solutions regarding their entire internet/intranet operations at a negotiated price. If they are interested.